I read my first dystopian novel as a young kid — it was, I believe, The Giver. It wasn’t until high school that I read other dystopian novels: 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and A Brave New World. I don’t know which was assigned first, I just know that I loved them all.
I didn’t dive deep into dystopian novels after that, but rather, found myself attracted to horror, science fiction, fantasy, and romance, and then later, literary fiction. I did read a few here and there, but still, it wasn’t until the last few years that I returned to dystopian literature and I’m glad I did.
If you don’t know what dystopian novels are off-hand, let me provide an easy definition. Dystopian novels are fictional stories with a setting that features a dysfunctional society, often viewed by some characters in the book, as a utopia, a paradise, or a “perfect” society. But there’s always an underlying or very obvious problem with such a world, at least to the reader.
I imagine my re-interest in dystopian novels arose from the fact that dystopian worlds began appearing quite often on TV shows and films like The Matrix, V for Vendetta, Mad Max, Planet of the Apes, The Walking Dead, The 100, and The Man in the High Castle. You may not have known these were dystopian stories — but trust me, you’ve been introduced to the dystopian world. It’s been pretty hard to miss the last few years.
Regardless of how my interest in these books arose as of late, I find myself drawn to them today, mostly because I see some people in our society who make steps toward trying to invoke a dystopian society in our world. The great thing about reading dystopian novels is that we can see the extreme effects that harmful legislation or movements can have on society as a whole in the future, and perhaps, we can prevent them from happening to us now.
On another note, I especially love dystopian novels with strong or memorable female characters. I love reading books with female protagonists, mostly because women are still underrepresented in the literary world… and partly, because I love trying to relate to female protagonists and characters. And if the success and popularity of The Hunger Games, The Divergent Series, Host by Stephanie Meyer or even Imeperator Furiosa in Mad Max is any indication — the world loves female characters in dystopian societies, too.
So with that in mind, I’d love to share five dystopian novels with memorable female characters that you may not have read. (And if you have, share them with friends) I loved these books and stories and I hope you do, too.
The Handmaid’s Tale is the queen of dystopian novels. You may be familiar with the book as of late. It was recently turned into a TV series on Hulu which has sparked a serious discussion on women’s rights.
The book follows Offred, a handmaid in The Republic of Gilead, an ultra-conservative society in future America where having children is almost impossible for the majority of the population. The Republic of Gilead has overthrown the American government, and has forced people to live in an ultra-religious, conservative, and abusive totalitarian society, where women like Offred, who do have viable ovaries able to carry children, are made to be surrogate slaves against their will. Yes, talk about a F’d up dystopian society (and that’s not even the half of it).
There’s so much to love about Offred mostly because Margaret Atwood has written her in such a way that you can not not feel what she is going through as the story is told in her own voice. As I read this book, I cried for Offred, I screamed for Offred, I even got physically sick for her — all things that she could not do within her fictional life.
I don’t want to give too much away, so just read it. Trust me. It’s so relevant today.
You can’t love all female protagonists of dystopian novels, and that’s never been more the case than with The Circle. This book follows Mae, who is hired to work for The Circle, the world’s most important internet company. Think Google — but scarier.
In the novel, the Circle is creating a world in which everything you do or don’t do is judged by everyone on social media. It’s also breaking every boundary related to privacy, by encouraging everyone to wear cameras at all time and allowing people on social media to decide other people’s life decisions. And then things get worse than that. This dystopian society is so eerily like something that you can see happening in present-day society and it really gave me the chills to read.
But let’s get back to Mae. I couldn’t stand the type of person that Mae is. I’m everything she’s not, or I hope I am. But I also couldn’t hate her and I couldn’t stop reading this book. Even though I think Eggers wants you to sort of dislike her, he does it in such a beautiful way that you can absolutely see yourself or your sister or your dad or your mom or your cousin or your friend doing the EXACT same things she does in the book and that scares the shit out of you.
The book has also been recently turned into a film with Emma Watson starring as Mae and co-starring with Tom Hanks.
I can’t remember when I read the Uglies, but I just remember falling in love with the story and going crazy for the rest of the books in this young adult series.
So Uglies follows Tally who lives in a world where there are Uglies — those who posses their original appearance they were born with — and Pretties — those who have surgically altered their appearance when they turn 16 to look more beautiful. However, Tally learns quickly that there’s a lot more to Pretties than undergoing cosmetic surgery — the government puts lesions in their minds to make them shallow, unintelligent, and more easily controlled.
Tally is a bad ass chick who undergoes something better than cosmetic surgery — a growth into a beautiful, strong, and brave woman who no longer needs to be defined by a beauty standard of society or what everyone else is doing. Oh, and she saves the world — no biggie.
When it comes to cosmetic surgery — to each their own — however, when I read this as a young adult growing into a woman, it was so impactful to see a young girl like me find herself in a way that went beyond physical appearance. This book does more than just tell a good story — it gives girls and women the confidence that society rips from them at a young age.
Margaret Atwood is a beast at the dystopian novel game, so it’s no surprise that I have two novels by her on here. (There’s plenty more, but I’ll allow you to do your own research).
The Heart Goes Last is set in the near American future where unemployment and crime are rampant. We follow couple Charmaine and Stan who decide to go live in a new city with promise — Consilience, a city that offers its residents protection from the outside world and a job, as long as you live every other month in prison. What the couple doesn’t know is that they can’t ever leave Consilience and things aren’t exactly as they seem — as they never are in dystopian societies.
Charmaine is an interesting character who I loved and hated. She actually buys into the Consilience propaganda and then works her way into the select fold of the governing bodies of the city, but she does so in a way that’s pretty dark and creepy — for someone who is always trying to seem otherwise. I love how complicated she is and better yet, how she’s not the cookie cutter Stepford wife she likes others to think she is.
I fell in love with Maria V. Snyder’s books long before she released Inside Out. She’s a young adult novelist and Inside Out is set in a dystopian future. Trella is our main female protagonist and a “scrub,” a person who lives in the lower levels among other scrubs of a place called “Inside.” She works in the pipes, maintaining them, for a group known as the “Uppers.” Through a series of events, Trella learns of a possibility of a Gateway to “Outside.” Outside is a near mythical place known by the populous as somewhere you go when you die. As we follow Trella, we once again, discover that things are not as they seem and the society she lives in, isn’t all that perfect for most people living there.
I loved Trella because she’s another kick ass female protagonist. She uses her skills and smarts to start a revolution, and takes down the “man.” And hey, we could all use some bad ass female protagonists like that today.