There are years in which you are a stranger to yourself. This was one of them. I stopped keeping to-do lists, forgot obligations, hit pause on making sense of my life: why I cried when I should have been happy, why I grew angry or listless, why convictions I’d held no longer convinced even me. It was the last year of my third decade on this earth, and it seems that with every passing year I grow increasingly alien to that earth, or it to me. A fragmented year.
This was the year I moved to San Francisco for the third time, ambivalent. A bizarre place. Nowhere else can the simple act of buying snacks or going to a day job trigger in me the question, How to live?, or perhaps, How to live as a human?, or, What is a human?, or, How is humanity defined in a place of enormous income disparity and mind-boggling callousness as well as beauty? I’m not sure we all share the same definition of human these days. I’m not sure that, were I to rap politely on the skulls of those beside me on Valencia Street or in the backseat of my rideshare, I would hear flesh rather than a more synthetic response. A surreal place. In trying to make sense of it, I found conversational partners in Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, Sarah Rose Etter’s The Book of X, Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror.
This was the year I got engaged, and though publicly I kept it low-key, privately I gave myself license to obsess over my favorite obsession: the impossible paradox of being a good parent in a very bad world. I found dark and delightful and intelligent company in Louse Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, Karen Russell’s Orange World, Alex Ohlin’s Dual Citizens, Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, Meng Jin’s forthcoming Little Gods. I sobbed through Mira Jacob’s Good Talk. Though I doubt I want children, I have a perverse desire to marinate in the idea—maybe because children seem to bring with them a sense of anticipatory loss, and so a child might be a tangible thing on which to pin the ache I feel anyway.
This was the year I was so paralyzed by anxiety that only horror could shake me out of it. In the summer, my non-American partner was exiled in Mexico for an unspecified amount of time, awaiting opaque “further processing” on his routine visa run. On my trip back alone, the only book that could distract me was Lee H. Whittlesey’s Death in Yellowstone—at least we weren’t being boiled alive or eaten by bears! I read Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall, Megan Gidding’s forthcoming Lakewood, Brian Evenson’s Song for the Unraveling of the World. Meanwhile, I practiced pacing my apartment while voicing the very worst possibilities: I could quit my job and move to another country! I could sell our needy puppy! I could delete my digital presence and become a hermit! How soothing to twist reality into its most nightmarish shape, and then study it.
This was the year I sought to lose myself in worlds I’d visited before. I reread sagas: Ursula Le Guin’s Tehanu from the Earthsea Cycle, Cynthia Voigt’s Elske from the Tales of the Kingdom series, and George R. R. Martin’s entire A Song of Ice and Fire series (as far as it exists; George, please). The escapism is not lost on me. Closer to home, I reread Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth—more than one reread, in the case of certain stories. “As ordinary as it all appears,” Lahiri writes of the immigrant experience of shifting from one world to another, “there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”
This was the year I grieved and found solace in books that peered closely at the texture of daily, mundane grief. I read Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days, and Miriam Toews’s strangely hilarious All My Puny Sorrows.
This was the year I looked for joy in the last pure place: in syllables. I read Patrick DeWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor and Jamil Jan Kochai’s 99 Nights in Logar, in which syntax is sheer delight. I reread Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies on a solo writing trip to Hiroshima where, alone in my hotel with a sea view and two beds, no one minded if I occasionally threw the book across the room to yell WHAT THE FUCK when metaphors got too good. Intending it as mourning, I reread Toni Morrison’s Beloved the day the news of her death broke. I felt only elation. It is a perfect book. It is new every single time, as if the language is being birthed in radical shapes as you read—you can’t help but celebrate the life in it.
This was the year I stopped assuming I could see how things would turn out and cozied up to ambiguity. I read books that, rather than force a sweeping lesson, do what good friends do: hold space for complexity. I read Brandon Taylor’s forthcoming Real Life and T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, in which endings are not ends. I reread the lyrical puzzle box that is Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero. I read collections whose individual pieces fragmented, overlapped: Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina, Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias. I read Sarah Elaine Smith’s Marilou Is Everywhere and Alexandra Chang’s forthcoming Days of Distraction, their narrators keeping me company in my state of persistent bemusement. Maybe it’s enough, these books say, to live with integrity through a day, a paragraph, a sentence.
This was the year in which I wondered what happens to women’s rage and hurt when it is no longer as fresh as it was in, say, 2016. What happens as time passes, what ferments or crusts or festers. I read Shelly Oria’s Indelible in the Hippocampus and Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House and Miriam Toews’s Women Talking. One of the first books I read this year was Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, a real mindfuck of a book, too smart and too cynical and too exacting to give its reader the easy gift of catharsis. It won’t let me forget it. I don’t want to forget.
In 2019, I stopped reading more books than I ever have before; life is too fucking short. The books that held my attention this year—that reached out to me—are capsules of strangeness, of varied extremity; what they don’t do is try to convince me that everything is okay. That was a form of companionship I needed very much.
American parents are infamously obsessed with our kids’ well-being. If you’ve had the experience of raising a child, you’ve probably also had the experience, at least once, of lying awake at night contemplating the particular obligations and terrors of parenting in a world that—while not literally threatened by monsters or aliens or imminent collapse—often feels, well, shall we say challenging. Unsafe. Threatened.
John Krasinski once described his monster-apocalypse film, A Quiet Place, as a “love letter” to his kids. It’s not every horror movie that’s described by its director as a love letter, but we live in interesting times. All good stories about the future touch upon the world we inhabit now, and A Quiet Place isn’t really a story about aliens or the end of civilization. It’s a story about trying to be a good person—a good parent—under impossible circumstances. Being tested and discovering what you’re made of.
A Quiet Place is one example of great storytelling about parenting during the end of the world as we know it—but there are others. As a reader, you could say that one of the few real perks of parenting in scary times is that storytellers have risen to the occasion, creating science fiction and dystopian future narratives that show how humanity resists and prevails—and sometimes even triumphs.
These stories often have one thing in common: A bad-ass mother.
Dystopian fiction is full of strong mothers, and for good reason. These characters show the way forward and reframe global conflicts in deeply human terms—making these stories less about How can we go on? and more about How can we survive? To be strong enough to survive, and to keep your kids alive and safe in a world that’s collapsing: That’s a true heroine.
Some bad-ass apocalypse moms are so iconic you’d have to sleep through the actual apocalypse not to know their names: Sarah Connor in the Terminator series, Ellen Ripley in the Alien films, June/Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. The following list offers a look at some other heroines of science fiction and dystopian worlds who are strong enough to pull others to safety, even as the world around them implodes.
1. Essun from The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemison
In the first pages of the first novel in Jemison’s incredible, award-winning Broken Earth trilogy (now in development for a series by TNT), Essun discovers her son’s broken, dead body—just as a geological cataclysm strikes, threatening civilization as she knows it. Drawing on the hidden powers that have sustained her since her own fractured childhood, Essun picks herself up from unimaginable tragedy to search for her daughter in a world teetering on the brink of collapse. As she travels, she serves as a kind of surrogate mother for a child, who may hold the secret not only to finding Essun’s missing daughter, but to understanding the destruction that threatens to overwhelm them.
2. Lauren Oya Olamina from Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
The 1998 sequel to Butler’s classic sci-fi novel Parable of the Sower finds its bad-ass mother character violently torn from her infant daughter, in a future California in which natural resources are scarce, armed communities survive in walled-in neighborhoods, and religious zealots overpower and enslave anyone who doesn’t follow their philosophy. Nevertheless, this collapsed world is in the process of remaking itself thanks to Lauren Olamina, a charismatic visionary whose prophetic writings suggest a radical future for humankind. Olamina is eventually reunited with her daughter after years of enslavement and struggle—only to discover that she and her daughter can’t make peace. While it’s a heartbreaking story about a complicated mother-daughter dynamic, Parable of the Talents is also eerily prescient: Its fanatical, unhinged, autocratic president character leads on the promise to “make American great again.”
3. Julian from The Children of Men by P.D. James
In this dark (but often darkly funny) 1992 bestseller, which inspired the 2006 Alfonso Cuaron film of the same name, a global fertility crisis has vaulted an authoritarian government into power. (Funny how that keeps happening in sci-fi stories written by women.) A young dissident named Julian, miraculously pregnant, helps devise and execute a plan to destabilize the violent regime, with assistance from a group of freedom fighters. Julian’s faith and idealism are tested by a dangerous race for safety as well as by conflicts within her group of revolutionaries, but her clarity of vision and unfaltering bravery keeps the group from splintering, and keeps the ending surprisingly hopeful.
4. Dr. Louise Banks from Arrival, based on the “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang
Aliens arrive in giant, inscrutable structures, and no one knows how to communicate with them or whether they intend to destroy Earth or save it. Obviously, your first move is to call in a linguist, but major bonus points if she happens to be a bad-ass mother—even if she’s not yet aware that motherhood is in her future. In the film and in the short story that inspired it, Dr. Banks decodes the atemporal, emotional language of the strange visitors from another planet, changing her own life and saving her world and her own sense of self in the process. If there’s a better metaphor for parenting a toddler, I don’t even want to know what it is.
5. Cedar Songmaker from Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
Species around the world—including humans—have begun to devolve, and the world itself is rapidly changing as a result. Fertile and pregnant women are imprisoned and endure forced labors and pregnancies—yes, this is another science fiction novel by a female author in which a fertility crisis prompts a radical and violent regime into power. Meanwhile, Mother, a sort of Siri gone evil, slips through the wires of personal computers and technology to monitor everyone and everything. Cedar Hawk Songmaker, a resourceful young woman whose own origins are a mystery she feels driven to solve, struggles to conceal her pregnancy from the authorities, in the process discovering family secrets that force her to reevaluate her own sense of self. Cedar’s bravery and odd, poignant sense of humor make her a heroine worth following through the dangerous and strange future depicted in these pages.