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.
Sometime early in 2018, one morning of the long “bomb cyclone” in New York City—the kind of day where the dawn doesn’t break, but mizzles down through the wind and fog, pearling the air to a flat winter white for a few short hours until Night tips her inkwell and dark bleeds out again—I finally opened Félix Guattari’s The Anti-Oedipus Papers, a book that had sat undisturbed on my shelf for three years.
I was finishing a novel at the time, so I wasn’t reading other novels. Anti-Oedipus Papers are Guattari’s notes to his collaborator, Gilles Deleuze, in preparation for their opus, Anti-Oedipus. But what madness these notes are: raw philosophy as dream diary, griping and sniping about the Parisian intelligentsia, particularly Jacques Lacan, Guattari’s mentor (but not for long), and quite a bit of agonizing about various love affairs. Out of this chaotic stew, they created Anti-Oedipus. I’d like to say that you cannot read these papers and not conclude that Deleuze and Guattari were very much in love, but that would not be simple enough of a claim. Rather, you cannot read these papers and not conclude that Deleuze and Guattari were the very kind of desiring-machine of which they once wrote. Guattari excreted, Deleuze plugged into the orifice, metabolized the ooze, and a book was born.
Or perhaps Guattari mizzled his light into the undifferentiated night, created an enveloping blankness, and it was into this air that Deleuze tipped his inkwell.
In any case, I needed language that would scramble the omnipresent crush of narrative logic that had subsumed my writing life. And I needed, too, a book that would unsettle my too-closely held presumptions about sex, desire, and the psyche. If I couldn’t have my own presumptions unsettled, then neither could my characters. And consequently, neither could my (projected) reader. I needed to read a book out of order. And so I opened The Anti-Oedipus Papers to page 343 to find: “Something about love makes me not be this thing that is at an impasse. Two monads produce a third. A new taste for the world. . .Analysis is about making the impossible out of the déjà vu.” The point of analysis (and, I thought to myself then, of writing?) was not to affirm the return of the repressed, but to make the old narratives illegible—and thus to create an opening where there had not been one before.
Speaking of machines, Kay Gabriel’s poetry is something else I read in 2018 when I was studiously avoiding novels. I feel quite sure that her chapbook, Elegy Department Spring: Candy Sonnets, and her poems in Salvage Quarterly (which, in full disclosure, I was lucky to conduct an interview with her about) are poem-machines, nano-surgeons of the synapses. My brain was altered in the reading of them, and my understanding of transsexuality will never be the same. These are the poems I need—not so much to understand my condition as a trans person, but to un-understand the too-easy narratives about it. It’s not pretty. I don’t want it to be. Why should we/why should poetry always have to be pretty? Gabriel’s poetry gives us the body and desire plowed through with the particulars of late-capitalist logistics and the omnipresence of Amazon-driven transport systems.
When I returned to novels, I did so by way of Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man–a novel that tells in inexorable, prismatic, impossible prose the pursuit of an enslaved man–a “mineral of motionless patiences…[h]is eyes are neither shining nor dull but dense, like certain backwaters struck by lightning”–by a slaveholder and his mastiff, “black, gleaming into a lunar blue…its muscles bulged like lava bubbles; the pitiless face, unbaptized.” Never have I read a book that so miraculously combines propulsive forward motion with such crystalline, heart-stopping language at the level of the sentence. Usually the latter–if overfull–overwhelms the former. Not so here. Not even close to so. That Chamoiseau manages to combine these two, moreover, with a metafictive aspect is to my mind nothing short of total alchemy and brilliance. The reading of this book is an event, and it deserves to be ritualized. This ritual does not have to be luxurious or expensive, but it should be undertaken with seriousness. You do not need to go far. You do not need to go to Europe or even to a cabin in the woods. Go into a closet with some pillows and read.
Actually, on this question of metafiction: I believe it is a mistake to detail the rise of contemporary metafiction (if you prefer, “literary postmodernity”) like settling a bank account, and yet we have so many scholarly books dedicated to just this approach. Perhaps an actuarial account of literature is all our hellish world deserves, but we could also read–or reread–the section on “The Solar System” in Eileen Myles’s Cool for You, as I did in 2018, for a more organic view. For some of us, the love of science fiction means we cannot bear to conduct a forensics on the genre; we do not want to know its molecular secrets, and for this reason we do not write in that genre. This diversion from the forensic results, instead, is a particular kind of metafiction that has not yet been properly analyzed in academic accounts. Metafiction as a form of desire. A paean. Is there such a thing as celestial ekphrastics? Yes there is: “Pluto is holding a bowl of ideas that were formerly tropical, like ice cream and fruit.”
We cannot talk about science fiction without discussing the long history of racism in science fiction. In 2018, the great author Samuel Delany republished his 1998 essay, “Racism and Science Fiction”–which conducts a number of crucial arguments (which have only become both more salient and more complex) regarding the perceived split in the field between Afro-Futurism and subgenres such as cyberpunk–alongside a new novella, The Atheist in the Attic. I had been eagerly awaiting this novella since Delany had made reference to it on a panel at NYU in 2017. The novella would concern cannibals and Spinoza, he said. Cannibals and Spinoza?? I could hardly wait.
The Atheist is wonderful. It, like all of Delany’s work, is dense with significance and extraordinary in its prose. It, like all of Delany’s work, constellates questions of embodiment (indeed, excrement) and high philosophy. In my opinion it returns Spinoza and those figures of what has been termed the “radical Enlightenment” to their rightful context: the odiferous living world of the pulse, the body, and the socius.
In 2018 I finally read N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. I had been putting this off. I believe now that this resistance had to do with a fear of falling in love. But now I have fallen in love and I am a lunatic proselytizer for this book which does not need another proselytizer, least of all me. Still, I will say that this book is joy, absorption and technical mastery incarnate. It gave me one of the very best weekends I had in 2018, just me and it. And without producing any spoilers I will say that once I arrived at the last third of the book, I found myself inhabiting the single best rendition of utopian longing and the fleshly, compromised, and deeply joyful flashes of affect associated with it that I have ever read. I did weep.
The book that I adorned with the greatest number of bookmarks and post-it notes in 2018 is Dionne Brand’s Theory. In structure, a tripartite story of three love affairs conducted by a PhD student trying to finish her dissertation. The book is an exacting, detail-obsessed limning of the contours of these lovers, and of the interior textures of relationships from the perspective of someone who (sound familiar?) is hamstrung by a preponderance of abstract thought. The book is a non-dialectical progression through the three sections, a series of repetitions-with-a-difference of the Oedipal and supra-Oedipal arcs of love. It maintains an unflinching gaze on the limitations of its narrator, who withholds beloved bedtime poetry readings from a girlfriend simply due to the ordinary, relatable experience of forgetfulness, postponement, and indeed the creeping pettiness of love. “We are all,” proclaims the narrator, following a citational litany of the very poems she could not read to her lover (which, in litanizing, she in fact “reads” to us, her anonymous audience) “small people in relationships.”
Theory, it turns out, is not only the title of the book, but the pet name of the narrator given to her by an ex-lover: “’Theoria. . .’ that is what Odalys called me. ‘Teoria, you are too much in your head. Before you can do something you think it out of existence. . .You lack an anchor; you lack a thing that you love.’” And this is because theorizing something is not the same as loving it. Just as writing about a lover is not the same thing as loving her.
One could say that Teoria is stuck; even she believes this: “My lovers never change. It is as if I’ve loved the same person all these years.” But then there is a secret, fourth love story sequestered in Theory. A love story that isn’t written as a narrative arc, as are the first three, but as citations interspersed throughout the text. “It has become necessary to locate social memory outside the body,” muses a pair of what might be characters/editors/authors, cited in a footnote as “C. Sharpe/Teoria.” Why is relocating social memory necessary? To unfreight the body of the histories it bears. This, too–to recall the weep-worthy moments in Jemisin–is a utopian horizon: “[b]y relocating memory outside the body rather than insistently stigmatizing the body through the reproduction of particular historical moments,” we open out to something else. This relocation is the site of the sequestered fourth love story: non-narrative, metafictional, citational, collective. Love, after all, is not writing the lover, but thinking together with her.
I read many books in 2018, and especially after having been freed of writing my own novel, I experienced an intense appreciation for and awe of the sweat and labor of other writers. I returned renewed to reading this year, and I loved all these books deeply. But of all the books I read in 2018, Dionne Brand’s Theory is the book that read me.
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“To some degree, as I move outside of the exclusive genre audience, the exclusive genre issues don’t bother me as much.” The Atlantic talks with N.K. Jemisin, the first black writer to win speculative fiction’s Hugo Award for Best Novel for The Fifth Season. We wrote about Jemisin’s work when she was nominated for the Hugos a few years back.