Feminist Dystopias within Science Fiction

‘Only by considering dystopia as a warning can we as readers hope to escape such a dark future.’

This post will explore the depiction of feminist dystopias within the science fiction genre. Margaret Atwoods’ Oryx & Crake (2003), The Handmaid’s Tale (1986) and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1979) question whether a feminist dystopia will provoke change in contemporary society.

A utopia is an ideal place that could be described as a haven. It is created from people’s perspectives of what could warrant an ideal place. This includes ideal laws and politics, which result in a perfect society. A dystopia however, perceives the opposite of a utopia and could therefore include a place of oppression and inequality. In relation to a feminist dystopia, M. Keith Booker states in Woman on the Edge of a Genre: Feminist Dystopias of Marge Piercy that,

‘feminist visions of the future tended in general to show a dark turn in the 1980s, probably due to political reverses that damped the feminist optimism of the 1970s.’

Booker’s assumptions of why feminist writers had taken to writing dystopias instead of utopias proves to be a theme within critiques of the science fiction genre. Raffaella Baccolini in The Persistence of Hope in Dystopian Science Fiction states that the term utopia, has lost its value as ‘it has been conflated with materialist satisfaction and thus commodifed’ within society. Thus it is because critiques were noticing a turn from a feminist utopia towards dystopian fiction that the term feminist dystopia was created.

A feminist dystopia critiques contemporary society by extrapolating patriarchal ideologies in the future. Thus feminist writers display patriarchal societies as a dystopia by the oppression of women and the internalisation of patriarchal ideologies. Although this post focuses on this issue in relation to science fiction, there are many other genres that these texts suit. All of the texts display the qualities that can be found in speculative fiction. Oryx & Crake is post-apocalyptic, The society in The Handmaid’s Tale is a result of the assasination of the president and Woman on the Edge of Time debates how neurosurgery could lead to a dystopia. As the dystopian worlds have been extrapolated from contemporary society, the texts could also relate to fantasy and dystopian fiction. Anne Cranny-Francis in Feminist Fiction critiques the fantasy genre as a way of changing contemporary society. She states that,

‘the contradictions concealed by realist conventions are highlighted in fantasy literature, […] fantasy thereby shows the fragmentation of the real, revealing the real as a negotiation of conflicting discourses.’

This supports a feminist dystopia as a feminist dystopia critiques the flaws within the real so that the reader can negotiate other ideologies for society. Although Cranny-Francis is critiquing fantasy literature, her concept is still relevant to a feminist dystopia. Baccolini supports this by claiming that genres are ‘culturally constructed’ and ‘it is the science fiction genre that will able feminist criticism to deconstruct the genres that fit contemporary society’. Therefore with Atwood and Piercy critiquing contemporary society through science fiction, the readers are able to glimmer into a possible reality. Thus the readers reluctance to live in such a world will help change contemporary society.

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