Need More 'Handmaid's Tale'? Try These Feminist Sci-Fi Reads

by Charlotte Ahlin

Between the recent TV adaption and the actual state of sexism in the world right now, The Handmaid's Tale is back on everyone's mind. Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel imagines a future in which women are forced into sexual slavery... and, as with all good science fiction, it's making us feel all weird and uncomfortable about the present. But Atwood is far from the only sci-fi author to make the genre unapologetically feminist: here are a few other feminist sci-fi reads, for when you're done re-reading The Handmaid's Tale for the umpteenth time.

When Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale back in the 1980s, she was adamant that all the so-called "sci-fi" in her novel was rooted firmly in real life atrocities committed against women (fun!). Much like Atwood, every author on this list draws from the reality of sexism around them to create new futures. Some imagine worlds in which gender is fluid, and not nearly as limiting as it is in our own. Others picture realities where women are further stripped of their bodily autonomy. Some use time travel to explore the past, and to remind us that for much of human civilization, "dystopia" wasn't a theoretical future. It was reality.

So, if you need some more science fiction adventures to fuel your justified feminist rage, here are a few books to get you started:


'Kindred' by Octavia E. Butler

Dana is celebrating her 26th birthday in California, in the year 1976 — until she suddenly finds herself hurtled back in time to antebellum Maryland... where she must protect a slaveholder's life until he can father her own great-grandmother. Science fiction master Octavia E. Butler complicates the classic dystopian novel with one crucial twist: here, the horrifying world of sexual violence is not in the future, but in America's very real past.

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'The Left Hand of Darkness' by Ursula K. Le Guin,

Gender exists on the planet Winter, but not in the way that we think of it. The inhabitants can choose and change their gender at will. If Atwood's vision of the future leaves you wishing for a place where super chill aliens can live without the constant limitations of sexism, pick up The Left Hand of Darkness and acquaint yourself with the radically different world of Winter.

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'Woman on the Edge of Time' by Marge Piercy

Consuelo Ramos has been declared insane, and committed to a mental institution against her will. But the problem is that Connie's not insane: she's just able to communicate with the year 2137. As Connie struggles to be taken seriously in her own time, she begins to realize that she may be the only person who can lead humanity heads towards utopia — and away from the horrifying future where the rich harvest the organs of the poor, and where women only exist as sex objects.

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'Ancillary Justice' by Ann Leckie

Breq used to be a colossal starship, carrying thousands of soldiers on their way to conquer the galaxy. But now her artificial intelligence has been "downloaded" into a human body, and abandoned on a remote and icy planet. Ancillary Justice explores gender and identity against the backdrop of a grand space opera, for everyone who thought that The Handmaid's Tale could have used a few space battles.

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'The Female Man' by Joanna Russ

Jeannine is a spinster librarian from a reality where the Great Depression never ended. Joanna is a '70s feminist from a timeline much like our own. Janet is from the utopian world of Whileaway, where only women exist. And Jael is a warrior with steel teeth and claws, from a world where men and women are at war. Naturally, all four of them are going to team up for a funny, subversive, boldly feminist sci-fi novel like no other.

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'The Ship Who Sang' by Anne McCaffrey

Remember that other book about intelligent spaceships? The Ship Who Sang is kind of like that, except as a rom-com. Helva was born human, but she was also born disfigured in a reality that does not allow for "imperfection." Instead, her human brain is wired directly into a spaceship, turning her into a living vessel. Is that going to stop Helva from being a bad ass, unapologetically feminine woman looking for a hot date while also doing science and exploring the galaxy? Of course not!

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'The Fifth Season' by N.K. Jemisin

This book isn't just a dystopian future. It's the end of the world. On a far future Earth plagued by near-constant earthquakes, a woman called Essun is out for revenge. Her husband has murdered her son and kidnapped their daughter, and now Essun must use her strange, geological abilities to pursue him across an increasingly unstable world and save her daughter's life.

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'Bitch Planet, Vol. 1: Extraordinary Machine' by Kelly Sue DeConnick, art by Valentine De Landro and Robert Wilson IV

In a future where women are expected to be subservient, all the "non-compliant" women are shipped off to the meanest penal colony in the galaxy. The result is Bitch Planet, an in-your-face feminist graphic novel that'll inspire you to smash the patriarchy in the present.

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'Babel-17' by Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delany was out there challenging hetero-normative sci-fi way before it was cool. Babel-17 might not deal with sexism as directly as some of these other books, but if you just want to read a sci-fi book in which a young, linguistically talented autistic woman named Rydra Wong runs around being awesome and saving the universe, then this is the book for you.

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'Who Fears Death?' by Nnedi Okorafor

This is a far bleaker future than the one in The Handmaid's Tale, but with just as much violence against women. In a post-apocalyptic Sudan, young Onyesonwu must come to terms with violence of her own birth... and with the odd powers that might help her end the genocide of her mother's people.

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