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.
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Casey Cep, Chia-Chia Lin, Juliet Grame, Ani DiFranco, and more—that are publishing this week.
Furious Hours by Casey Cep
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Furious Hours: “Journalist Cep makes her debut with a brilliant account of Harper Lee’s failed attempt to write a true crime book. Part one follows the career of Alabama preacher Willie Maxwell as five family members over several years die under mysterious circumstances, all with large life insurance policies held by the reverend, rumored also to be a voodoo priest. On June 18, 1977, Maxwell was shot dead in front of 300 people at his stepdaughter’s funeral in Alexander City, Ala. Part two focuses on his killer’s trial later that year, which Harper Lee attended. Along the way, Cep relates the history of courthouses, voodoo, Alabama politics, and everything one needs to know about the insanity defense. Part three charts the To Kill a Mockingbird author’s efforts to write about the trial, but in Alexander City she finds only myths, lies, and her own insecurities. By many accounts, Lee wrote a book and may have rewritten it as fiction, though no manuscript has ever been found. As to what happened to the years of work Lee did on the story, Cep notes, ‘Lee… was so elusive that even her mysteries have mysteries: not only what she wrote, but how; not only when she stopped, but why.’ Meticulously researched, this is essential reading for anyone interested in Lee and American literary history.”
The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Unpassing: “In Lin’s challenging debut, set in rural 1986 Alaska, a Taiwanese-American family struggles to cope with the loss of their youngest member. A week after the Challenger explodes, 10-year-old Gavin wakes up from a meningitis-induced coma, only to realize that his younger sister, Ruby, didn’t survive the illness. In the months that follow, the family slowly disintegrates. When not fighting with her husband, Gavin’s mother talks incessantly about taking their remaining three children and moving back to Taiwan. Gavin’s father, a water well driller, becomes despondent and erratic, staring into space or sawing holes in the ceiling to squelch a flying squirrel infestation. When he’s sued by a white family whose child became severely ill from an improperly installed water well, the ill-equipped and penniless parents run from the situation. They take the children and go on a “vacation” in the Alaskan boonies, forcing Gavin, his five-year-old brother, Natty, and their older sister, Pei-Pei, to sleep in the truck with the rest of their scavenged belongings. Upon their return to the repossessed house, the family squats in the eerie, empty shell as winter sets in—that is, until yet another catastrophe shatters the little they have left. The unrelenting bleakness of the novel might be too much for some readers, but Lin’s talent for vivid, laser-sharp prose—especially when describing Alaska’s stark beauty or the family’s eccentric temperament—is undeniable.”
China Dream by Ma Jian (translated by Flora Drew)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about China Dream: “Exiled Chinese writer Ma’s satirical novel (after The Dark Road) is a bold, searing indictment of present-day China and a lyrical exposé of the false utopia created by the Communist Party and its current leader-for-life, Xi Jinping. Written ‘out of rage’ according to Ma’s foreword, the fable subverts the propaganda of Xi’s Chinese Dream and chronicles the descent into madness of the louche, corrupt government functionary Ma Daode. Having played his part in the nasty factional violence of the Cultural Revolution, Ma has risen to become director of the China Dream Bureau, charged with replacing all private dreams with the collective, great China Dream. But he is increasingly unable to control his own dreams: dreams of fallen comrades, a martyred girlfriend, and the pitiful demise of his parents after he himself denounced them. After a disastrous appearance at an antigovernment demonstration during which his neighbors throw chicken bones and condoms to protest the razing of their neighborhood, and having made a fool of himself in a speech at a Golden Anniversary Dream ceremony in which his dreams overcome him, Ma is suspended from his position. He goes on a desperate search for a cure, extracting the recipe for the miraculous Old Lady Dream’s Broth, a hare-brained concoction of blood and tears he hopes will eradicate not only his, but all undesirable dreams. The book will surely be banned in China, as has Ma’s other works. This is an inventive yet powerful confrontation of China’s past and present.”
Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Rough Magic: “First-time author Prior-Palmer transforms from hopeless 19-year-old underdog into surprising champion of the grueling 2013 Mongol Derby in this exhilarating, visceral account of her attempt to win a 1,000-kilometer horse race across the Mongolian countryside. Driven by her own restlessness, Prior-Palmer, an English woman who had been working as an au pair in Austria, decided to enter the 10-day contest on a lark, unprepared for the arduous competition involving dozens of riders each racing a series of 25 wild ponies across Mongolia to recreate the horse-messenger system established by Genghis Khan. Struggling with an uncooperative pony at the beginning, the headstrong author battles GPS troubles (the devices show the participants straight line routes, rather than following the intended trails), minor nuisances (a group of boys chase and throw stones at her), and intense competition (she eagerly referred to logs at checkpoints to see who was ahead of her and by how long) as she discovers the race is as much an existential journey as it is a sports competition (‘The race reclaims me as an animal—my original form, my rawest self, my favorite way to be’). Filled with soulful self-reflection and race detail, this fast-paced page-turner is a thrill ride from start to finish.”
The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grame
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna: “Grames’s vivid and moving debut follows its heroine from a childhood in the early 20th century in a tiny Calabrian mountain village to her family’s immigration to America when she is 19 and then through a long life including a marriage about which she has decidedly mixed feelings, many jobs, and even more children. When the novel begins in the present, Stella is 100 years old and has been brain-damaged for the past 30 years following a fall that required an emergency lobotomy and that left her with a mysterious hatred for her lifelong best friend, her younger sister Tina. The novel’s unnamed narrator, one of Stella’s granddaughters, reconstructs her life history with the help of Tina and other family members. She shapes it around Stella’s numerous near-death experiences, which include being gored by a pig and choking on a chicken bone. Grames keeps the spotlight on stubborn, independent, and frequently unhappy Stella, while developing a large cast of believably complicated supporting characters and painting sensually intricate portraits of Calabria and Connecticut. With her story of an ‘ordinary’ woman who is anything but, Grames explores not just the immigrant experience but the stages of a woman’s life. This is a sharp and richly satisfying novel.”
The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Archive of Alternate Endings: “Traversing time and space, the captivating latest from Drager (The Lost Daughter Collective) employs nonlinear structure and the cyclical, 75-year path of Halley’s Comet to link centuries of siblings and partners to the fairy tale ‘Hansel and Gretel.’ In 1835, storytellers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collect versions of the narrative, and in one, Hansel is banished to the forest for being gay. Wilhelm recognizes the impact this discovery has on his brother, whom he suspects is homosexual. In 1986, a computer programmer constructing an early form of the internet contracts AIDS and visits the Witch, who dedicates herself to comforting ailing gay men in their final days. A lesbian sent to an asylum in 1910 has an affair with one of her nurses, watches for the comet, and crafts a series of illustrations of ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ while in 1456, Johannes Gutenberg shows his sister the magic of his new printing press by duplicating copies of the fairy tale. Stretching as far back as the comet’s pass in 1378, which incorporates interactions between a real Hansel and his sister, and forward to 2365, when the comet passes an Earth void of life, Drager’s plot is ambitious and emotionally resonant, making for a clever, beguiling novel.”
Exhalation by Ted Chiang
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Exhalation: “Hugo- and Nebula-winner Chiang’s standout second collection (after 2002’s Stories of Your Life and Others) explores the effects that technology and knowledge have on consciousness, free will, and the human desire for meaning. These nine stories introduce life-changing inventions and new worlds with radically different physical laws. In each, Chiang produces deeply moving drama from fascinating first premises. The title story follows a scientist whose self-experimentation reveals both the origin and eventual fate of consciousness. In ‘What’s Expected of Us,’ a small device horrifically alters human behavior. Chiang’s rigorous worldbuilding makes hard science fiction out of stories that would otherwise be fable, as in the Hugo and Nebula-winning novelette ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,’ a time travel story that employs both relativistic physics and an Arabian Nights–style structure. Others grapple with robots parenting humans, humans parenting AIs, the Fermi paradox, quantum mechanics, and what it means to be a sentient creature facing a potentially deterministic universe. As Chiang’s endnotes attest, these stories are brilliant experiments, and his commitment to exploring deep human questions elevates them to among the very best science fiction.”
No Wall and the Recurring Dream by Ani DiFranco
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about No Wall and the Recurring Dream: “DiFranco, a Grammy Award–winning musician and political activist, makes her literary debut in this powerful reflection on her life and career. Born in 1970, DiFranco grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., the daughter of an aeronautical engineer father and an architect mother, who designed their wall-less, ‘donut-shaped’ house. DiFranco credits her father with forming her “musical subconscious” by introducing her to the music of composer Aaron Copland, guitarist John Fahey, and folk musician Pete Seeger; her mother, meanwhile, instilled in her a sense of social activism. DiFranco began her musical career as a preteen, learning the piano and the guitar while writing her own songs. After her parents separated, she moved out of her mother’s house at age 15, finding spare rooms with friends and even sleeping in the bus station. DiFranco immersed herself in music (‘I began my musical journey at the intersection of Suzanne Vega and John Martyn’), and moved to New York City in 1989, where she studied poetry and feminism at the New School. In 1990, she cofounded Righteous Babe Records and released her self-titled debut record. Throughout, DiFranco writes of her self-doubts and romantic hardships, including her 2003 divorce from husband Andrew Gilchrist; she also discusses her advocacy for women’s reproductive rights (she herself had two abortions; she now has two children). Honest and passionate, DiFranco’s memoir will resonate with her many fans.”
I have a dwindling reserve of patience for movies that treat death as a handy time-saving hack that can be deployed against characters (to push them around as the plot requires) or audience (to elicit sympathy without the hassle of creating characters strong enough to bear empathy). I gave up on X-Men: Apocalypse right when it cynically introduced a wife and daughter for Magneto solely so that they could be promptly murdered in order that he would lurch back to the dark side. So the first five minutes of Arrival — in which Amy Adams’s character, Louise, has daughter, loses daughter, is sad — did not endear the movie to me. No, we have not given you any reason to be emotionally invested in this character, I heard Denis Villeneuve sneering in my ear, but you must feel sorry for her all the same, and here are the tremulous strings of an emotive Max Richter track just to make doubly sure you do.
So it was a pleasant surprise to learn that Arrival was actually doing something quite different (confident that its acting and atmosphere would be strong enough to retain the attention of more sceptical audience members). Eventually we learn that this sequence — and the other, briefer glimpses we see of Louise and her daughter later on in the movie — are not flashbacks, but flashforwards; not memories, but premonitions. Louise’s ability to understand the written language of the extraterrestrial heptapods has granted her the power of foresight and we don’t have to feel sad for her after all because none of this tragedy has actually befallen her yet.
The relationship between Louise and Ian, played by Jeremy Renner, also comes across like a cliché at first. Of course they’re going to fall for each other — even though she’s the wordy one and he’s the sciencey one! They’re so different! — because they’re the protagonists of a blockbuster movie, and that’s what the protagonists of blockbuster movies do (and because, as we know — or thought we knew — Louise is a divorcée who has lost a child and thus especially in need of the restorative succor of True Love). But again, something different is happening: yes, Louise is falling for Ian, but she does so with (in spite/because of) the knowledge that they will ultimately fall apart in the most heartbreaking of circumstances. This is not the typical emotional timbre of a relationship that springs from a meet-cute.
But these subversions of cinematic tropes assume a certain degree of familiarity with movies and the way they work. The relationship between Louise and Ian is formed from lightly sketched cinematic signs (the camera lingering just slightly too long on the reaction shot) that we recognize from the hundreds or thousands of onscreen romances we have witnessed before. And we assume that the emotionally ambiguous expression on Amy Adams’s face is sadness because we expect characters to respond to sad flashbacks with sadness. Eventually she vocalizes her feelings, stating that she doesn’t recognize the girl we have been seeing with her onscreen — and in that stunning moment we realize that the emotion she has been experiencing is, in fact, confusion, and that the scenes we thought were flashbacks are not flashbacks at all.
These twists are dealt with quite differently in “The Story of Your Life,” the Ted Chiang short story from which Arrival was adapted. The will-they-won’t-they is resolved earlier on (they will), and the true chronological sequence of events is never concealed: from the very beginning, the life (and death) of their daughter is described in the future tense, while the interactions with the heptapods are in the past. The surprise lies not in the sequencing of events, but at which precise point Louise, the narrator, is positioned on that timeline. We assume at first that she is using a kind of “historical future” tense: looking back from a time after she has met some aliens, had a child, lost her child, and her entire career has unfolded:
I remember one afternoon when you are five years old, after you have come home from kindergarten. You’ll be coloring with your crayons while I grade papers.
Gradually, however, this insistent use of the future tense, preceded by the jarring simple present “I remember,” becomes more conspicuous. We realize that this is actually just regular, vanilla future tense, describing things that have not happened yet, with the certainty granted by her newly acquired powers of clairvoyance. She is telling her story from a particular moment (as the present tense sections that bookend the story make clear) that is post-aliens but pre-daughter, and she is remembering forwards, not backwards.
The fact that this reveal depends on grammar is entirely appropriate for a story so preoccupied with language. “The Story of Your Life” is unafraid of spending time exploring such nuances as the distinction between glottographic and semasiographic writing. The discoveries about how the heptapods’ language works (and Louise’s consequent transition from a “sequential mode of awareness” to a “simultaneous mode of awareness”) unfold naturally from the linguistics. In Arrival, however, the process that forms the crux of Ted Chiang’s story is mainly connoted through visual shorthand — the elaborately annotated whiteboards that films use to indicate unfathomable genius, and the furrowing of Amy Adams’s brow — and that most cinematic of conceits: the montage (with a Jeremy Renner voice-over).
Because despite name-dropping Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf and hiring an actual consultant linguist, Arrival’s interest in language is essentially superficial. The plot requires Louise to gain the ability to see the future, but what if Louise was an engineer instead of a translator, or a specialist in toxins? What if the MacGuffin was not the heptapod language itself, but a piece of machinery or alien milkshake? Arrival would certainly be a lesser movie — lacking the thematic resonance with the breakdown in communication between different nations around the world — but it would still work.
Yet this doesn’t mean Arrival is an unfaithful adaptation. The act of translation is not just a case of switching words from one language to another: it requires countless extralinguistic tweaks and alterations to account for differences in the target culture. And there is more to the adaptation of a short story to film than simply producing a visual rendition of what is written on the page (so it’s no wonder that the movie’s screenwriter, Eric Heisserer, felt “an emotional connection” to translator Louise). The change in medium itself necessitates additional changes. Some of these are purely practical: the lifespan of the daughter is shortened in the movie, for example. In “The Story of Your Life” she lives to the age of 25 and dies in a climbing accident. If she had lived that long in the movie then Amy Adams’s face would have had to be digitally wizened in the flashforwards, and the twist would be no twist (for either us, or her). Thus, in Arrival the daughter must die young, from cancer — the default trauma of cinema, with the most easily recognizable visual code (the bald head of chemotherapy, the blue palette of the hospital lighting).
But some of the other tweaks are self-conscious acknowledgements of a more profound shift in focus. As Jordan Brower has noted in the LA Review of Books, the two heptapods, named Raspberry and Flapper in the original, become Abbot and Costello in the movie — Hollywood allusion. And the sad Max Richter theme that plays such a key part in setting the mood at the beginning and ending of the film — “On the Nature of Daylight,” from his 2004 album The Blue Notebooks — is tantamount to a cinematic citation, having previously been featured in several other movies (notably Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island in 2010 — another adaptation of a story that plays tricks with memory). Because the plot of Ted Chiang’s story is so intricately meshed with its medium — the very words that comprise a short story, and the way that we process a linear narrative as we read it off the page — it would be impossible to make a film that engages with language in the same way. The continuous interior monologue of “The Story of Your Life” is the exact opposite of the discrete visual slices that make up a movie. So Arrival doesn’t bother trying: what it does instead is mirror its reflexivity. Where “The Story of Your Life” is about language, Arrival is about movies.
Nowhere is this more true than in the finale (which is a completely new addition to the story, extrapolated from a brief governmental intrusion into “The Story of Your Life”). In the same way that Arrival toyed with the trope of the tragic backstory (not unlike the recent HBO show Westworld, which also played with our assumptions of linearity) and the inevitable romance of the two romantic leads, it subverts our expectation of a climax that imperils the very existence of the Earth, which our protagonists will then defuse through their heroic behaviour. How does Louise save the day in Arrival? By literally seeing the future. We, the passive audience, watch along with her as she observes herself, in the future, having the conversation that will provide her with the information she needs to avert catastrophe. To save the day, she must become as us: a watcher of movies.
And so we should not be surprised that Arrival has received a clutch of Oscar nominations. La La Land should watch out: as The Artist, Argo, and Birdman have made very clear, these days the academy loves movies about movies