This is the Year of the Dystopia, apparently; around the time George Orwell’s 1984 rose up the bestseller lists for absolutely no reason we can think of, we got our first glimpses Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, hitting screens in April. This is the second filmed adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s classic, and its debut will no doubt spur another round of arguing over the themes of the book, set in a future in which the United States has collapsed and the new society that has arisen places women in total subjugation to men. It’s depressing stuff, not only because of the dark future, but because of how resonant it feels in the present day.
As a counter-balance, let’s consider 9 great sci-fi novels that flip that script to tell a story in which it is the men who are oppressed, enslaved, or otherwise made miserable—after all, life is all about balance, and turnabout is fair play.
Master of None, by N. Lee Wood
In Wood’s imagined future, Vanar—a world settled by and populated by women—is the most powerful planet in a future galactic civilization, because it controls the means of interstellar travel. While anyone can have a ship, only Vanar pilots, specially evolved and trained, are capable of operating them. After an attempt at thievery, Nathan Crewe is marooned on Vanar, where he is stymied by his lack of status and the domineering behavior of the Vanar pilots. His mere presence tips off a domino-effect of changes to the society, as Wood rises above commonplace tropes with a character-driven narrative; a great experiment is to imagine all the sex roles reversed and ask yourself if the story would be any less—or more—effective.
The Gate to Women’s Country, by Sheri S. Tepper
Tepper’s post-apocalyptic world sees women separating themselves from men, who are confined to a militaristic culture—they ritualistically reject their mothers and join a “garrison” when they come of age. Women govern, they research, they cultivate the crops,they write the poetry. The men fight each other senselessly, standing ready to do battle, and little else. Tepper follows the life of Stavia from her girlhood to serving as a member of the Women’s Council; her decision along the way to start giving books to a man named Chernon has unintended consequences. The premise seems simplistic on the surface, but only grows more fascinating as you drill down into the deft characterizations.
Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
In this feminist take on anthropological science fiction, a monolithic megacorporation sends a researcher named Marghe Taishan to a colony planet designated “GP,” or “Jeep.” Jeep is affected by a virus that, generations earlier, wiped out the male population, killed many of the women, and gave the survivors the mysterious ability to reproduce asexually. While Marghe begins the novel trying to test and synthesize a vaccine, she eventually learns about and adapts to the culture, becoming a traveling wise woman. As she journeys across the planet, she encounters multiple clans of women, from the aggressive, nomadic Echraide to the more gentle village-dwellers. Griffith allows aggression between Jeep’s conflicted, many-faceted cultures—a stark difference from many other science fiction works featuring matriarchies. Those paying close attention will note there’s not a single male character in the book, a rare feet in genre work also matched by…
The Stars Are Legion, by Kameron Hurley
Men are a non-issue in the bizarro, unapologetically feminist space opera, set within a vast Legion of organic worldships populated solely by women, who have a symbiotic relationship with their environment. Everything the Legion needs to continue to function—from new bits of bio-machinery, to new people, to new worlds—is literally birthed by a woman, in a metaphor so visceral, it would take far more space than we have here to unpack it all. The story tracks the betrayals and the bonds of sisterhood between two women whose fates are intertwined with the futures of more than two worlds. Deeply strange and utterly engrossing (and, occasionally, just gross, though trust us when we say the body horror serves a powerful purpose), it is sci-fi like you’ve never experienced it before.
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The Shore of Women, by Pamela Sargent
Best described as a sci-fi romance (there’s some…heated eroticism in here), Sargent’s story is set in a future shattered by nuclear war, in which women have gathered in technologically advanced cities and men roam the wilderness in savage bands that worship females as gods, and only approach the walls when summoned for procreation. A young woman named Birana is wrongly convicted of a crime and banished to what her judges assume will be a quick death outside the city—but she not only survives, she meets a young man who proves to be more intelligent than expected, even as she proves to be less than divine.
A Door into Ocean, by Joan Slonczewski
At first blush, the premise seems a bit creaky—one planet is a patriarchal, violent, aggressive society; the other is a female-dominated living in harmony with nature; twist them together and see what happens. But when the male-dominated world of Valedon moves against the Sharers of the moon Shora, the women fight back not by finding their inner aggression, but through non-violent, passive resistance, bewildering the invaders. That’s just the setup for an absorbing, intelligent story that revels in its moral complexity.
A Brother’s Price, by Wen Spencer
Spencer finds subversion with the simplest of role-reversals, spinning a fantasy set in a world where male children are exceedingly rare—but instead of making them powerful, it makes them powerless, as male offspring are routinely bargained, sold, and arranged into marriage. Jerin is part of the Whistler family who survive in the wilderness, and he’s fated to marry a local girl, much to his horror. When he escapes that fate he meets a princess, Ren, and they fall in love, but of course the match is impossible—unless Ren can figure out the Whistler family secret.
Amberlight, by Sylvia Kelso
The city of Amberlight is ruled by great houses populated solely by woman. In this matriarchal society, things aren’t utopian; violence and poverty exist just as they do elsewhere, and the houses draw their power from qherrique, a semi-sentient stone that can be fashioned into statues and used to perform magic and power machinery. When a young man is found beaten and left for dead by a violent gang of women, Tellurith is informed by her qherrique that the man must be kept alive. As he recovers, the information he shares changes everything, forcing Tellurith to reconsider the very foundation of the society she lives in.
Glory Season, by David Brin
Brin imagines a world, Stratos, where women rule and reproduce largely through cloning—but recognize the value of biodiversity, resulting in a small number of Vars, or biological variants, both men and women, who bring a much-needed genetic complexity to the world. The Vars are a brutally oppressed minority, and young Maia, conceived through sexual reproduction, is cast out into the world to find her way. What she finds is a man from Earth who challenges all of her preconceptions—and who threatens Stratos itself. Brin quickly makes you forget about the sexual politics in favor of just enjoying a great story, right up until he wants you to think about those politics.