Science fiction is a genre primarily interested in the idea of power. Alternate realities present blank slates for authors to question how power worked in the past, how it works in the present and how it might work in the future.
Two recent works, Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan (2018) and Naomi Alderman’s The Power (2017), turn their sharp focus to the power relations embedded in gender roles. Both novels have patriarchy firmly in their crosshairs.
The Book of Joan takes place in a future in which Earth as we know it has been destroyed. The elite have escaped to a space station, but the living conditions on the station have had unexpected consequences for gender-binary systems, and male and female genitalia have become a thing of the past.
“Our bodies could no longer manifest our basest desires, nor our lofty ideas of a future,” says Christine, a central character who lives on the station. “I am without gender mostly.”
As Christine explains, in this desexualised world, “the idea of love and all her courtesans – desire, lust, eroticism, the chase, the capture, the devouring” – have a stubborn staying power. But despite this suppressed desire to “fuck the sun”, as Christine refers to it, a new philosophy takes hold, “the idea that men and women – or the distinction between men and women – was radically and forever dead”.
The world Yuknavitch sets up in The Book of Joan creates a compelling vantage point to critique the starkly gendered world we live in, and imagine a world in which human sexuality is more fluid.
The author does this expertly through the narrative of Christine and Trinculo, who were teenage lovers on Earth until Trinculo came out as gay. Now, many decades later, they find themselves on a space station, where the distinction between men and women is crumbling, and their love once again begins to blossom.
Their story is touching, and passages about their public displays of eroticism aboard the station read like William S. Burroughs, but without all the misogyny. “Every time I see him,” recalls Christine, “which is every morning and day and night, I think of all the love stories that go untold … The broken love stories, the damaged ones, the ones that don’t fit the old tropes … Did any real-life loves ever fit a trope?” asks Christine rhetorically.
A women’s uprising
In The Power , which won the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, almost all the women in the world suddenly develop the power to electrocute people at will. The book is set over a 10-year period as this development works its way through systems of power.
Nigerian journalist Tunde finds himself in Moldova, “the world capital of human sex trafficking”, where trafficked woman have murdered those who enslaved them. They have taken their revenge, but Tunde recounts that they are still “not satisfied”.
“It wasn’t just those men who hurt us,” 20-year-old Sonja tells Tunde. “We killed them, but it wasn’t just them.” Sonja goes on to implicate the others. “The police knew what was happening and did nothing. The men in town beat their wives if they tried to bring us more food. The mayor knew what was happening, the landlords knew what was happening, the postmen knew what was happening.”
Later, in Delhi, a woman shouts into Tunde’s camera: “Now they will know that they are the ones that should not walk out of their houses alone at night. They are the ones who should be afraid.”
Tunde is vilified by men. He is called a “gender-traitor” for reporting on the uprising of women. Angry, afraid men become accusatory, spouting questions such as, “Have you seen the numbers on domestic violence against men? Or murders of men by women?”
Alderman writes in The Guardian that The Power has been described as a “dystopian thriller”. She argues that the newly empowered women in her novel use their power “slowly but surely, just as men do in our world today”.
“Some of them are kind and some cruel. Some rape and some just have a jolly good time in bed with willing participants. Nothing happens to men in the novel – I explain carefully to interviewers – that is not happening to a woman in our world today,” writes Alderman. “So is it dystopian? Well. Only if you’re a man.”
Alderman argues that every utopia has a dystopia and every dystopia has a utopia, and that the best we can hope for is to “create a society that tries hard not to leave people out”. She says this involves being “vigilantly alert” to the people who are being left out and trying to “make it right as often as we can”.
Celebrating important feminist works of science fiction like these is part of that process. We need to imagine new forms of life in which patriarchy can be dismantled and gender freed from its tight grip.
Yuknavitch and Alderman are leading the way, and with these novels, have fired shots across the bow.