Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the most popular dystopian novels of the twentieth century. This is the story of Offred, living under a totalitarian regime in the Republic of Gilead, formerly part of the United States. Dire though the subject matter is, The Handmaid’s Tale is a story of resilience and strength. For more dystopian settings and stories of resistance, check out these eight books.
1. 1984, by George Orwell
Published in 1949, George Orwell’s 1984 documents one man’s attempt to find individuality in a totalitarian world. Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, is a low-ranking government employee living in a fictional country called Oceania, led by the ambiguous Party and its faceless leader Big Brother. He is frustrated by the Party’s repressive regime, where even thinking rebellious thoughts is illegal. To resist, Winston writes his criminal thoughts in a diary and embarks on an illicit relationship with a co-worker.
A terrifying portrait of control and oppression, 1984 imagines a world where technology can monitor our acts and thoughts. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, Orwell’s modern classic is a vision of a dystopian future, and is both a shocking and necessary read.
2. Sealed, by Naomi Booth
Naomi Booth’s debut novel Sealed offers a suspenseful speculative work on motherhood, and of normal people fighting against their own bodies and the world around them. After hearing rumors of a skin sealing epidemic in their city, Alice, who is heavily pregnant, and her partner escape to the remote mountains. There they find a new type of danger, and Alice must do the unthinkable to protect her unborn baby. Booth’s novel is an unnerving modern horror story. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, it explores a society pushed to the brink, and the lengths mothers will go to for their children.
3. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Hailsham is an English boarding school, the setting of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. At first glance it seems pleasant and ordinary. But though the students are well looked-after and receive a good education, they know nothing of the outside world. Following the lives of three students in a reimagined version of contemporary England, it is only when they leave the school that the three learn of Hailsham’s true purpose.
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2005, Never Let Me Go is at once a mystery, a love story, and a moral inquiry into our society, all wrapped up into a powerful dystopian novel. Through the lens of their imagined societies, both Ishiguro and Atwood ask philosophical questions about the nature of humanity, and fans of The Handmaid’s Tale should be sure to pick up Never Let Me Go.
4. The End We Start From, by Megan Hunter
Another story of motherhood, Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From presents a dystopia stemming from an environmental crisis. A woman gives birth to a baby named Z while the city of London is simultaneously submerged under flood. Her family is forced out of their home, and Z’s first days are spent moving from place to place in search of safety. Hunter’s narrative of London falling apart is both horrifying and gripping. As in The Handmaid’s Tale, the setting is incredibly familiar yet foreign to readers. The End We Start From is a stunning story of strength in the face of a world collapsing from all angles, and will be a huge win for fans of Margaret Atwood.
5. The Power, by Naomi Alderman
Naomi Alderman’s The Power starts in a familiar world, but something changes very quickly. Women wake up one morning with extraordinary power and strength, including the ability to conduct electricity at whim. The entire world order changes overnight. As females assert their new dominance, readers quickly learn that this new world is anything but a utopia. Completely opposite from the female experience in The Handmaid’s Tale, The Power also asks readers to grapple with questions of power and gender as Alderman comments honestly on our contemporary condition. Another wonderful piece of feminist science fiction, add The Power to your reading list.
6. Gather the Daughters, by Jennie Melamed
Set on an isolated island off the coast of a country decimated into wasteland, Gather the Daughters explores a patriarchal community where a lack of resources means women’s fertility is a commodity. At puberty, the daughters of this community, considered wives-in-training, undergo a ritual which marks their transition into matrimony. During this ceremony, one little girl sees something unthinkable and prompts a dangerous uprising of the daughters. Melamed’s thrilling debut echoes The Handmaid’s Tale in it’s telling of a society that repressives women’s lives and bodies. Gather the Daughters is an incredible tale of female resilience which Atwood readers will surely love.
7. VOX, by Christina Dalcher
Dr. Jean McClellan cannot believe it when a new government decree announces that women are no longer allowed to speak more than 100 words per day. This is the context in which Christina Dalcher’s harrowing novel opens. Soon women can no longer hold jobs and girls are not taught to read or write. But for Jean, it is all far from over. For the benefit of herself, her daughter, and all women, she decides to reclaim her voice. Both Dalcher and Atwood present disturbing, extremist narratives of the way women are controlled. Termed “The Handmaid’s Tale for the #MeToo era,” VOX is a shocking novel of oppression and resistance.
8. The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa
Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police is a haunting novel about the horrors of state surveillance. On an unnamed island, things are disappearing thanks to the work of the authoritarian Memory Police. At first arbitrary objects, the disappearances slowly become much more malevolent. Most of those on the island live in oblivion to these changes, and those who remember live in fear of the Memory Police. When a young novelist discovers her editor is in danger of disappearing because of his ability to remember, she desperately tries to save him.
A compelling novel about the power of memory, The Memory Police is another exploration of control in the hands of a tyrannical government. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, this book forces us to question the societies in which we live.