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Science Fiction/Fantasy

Read These Feminist Sci-Fi Dystopian Novels

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Leah Rachel von Essen

Senior Contributor

Leah Rachel von Essen reviews genre-bending fiction for Booklist, and writes regularly as a senior contributor at Book Riot. Her blog While Reading and Walking has over 10,000 dedicated followers over several social media outlets, including Instagram. She writes passionately about books in translation, chronic illness and bias in healthcare, queer books, twisty SFF, and magical realism and folklore. She was one of a select few bookstagrammers named to NewCity’s Chicago Lit50 in 2022. She is an avid traveler, a passionate fan of women’s basketball and soccer, and a lifelong learner. Twitter: @reading_while

In the 1970s, feminist sci-fi dug deep into issues of biopolitics and the possible dystopias that could result. The issues of biopolitics are issues where politics and governmental decisions cross with or deal with biological life, including the body. We’re in an era right now where the government is more obsessed than ever with controlling unruly, queer, and female bodies, and many modern authors are diving into science fiction that copes with these issues of biopolitics and bodily autonomy.

I use “feminist sci-fi” largely in tribute to the grand era of 1970s women authors, but I’m referring to a broad sweep of literature that thinks about what governmental control of female and otherwise unruly bodies could mean for our future. The books below cope with issues of race, queerness, fatness, reproduction, homelessness, mental illness, incarceration, and bodily autonomy.

They deal with bodies that society doesn’t approve of or appreciate, and the ways that governmental and systemic organizations attempt to crack down on and eradicate bodies that don’t fit into their frameworks. These are stories in which the dystopias are actively misogynist, anti-queer, racist, ableist, dealing with biopolitics and the politics and struggles of the body, and in which our characters are people either fighting against that power structure or striving to survive as subversive bodies within the system.

I intentionally chose books that deal with a wide range of issues, as a reminder that the current attacks on trans and gender-nonconforming bodies are a threat to every single individual because they represent a growing trend of successful laws that approve the policing and criminalizing of human bodies. These issues and issues of incarceration, police brutality, and mental illness are all connected, as institutions attack our most vulnerable populations. Let these books help serve as a reminder that the most vulnerable are the first to fall but never the last.

As dystopias dealing specifically with biopolitical issues, a lot of these reads include difficult topics, including institutionalization, sexual assault, and violence. I did my best to gather content warnings below, but remember that I am only human, and some things can fall through the cracks. Please do your own research if being aware of certain content is particularly important for you.

Woman on the Edge of Time book cover

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

This is an all-time classic that I wish got more visibility in general! In this 1976 book, Connie Ramos is institutionalized after defending her niece from domestic violence. As she fights for her own freedom, she makes contact with a 2137 future possible world — a world much freer than her own. They think that she represents a crucial turn in the timeline, and if she wants her ancestors to see their future, she’ll have to fight tooth and nail for her own autonomy. This book is so complex, emotional, and beautiful. Connie is a realistic character, and you’ll find yourself wanting to fight for her on every page.

“The point of creating futures,” Piercy writes in her 2016 introduction to the book, “is to get people to imagine what they want and don’t want to happen down the road and maybe do something about it.” Connie is skeptical of Mattapoisett, but seeing a possible future helps her to understand what is deeply wrong about her present.

Content warnings: Major: institutionalization, domestic abuse/abuse, medical trauma, sterilization, ableism. Also: mention of sexual assault, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, grief, n-word use, homophobia.

Chang-Gang All-Stars book cover

Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

In a devastatingly feasible near-future, incarcerated people can opt-in to a televised tournament of fights to the death in an attempt to earn their freedom — which is, of course, unlikely, given that the producers have countless tricks up their sleeves and the audience loves a good twist. Champions Loretta Thurwar and Hurricane Staxxx are good at fighting, but they want to do more than battle. They want to create something new, a protest against this system. But will they get away with it before the system sabotages their plans?

This is my favorite book so far of 2023, a novel that takes a hard look at us, at reality TV, at complicity, at the way too many of us see violence as justice. It asks us tough questions about how we treat bodies that we judge unfit for the system. It’s also full of cinematic action-packed fight scenes, heart-breaking twists, and a queer sapphic romance. What’s not to love?

Strong content warnings for violence, sexual assault, torture, suicide, police brutality. Also warnings for homophobia, suicidal ideation, emotional abuse, racism, grief, ableism.

The Memory Librarian book cover

The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe with Yohanca Delgado, Eve L. Ewing, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Danny Lore, and Sheree Renée Thomas

The world of Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer album deals with so many questions of what bodies the government would like to control, and what thoughts and sexualities they would prefer to stamp out. Under the neofascist New Dawn regime, anyone who doesn’t fit is labeled a dirty computer — and needs to be fixed. The gender-nonconforming and Black communities are quickly under attack. In these five stories, Monáe and her collaborators explore the kinds of questions and protests that come through in that world in cyberpunk stories that tackle transphobia, surveillance, erasure, and much, much more.

Content warnings for homophobia, transphobia, racism, police brutality, forced institutionalization, violence.

The Thick and the Lean book cover

The Thick and the Lean by Chana Porter

Beatrice and Reiko grow up in a society where pleasure in food is distasteful and fatness is taboo, where sex is fine, but chewing in public is shameful. Beatrice loves food, and wants to learn to cook, but will have to leave everything behind and unlearn years of ingrained fatphobia to do so. Reiko, an outsider, has escaped a town haunted by climate disaster to steal whatever she can of the selfish, hypocritical world of the Elite.

Porter’s world is queer, rich, and complex, and looks at the ways capitalism can corrupt and trick us into buying into what is ultimately a toxic system. What revolutionary spaces can we forge to undermine those systems? This book tries to find out.

Content warning for eating disorder, fatphobia, body-shaming, classism, ableism, violence, racism.

Native Tongue by Elgin book cover

Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin

Originally published in 1984 and brought back onto bookshelves by Feminist Press, this book is a classic. It’s 2205, and women are legally considered minors. Their husbands are the linguists, while wives are translators and mothers only. Our main character, translator Nazareth, is exhausted from holding up households and her own work with all her energy, while the men around her assume she can’t do much of anything. She can’t wait to be sent to the Barren House, where women are sent when they’re no longer able to have babies. But the banished women, it seems, have a secret rebellion up their sleeves: they’re creating a language solely for women. The book has a fascinating linguistic tilt, focusing in on what makes language and how it functions, while also wrapping in the fury of women who have been subjugated.

Content warnings for child death, misogyny, ableism, substance abuse, body shaming, pedophilia, emotional abuse.

Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin book cover

Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin

In Felker-Martin’s novel, a disease dubbed t-rex transforms people with a certain concentration of testosterone into rabid, sex-crazed zombies. Gangs of TERFs try to round up anyone they think is at risk of transforming — gender-nonconforming people, trans women on estrogen, or trans men (“gender traitors”). At the center of our novel, a few queer people try to survive in a truly apocalyptic world. This one is a tough read: gory and emotionally painful. But the characters — from fat doctor Indi to crossbow-wielding Beth to trans man Robbie — are really compelling, and at its core, it’s a horror story about the ideologies of TERFs and other transphobes, the damage it does when instead of banding together against a violent patriarchy (in this case, a very literal one), a group of cis women decides to turn against the queer community, only doing more damage.

Content warnings: Extreme: body horror & violence, transphobia, rape (graphic).
Also: suicide, gender dysphoria, deadnaming, fatphobia, antisemitism, self-harm.

The Future of Another Time cover image

The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz

Tess and her fellow Daughters of Harriet are in the midst of a brutal, fiercely secret time-editing war. On one side, they fight for a world in which abortion is legal in the U.S. On the other, a group of misogynist men fights to create a permanent male-controlled dystopia. Tess jumps to the Chicago’s World Fair, where belly-dancing scandalized the masses, and where the success or failure of the anti-obscenity Comstock Laws could be a crucial turning point in the war. Meanwhile, we see an interwoven timeline as teenage Beth and her friends strive to protect women from abuse and violence, and their fate is twisted and turned as Tess turns toward success or failure.

Newitz’s book is not only a fantastic time travel story, but a prescient novel about incel-like misogynist movements and the importance of inclusive reproductive justice.

Content warnings for sexual assault/rape, abortion, medical trauma, violence, child abuse, suicide, misogyny, deadnaming.

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon book cover

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

Aster lives on a generation ship, long after humanity has left Earth behind. The ship is ruled by patriarchal violence and the subjugation of dark-skinned Sharecroppers — the entire ship depends on their oppression for its survival, as it moves towards a Promised Land that may or may not ever come. Aster encounters a lot of abuse, particularly from an overseer who holds a nasty grudge — but has her places of escape. The Surgeon encourages her scientific genius, and her friend Giselle is paranoid but excellent at decoding. When Aster finds her mother’s coded journals, she wonders if there might be a way off of the HMS Matilda altogether — if they might be able to make it out of this hell to somewhere else. Somewhere survivable. This space opera is rich, queer, painful, and powerful, and its twists are massive.

Content warnings for racism, violence, sexual assault and rape, police brutality, child death, torture, suicide, ableism.

Red Clocks book cover

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

The U.S. has passed the Personhood Amendment: fetuses are officially people, and so abortion is officially murder. It’s a “dystopia” very close to our modern day — painfully so. The book follows four women: herbalist Gin, teacher Ro, mother Susan, and newly pregnant Mattie. Zumas does a fantastic job of building this very believable world and showing how violence unfolds into new concepts of motherhood, marriage, adoption, womanhood, and more. It’s urgent and juggles four perspectives well while keeping the rushing, constant danger that women face alive in the background at all times. It’s described in its blurb as “ferociously imaginative,” and it is, but perhaps Zumas also simply did what many of us did, and imagined a future that at the novel’s publication in 2018 felt like it was just around the corner.

Content warnings for abortion, medical trauma, infertility, animal death, death, substance abuse, domestic abuse.

Dawn by Octavia E. Butler book cover

Dawn by Octavia E. Butler

Lilith lyapo wakes up and finds herself in a new, frightening world. The last thing she remembers, humanity had doomed itself to destruction. But now she’s on an alien ship, and the aliens, the Oankali, say they’ve saved humanity. They healed Earth, they healed the people, and now they’re set to re-humanize the planet. But there’s a catch — the humans will need to mix their genetic makeup with that of the Oankali. What does it mean to be a human body? To be human? To be gendered? Lilith has to deal with all of this while trying to hold the burden she’s been tasked with: convincing her fellow humans to repopulate the Earth alongside her, and alongside the Oankali. Butler is amazing at writing strange sci-fi that tackles questions we hadn’t thought to ask.

Content warnings for xenophobia, rape/sexual assault, violence, homophobia.

Looking for more book recommendations? Check out Rioter Alice Nuttall’s list of 40 of the best feminist books out there, or dig into my list of the 100 most influential LGBTQ+ books of all time.