The Handmaid’s Tale finished its first devastating season on Hulu this week, but the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s chilling dystopian novel will come back for a second season.
The novel and show portray a dystopia in which women are stripped of their rights under the Republic of Gilead, an oppressive theocratic regime that rises up in place of the United States. Atwood published her novel in 1985, and noted that she specifically drew on things that had been said or done. “I would not put into this book anything that humankind had not already done, somewhere, sometime or for which it did not already have the tools." Her influences drew on Puritanical New England, as well as other well-known dystopian novels such as George Orwell's 1984 and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.
While it’s an influential novel, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t the only one out there to examine life in a dystopia or collapsing society, or examine the challenges women face when confronting an authoritative power. Here are 11 novels to check out while you’re waiting for the show to return.
Swastika Night by Katharine Burdekin
Katharine Burdekin’s 1937 novel is an early example of literature addressing contemporary politics. The novel specifically looks at the rise of Hitler’s Nazi party, and imagines what a thousand-year Reich would look like. The answer: not great. Hitler has been remembered as a god-like figure, while women have been enslaved, used only for reproduction and kept as cattle. The story follows an English pilgrim who comes across a book that contradict the nation’s ideological history, and he resolves to spread the word to try and destroy the German empire.
In the near future, climate change and wealth inequality have caused the United States to collapse and fall into the hands of religious fanatics. In the society that follows, a young woman named Lauren Oya Olamina possesses supernatural empathic abilities, and lives near a gated community in LA. When her family is killed, she ventures out into the chaos, where racial and ethnic minorities are singled out for attacks. Despite the danger, she gains followers as she develops a new belief system, Earthseed, one that could potentially transform humanity’s destiny.
The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist
In Swedish author Ninni Holmqvist’s novel The Unit, single women above the age of 50 are provided housing in a specialized complex that’s designed to cater to their every need and comfort. There’s a catch, however: they must submit to involuntary experimentation and organ donations. The novel follows one such woman, Dorrit Weger, who knows what’s in store for her. However, when she falls in love, she has to try and figure out how to escape the system she entered.
Children of Men by P.D. James
Children of Men, by the late P.D. James, features a chilling world in which humanity has become infertile, meaning the generation of people on Earth will be the last. An Oxford historian named Theodore Faron is approached by a revolutionary named Julian, who wants to get in contact with his cousin, the Warden of England. And with them is a child who could save the human race. (The 2006 film is also well worth watching, though it’s considerably different from the novel.)
When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
In When She Woke, Hillary Jordan depicts an America where religious fundamentalists have overturned Roe v. Wade and an outbreak of a sexually transmitted disease has rendered women infertile. In Texas, Hannah Payne has an abortion after an affair, and is convicted of murder. Her punishment is being “chromed,” a punishment in which an offender’s skin color is changed to broadcast their crime. She’s then released from prison, and has to figure out how to escape to Canada.
Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall
Civilization in England has collapsed due to an economic crisis and climate change. In the aftermath, citizens have been herded into urban centers, where reproduction is tightly controlled. Women are fitted with contraceptive coils and are only permitted to give birth if they win a lottery. One girl known as Sister escapes from her oppressive marriage and finds a group of women living in a remote farm to the North, where she struggles to figure out how to rebel against the system.
California by Edan Lepucki
In Edan Lepucki’s debut novel California, husband and wife Cal and Frida escape into the woods to eke out a living after society has collapsed, unable to find refuge in the heavily guarded gated communities. Frida soon discovers that she’s pregnant, which upends the life that they’ve put together on their own. They set out for a nearby settlement, which offers them security, but also harbors some dangerous secrets that will make them choose between freedom and security.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
A super-flu has devastated the global population, leaving isolated communities to try and survive as they rebuild civilization. In this new world, Kirsten Raymonde is part of a group of traveling actors who are dedicated to keeping the arts alive, moving from settlement to settlement. While they’re on the road, the company encounters a terrifying religious fanatic known as The Prophet, and they find themselves in danger when a girl flees his community.
The Bees by Laline Paull
As suggested by the title of Laline Paull’s novel The Bees, this isn’t a book about a human society, but a hierarchical beehive. Flora 717 is a low-ranking bee where she’s expected to work and sacrifice herself for her Queen. Unlike her sisters, she’s curious about the world, and works her way up to become a forager. However, when she challenges the Queen’s fertility, her individuality threatens the strict order of the hive.
The Female Man by Joanna Russ
Joanna Russ is regarded as one of the foremost feminists in the science fiction canon. Her 1975 novel The Female Man is widely considered one of her best works, and follows four women who live in parallel worlds, ranging from the distant past to the far future. As they cross over, their experiences challenge their perceptions of a woman’s role in their respective societies.