Doren Damico

Triptych:  a set of three associated artistic, literary, or musical works intended to be appreciated together. In visual art, triptych panels are often used as an altar piece. 

Assembling the Triptych

Red Clocks, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Left Hand of Darkness

I recently attended an author reading of Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas, at Skylight Books in LA. I had just finished rereading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, after watching the 2017 Hulu tv adaptation. The two books, published nearly 40 years apart, have been compared in a variety of ways: both rich in poetic prose, and imagining worlds where women’s fertility rights take a horrific leap backward. I purchased a copy of Red Clocks and armed with my notes on Zumas’ presentation, I planned to write a comparative book review.

The next day, Ursula K. Le Guin died!

It was time to make sure I’ve read her entire bibliography, and time to reread the Le Guin classics that inspired my early love of speculative fiction, For a start, I picked up a copy of The Left Hand of Darkness. I had last read the book in my teens, remembering primarily the beautiful and grueling landscapes of the ice-bound world, Winter. On this second read, however, seeped in the feminist juices of The Handmaid’s Tale and Red Clocks, my focus would be on the planet’s gender-fluid people, and the intriguing concept that at any given mating cycle, either partner may become impregnated.  

Speculative Fiction: A Departure From Consensus Reality?

Speculative fiction has evolved from a science fiction sub-genre to what the Oxford Research Encyclopedia describes as, “a super category for all genres that deliberately depart from imitating ‘consensus reality’ of everyday experience.” 

3 Examples of Speculative Fiction:

  • The Left Hand of Darkness – Speculative Fiction (falls under the original definition of “speculative fiction”: a sub-genre of science fiction which focuses more on human concerns than technological ones)
  • The Handmaid’s Tale – Near Future, (or Historical Allegory?)
  • Red Clocks – Near Future, (or Contemporary Allegory?)

Speculative fiction is an innovative vehicle for thought-experimenting. It asks surprising and often important “what ifs.” Speculative fiction may also act as a mirror for current society, as a process for understanding the past, and as the creative imagination that helps design our futures. 

3 Questions:

Regardless of the “literary” tendency to diminish speculative fiction, its growing library of great works may in fact have broken the paper ceiling of the “literary canon.” (Unfortunately, the paper ceiling for female authors and for books about women, remains quite remote.)

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in “Telling is Listening” (an essay in her non-fiction collection The Wave in the Mind, 2004), about how good writers offer true nourishment for the soul.

Such writers–living or dead, whatever genre they write in, critically fashionable or not, academically approved or not–are those who not only meet our expectations but surpass them. 

Written by visionary storytellers, Red Clocks, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Left Hand of Darkness, represent great literature. They also demonstrate a special kind of listening to the world, a listening that may evoke uncomfortable truths.

What if these stories are not speculative at all, but actually refer to consensus reality?

Margaret Atwood has often defended her work as based in fact. In her New York Times article, “Margaret Atwood On What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Means in the Age of Trump” she describes how important it was for her to write about things that really happen.

One of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened in what James Joyce called the ‘nightmare’ of history, nor any technology not already available. No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities.

Leni Zumas’ book, Red Clocks, essentially describes what many of our current politicians would like to see enacted into legislation: a reversal of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decriminalization of abortion.

The gender-fluid characters of Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, may have been shocking in 1969, but today, are affirmations for many people and how they choose to identify themselves. 

Feminist Literature? Making New Words: Modulationist

As we have seen occur in the speculative fiction super category, books and other works described as “feminist literature,” are also in a large scale process of evolution. These fiction and nonfiction works have historically been a reaction to androcentric (male-centered) societies. They supported in a variety of ways, feminist goals, and are often analyzed within the contexts of various waves of feminism.

3 Feminist Contexts:

Yet just as feminism has grown to include many types, so too, has “feminist literature” expanded along numerous paths. “Feminist literature” often deals with broad and relevant issues beyond a feminist focus. There are also many authors, even prominent “feminist” authors like Margaret Atwood, who balk at having their work strictly categorized as feminist.

In response to the common question, Is “The Handmaid’s Tale” a feminist novel? Atwood’s NY Times article elucidates beautifully: 

If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes. In that sense, many books are “feminist.”

I, like Atwood, am concerned that the ascribing of a book to the “feminist” category may be too narrow a way of seeing. When Ursula K. Le Guin wrote her gender-norm-challenging classic, The Left Hand of Darkness, “feminist speculative fiction” may have been the only way to categorize her work. That is no longer the case. Leni Zumas proudly wore her “Feminist Killjoy” t-shirt on the day of her author reading. And while her book, Red Clocks, certainly can be described as “feminist,” it is perhaps most notable for its delivery of a variety of female voices, and not one of them merely “victims or angels.” 

Sometime soon, I imagine a new super category for literature that embraces a broad range of gender expressions and issues. We might name it Modulationist, reflecting a progressive metamorphic nature, exploring malleable modes of being and reproducing, such as feminist, queer, non-binary, intersectionist, xeno, and humanist. But like modulations in music: It’s all music!

3 Important “Feminist” Novels

Leni Zumas’ Resistance Literature: Red Clocks

Margaret Atwood’s Historical Allegory: The Handmaid’s Tale

Ursula Le Guin’s Pathbreaker: The Left Hand of Darkness

A Note on Intersectionality and Great Reading Lists

The three books included in the above reviews were written by white women. It is likely that their biographical experiences had much privilege and they all attended ivy league universities. This does not devalue the writing in these 3 Important “Feminist” Novels.

However, despite the challenges and traumas of my own upbringing, I too have experienced white privilege, and unfortunately for me, that came with a limited reading list. 

To correct this. Or rather, in search of balance, I’ve done a cursory search for important speculative “feminist” fiction by women of color. This has to include Octavia Butler. I’ve never read her Patternist series, so I’m going to start with this great deal. But there are many more amazing authors to explore, so I’ve curated the following lists, representing a range of current and award winning authors. 

Here’s to more great “feminist” literature in my favorite super genre of speculative fiction!

3 Links for New Reading:

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Doren Damico

Doren is a salsa dancing philosopher poet, slinky sculptor, and fan of science fiction.

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