When I read “The Handmaid’s Tale” 20 years ago, I didn’t have any parenting experience to shape my response. Watching the Netflix series now, I can relate deeply to the desperation of infertility and to the horror of losing a child. The following is a list of other dystopian and science fiction novels which tackle the topics of maternity and parenting. Inhabiting these main characters, you might imagine how you would survive in a broken world without parents, how far you would go to keep your children alive, even for an uncertain future, and the ramifications of varying gender dynamics on family structure.
by Octavia E. Butler
Change. It’s the theme of this post-apocalyptic novel and the basis of the belief system birthed by 15-year-old Lauren Olamina:
All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
God Is Change.
What is parenthood if not total, utter change? That’s why this is the first dystopian novel I think of as a companion to Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”, though (spoiler alert) Olamina doesn’t actually have a child until the sequel, “Parable of the Talents”. What she does in this first book is set out to survive in a disintegrating near-future landscape, attracting followers and establishing a community. Olamina’s interaction with the dangerous and unpredictable new world is informed greatly by her “hyper empathy syndrome” – a metaphor for parenthood if I’ve ever heard one.
by Josh Malerman
In a world gone mad, motherhood is stripped down to the bare bones of survival, with no room for snuggles and bedtime stories. Freedom and permissiveness would be deadly in this world, so Malorie has trained her two small children, Boy and Girl, to focus completely on their surroundings, to hone their hearing for a journey they will make in blindness. Then she risks everything and relies on their training to give them a remote chance at survival. The threat in “Bird Box” is enigmatic. Anyone who sees it becomes both homicidal and suicidal, hence the need to stay blindfolded at all times. It’s an exciting read, and a nice escape from pressing mom questions like, “Do I really want to take both these kids to the grocery store, or should I order milk from Amazon?”
by P.D. James
Much like in “The Handmaid’s Tale”, the human race is threatened by a loss of fertility. When a pregnant character is revealed, I had to wonder if this new desperate society would treat her as a commodity rather than a person with rights. In “The Children of Men”, it has been more than two decades since the last child was born. People are so desperate to “mother” they treat pets and dolls like infants. The last-born generation, now young adults, enjoy freedom and privilege as they represent the last traces of human childhood. In this dystopian vision, youth is fetishized and parenting inclinations are transformed into role play.
by Marge Piercy
While trying to protect her pregnant niece from her violent pimp/boyfriend, Connie is committed (again) to a psychiatric ward where she receives visits from an ambassador of the utopian future in Mattapoisett. Still with me? What’s immediately apparent even through the complex narrative is a stark contrast between the gritty portrayal of mothering roles in Connie’s present and the neat, idealized childrearing of the future. In Piercy’s future feminist utopia, babies are grown in brooders, and men and women share parenting duties equally. The way science fiction tends to tidy-up parenting makes me wonder why we are so attached to the idea that there must be a better way. I still can’t imagine even the most feminist utopian future could work out the primal messiness of parenthood.
by Ursula K. Le Guin
If “Woman on the Edge of Time” solves parenting by creating total equality between the sexes, “The Matter of Seggri” reduces men to objects of pleasure and entertainment, giving women all the power. Due to a reproductive anomaly, male children are rare, so women also far outnumber men. One alien observer notes, “In this we see the curse of GOD laid upon this race…” Yet, the inhabitants of Seggri don’t seem to see their situation as a curse. Le Guin’s novelette is told from the perspective of five narrators – both male and female, native and foreign – offering a broad perspective on how different characters experience Seggri’s gender-power arrangement. The story can be found in Le Guin’s 2002 collection “The Birthday of the World: and Other Stories”.
by Nicola Griffith
In “Ammonite” author Nicola Griffith goes a step further than Le Guin’s “The Matter of Seggri”, and invents a world devoid of men. On a planet colonized by humans, a virus has killed all the men and many women there. The surviving women remained and evolved into a complex and (mysteriously) fertile civilization. Griffith does not allege in her alter-society that fathers are unnecessary in parenting, but that gender does not determine parenting or power roles as much as our stereotypes might suggest. The story is satisfying in both its revelations about the biology of the planet and the personal transformational journey of the main character, a visiting anthropologist who eventually crosses the line between observer and native.
by Jane Rogers
Tired of those bleak stories of mass infertility threatening the human race? How about this twist – bioterrorists unleash a virus that kills all pregnant women, and 16-year-old Jessie is dealing with the implications. The only way scientists have figured out how to produce a live child is to impregnate voluntarily comatose women, and Jessie considers signing up for the program. For the sake of this novel, motherhood is no more than incubation…and an act in which women sacrifice their lives completely for the continuation of the species. It’s not hard to imagine a progression to a less voluntary incubation program like in “The Handmaid’s Tale”. Though the book won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2012, it is often criticized for its adolescent voice and unanswered questions. While frustrating, the book does provide another lens through which to examine personal family decisions and broader questions of protecting a threatened society at great personal cost.