In early October 2017, just after the Weinstein allegations emerged, but before the roar of voices now known as #MeToo crashed onto Twitter, the manuscript of a dystopian novel about women losing the right to speak landed on the desk of Berkley Books editor Cindy Hwang. Until she encountered Vox by Christina Dalcher, Hwang’s career as a book editor consisted primarily of romance novels. But something about Vox drew her in.
“I had to put it down a few times, but I was compelled to take a deep breath, clear my emotions, and pick it back up again. I had to. That kind of urgency is rare,” Hwang told Refinery29. Early on in the novel, Jean McClellan, the book’s 40-something narrator, sprints to clamp her hand over her weeping daughter’s mouth in the middle of the night. Jean lives in a United States in which women are allowed to speak only 100 words a day. Should Sonia scream for her mother and use up her remaining word allotment, her 5-year-old body would be subjected to electric shocks. After this harrowing incident, Jean gifts herself the rare luxury of free expression. She screams.
Dalcher, a linguist turned debut novelist, was inspired to write Vox after watching the first Women’s March on Washington in January 2017, a response to Donald Trump’s presidential victory. “I imagined there were a bunch of people in the world who were looking at [the march] and saying, ‘I wish they would shut the hell up.’ That thought really informed the book,” Dalcher told Refinery29. “You can imagine women, in future generations [of Vox], becoming not much more than pets.”
Vox falls squarely into an emerging genre, the feminist dystopia. These books all share certain qualities: First, they feature a speculative future in which women’s personal and reproductive freedoms are curtailed to varying degrees of gruesomeness by an all-controlling state. Second, the books uniformly garner comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which has become even more popular thanks to the Hulu adaptation starring Elisabeth Moss. Atwood’s seminal text, first published in 1986, hangs like a specter over all the feminist dystopian novels that have followed it.
What distinguishes feminist dystopias like Vox from YA dystopias – like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games – are the underlying anxieties they’re plucking. The wave of YA dystopias was spurred largely by 9/11, and explore, more broadly, a country torn apart by income inequality, war, and insidious fear. Feminist dystopias are more specific in their fixations. These novels are thought experiments riffing on the relationship between gender roles and government. They’re also geared toward an older audience: Whereas the heroines in YA dystopias are often girls missing their mothers, the protagonists of feminist dystopias are often mothers themselves, fearing for their daughters.
Vox is especially notable because of its bristling timeliness. This is a dystopia shaped from the ingredients of our particular America, a country where words are carelessly strewn about by the executive branch on Twitter, where fake news is read as real news by a segment of the population. Words have been wrenched from their meanings. In Vox, we see a possible universe in which words are wrenched from mouths, too.
Within the past year, we’ve seen the publication of multiple books that fall under the genre of feminist dystopia. In The Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich, published November 2017, after women begin to give birth to animal-like creatures, Congress imprisons all pregnant women. Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed, released in summer 2017, is set in a confining patriarchy of the far-off future. With talk of Roe v. Wade being overturned, the curtailed abortion rights in Leni Zumas’ The Red Clocks, from January 2018, seem not just plausible, but inevitable. Finally, Naomi Alderman’s innovative The Power, published last fall, envisions society reshaped after women gain the ability to shoot electricity from their wrists. While a feminist dystopia, Alderman’s novel doesn’t quite fit the mold: Instead of being trapped by society, women are breaking society.
Undoubtedly, there’s a boom in this genre. But is it doomed to become predictable, to succumb to the same fate that befell YA dystopias? With the release of the disappointing movie adaptation of The Darkest Minds, it’s evident that what that made YA dystopias incendiary — allegories about growing up, stories about badass protagonists — has now become formulaic. The heroines all are sorted into categories, realize the government is evil, and spark rebellions using memorable hand signals.
Bina Shah’s novel, Before She Sleeps, out August 7, is an indication that this burgeoning new genre can continue to break ground and go beyond Atwood comparisons — so long as women writers from different backgrounds continue to envision their own worst case scenarios.
The Handmaid’s Tale had an unexpected role in the inception of Shah’s Before She Sleeps – Raised in Karachi, Pakistan, Shah read Atwood’s text as a student at Wellesley College and realized the gulf between her upbringing and her Americans classmates'. “I thought, ‘Okay, this is creepy. But this is a Western woman’s nightmare. There are parts of the world in which life looks much worse for women than what Atwood dreamed of.’ And then I realized, where I live looks like dystopia to a lot of people,” Shah recalled to Refinery29. The fictional conditions for women of The Handmaid’s Tale are often compared to the current conditions for women in today’s Saudi Arabia.
Shah kept that stark realization in mind while constructing Green City, the South West Asian setting of Before She Sleeps, and infused the world with the particular sensibility of a woman who’s already accustomed to fewer freedoms. In the post-apocalyptic Green City, the population of men greatly outnumber women, thanks to a contagious virus that only affects women. In order to replenish the population, women are assigned multiple husbands and given fertility drugs. A contingent of rebellious women escape the system by joining an underground community, and providing to the ultra-powerful men of Green City the one function the city’s overburdened women no longer have time for: comfort and platonic affection.
Just as Dalcher looked to her surroundings to create Vox’s twisted America, Shah drew from current conditions in Asia to create the socioeconomic dynamics in Green City. “Because of selective sex abortions and the preference for boys or girls which has caused girls to be neglected, we’ve ended up with pockets in places like China, Nepal, and India where there are not enough women to men,” Shah said.
Before She Sleeps is so unique among feminist dystopias precisely because of the soil on which it’s set. Green City is located in post-apocalyptic region that stretches from Karachi, along the Persian Gulf to Oman. “What if I wrote a book that is so grounded in this part of the world and this culture, and the references are Middle Eastern, Asian, Persian? That turns the genre into something fresh and imagined,” Shah told Refinery29.
Though it’s rooted elsewhere, Before She Sleeps complements the visions of America depicted in other feminist dystopias. These are all books about the societal tendencies that, if given permission to grow, might reduce women to beings of utility, not individuality. Reading the news about the way women are treated in neighboring countries, Shah can’t help but feel paranoid. “Is there a war on women? Do men hate women so much? Do they just want to get rid of all of us?” Shah said to Refinery29.
Hwang senses a cathartic experience from reading all of these books that identify, and then indulge in, your particular fears. “You want to see how bad it can get. Then you want to think, it’s not that bad yet,” she said. It’s not that bad. Yet.