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Five Dystopian Novels to Read After You've Watched The Handmaid’s Tale

The recent Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale has taken fans and critics by storm. Starring Elisabeth Moss as the series’ titular character June, and with a strong ensemble cast featuring Alexis Bledel, Samira Wiley and Yvonne Strahovski, the show stays true to Atwood’s book, which depicts life for women in the dystopian theocratic Gilead – a land not dissimilar to the present-day United States. In response to winnowing fertility due to pollution, women are segregated into a caste system. Dressed in red gowns with white caps, the job of the Handmaid is to bear children and in order to do this, Handmaids endure emotional and psychological abuse, rape, and forced birth for the ‘good’ of the Republic.

Despite comments to the contrary in a recent promotional panel with the cast, The Handmaid’s Tale is an explicitly feminist story. ‘It’s a human story,' said Moss, 'because women’s rights are human rights.’ But the direct parallels between the world of Gilead and Trump’s America cannot be ignored even by stars hoping to make their show appeal to a wide audience. The acts of control over women’s reproductive lives and their very bodies in The Handmaid’s Tale resonate strongly with Trumpian domestic policy. Indeed, the world over, from Ireland where abortion is illegal except in extreme cases, to Russia where ‘moderate’ domestic violence has been decriminalized – warnings can be detected in The Handmaid’s Tale, making this 2017 adaptation more relevant than ever. 

For those enjoying the show, buying Atwood’s classic book is the obvious next step. But for fans who have already done that, the following five books are must-reads for those who have found themselves affected by some of the themes in The Handmaid’s Tale

Only Ever Yours

Irish YA author O’Neill’s debut novel is strongly influenced by Atwood. O’Neill situates her book in a world similar to Gilead, where girls are no longer born naturally and women’s roles have been divided up into castes – as ‘companions’ to men and bearers of their children, as ‘concubines’ to be used for male pleasure, or as ‘teachers’ training other young women in the art of how to please men. We meet Isobel and Frieda, two young ‘eves’ who are in training to earn being chosen as companions to men. These two girls are close and dear friends, but when Isobel begins to gain weight – a grave problem in this world – Frieda feels pressured to distance herself in order to be chosen. O’Neill is a gripping writer and Only Ever Yours is a novel that is dark, and at times very witty and satirical. It is a must read for fans of The Handmaid’s Tale, young and old.

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Never Let Me Go

Kathy, Tommy and Ruth have been conditioned to accept their ‘special destiny’. We meet Kathy, who is a carer for ‘donors’ and she recounts her formative years at the English boarding school Halisham where she grew up with other ‘special’ people. Reflecting on her life with best friends Ruth and Tommy, we learn more about their experiences: including their ‘possibles’ - human beings from whom they have been cloned. Never Let Me Go is a novel that asks about the right to ownership of bodies and the feelings and emotions that can be said to ‘earn’ humanity. Ishiguro writes a simple, nostalgic and thoughtful book that bridges the gulf between reality and sci-fi with memorable and warm characters.

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The Children of Men

The year is 2021 and men have been rendered impotent. Humanity faces the biggest threat to its existence and people everywhere are in despair at their imminent extinction. The dissolution of traditional norms and roles that have been established around fulfilling our reproductive urges have led to the disintegration of life as we know it. England is being ravaged by violent rival groups who are acting and killing with wanton abandon. However, the answer to these problems and the fate of the earth itself may rest with Julian, a young woman who seeks an audience with the Warden of England and implores the novel’s protagonist, Theo to help her. A slow-moving book, Children of Men presents an intelligent and riveting dystopian world, with the basic need to reproduce situated at the heart of this tale.

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Daughters of the North

Sarah Hall’s excellent Daughters of the North twists atypical dystopian storylines where fertility is precious and dwindling to create a uniquely interesting book that focuses on escape and resistance under oppression. In this novel, due to food shortages and environmental destruction, pregnancy is outlawed and all women are fitted with IUDs in order to stop them giving birth. Only those selected through a lottery system are privileged with the opportunity to reproduce. But there are women who seek to resist these stifling restrictions – ‘Sister’ seeks out a group of rebels, the ‘un-officials’ and their women-only space Carhullan in an attempt not only to thwart the oppressive state but also to claim ownership over her own body once more.

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The Passion Of New Eve

A quintessentially 1970s feminist novel, The Passion of New Eve is an experimental, science-fiction, fairytale novel set in a dystopian United States where factions of rival gangs and vigilante groups have split the land. Enter Evelyn, a young Englishman who is beginning a university job in New York City. He begins a relationship with Leilah, who he routinely abuses and abandons, fleeing into the desert. Evelyn is captured however and while imprisoned by ‘Mother’, he is forcibly given genital reassignment surgery and made to refer to himself as ‘she’. From this point on in the novel, we follow Eve on her journey to reconcile her identity and the lessons that she learns along the way. The Passion of New Eve is a truly original work of fiction that borders on philosophy and certainly provides an interesting reading counterpart to the work of Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and their work on the controlling, naming and gendering of bodies that has occurred under patriarchy.

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While this selection of five novels are not strictly feminist, they all deal with the policing of human bodies to reproduce - and ultimately illustrate how powerless we are in actions against state control of our very selves. Atwood’s warnings in The Handmaid’s Tale resonate in present-day literature and motivate us to resist and refuse any outside control of our lives.


Featured image via Hafuboti.

Based in Northern Ireland, Maeve holds a PhD in English Literature - her thesis deconstructed silence in the work of Sylvia Plath. Maeve is an avid reader of poetry, fiction and academic ... Show More

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