The New York Times

An Uneasy Moment for Women Fuels a Boom in Science Fiction

On a desolate island, three sisters have been raised in isolation, sequestered from an outbreak that is causing women to fall ill. To protect themselves from toxins, which men can transmit to women, the sisters undergo cleansing rituals that include simulating drowning, drinking salt water, and exposing themselves to extreme heat and cold. Above all, they are taught to avoid contact with men. That is the chilling premise of Sophie Mackintosh’s unsettling debut novel “The Water Cure,” a story that feels both futuristic and like an eerily familiar fable. It grew out of a simple, sinister question: What if masculinity were literally toxic? “The Water Cure,” which comes out in the United States in January and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, joins a growing wave of female-centered dystopian fiction, futuristic works that raise uncomfortable questions about pervasive gender inequality, misogyny and violence against women, the erosion of reproductive rights and the extreme consequences of institutionalized sexism. For Mackintosh, those questions do not feel abstract. “Building off the idea of toxic patriarchy, This new canon of feminist dystopian literature — which includes works by up-and-coming novelists like Mackintosh, Naomi Alderman, Leni Zumas and Idra Novey, as well as books by celebrated veterans like Louise Erdrich and Joyce Carol Oates — reflects a growing preoccupation among writers with the tenuous status of women’s rights, and the ambient fear that progress toward equality between the sexes has stalled or may be reversed. Most of these new dystopian stories take place in the future, but channel the anger and anxieties of the present, when women and men alike are grappling with shifting gender roles and the messy, continuing aftermath of the #MeToo movement. They are landing at a charged and polarizing moment, when a record number of women are getting involved in politics and running for office, and more women are speaking out against sexual assault and harassment. At a time of increased unease about parity between the sexes, both new and classic dystopian novels seem to be resonating with readers and critics. Alderman’s novel, “The Power,” a twisted feminist revenge fantasy set in a world where women develop the ability to deliver an electric shock, has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and is in development as a television series. At the same time, readers are embracing classics of the genre that have taken on new significance in today’s political climate. Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” set in a future theocratic state where women are treated as reproductive slaves, has sold more than 3.5 million copies in the United States since 2017, bringing total sales to more than 5 million, and was adapted into an award-winning television series.

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