By Beth Capo
A recent wave of dystopian fiction echoes assaults on female reproductive rights and our growing climate crisis. As recognized by Joe Dator’s recent cartoon depicting a librarian moving dystopias to the nonfiction shelf, this trend blurs boundaries between reality and literature: for instance, feminist protesters dress in red costumes referencing Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) to protest abortion restrictions (aka forced pregnancy laws). The realism of this dystopian fiction is not surprising, since many writers view their work as near-future possibilities. Ecological catastrophe is not an apocalyptic future event but an intimate present, one that intersects with the political threats to female reproductive autonomy. In a review of several recent works, Sophie Gilbert notes that “Climate change isn’t just an abstract element in dystopian fiction by women: It informs everything, particularly the subject of reproduction itself.” Scholars have pointed to how dystopian narrative offers the potential for political work, its prophetic vision serving as catalyst for reflection or change. This has been true of feminist speculative fiction. However, I’ll focus on two contemporary dystopian novels, Eden Lepucki’s California (2014) andClaire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus (2015), that tell conservative stories of malaise, unchallenged gender roles, and female reproduction in a realistic near-future California Anthropocene.
Focusing on a specific geographic setting, namely California, allows for micro-analysis of this contemporary literary trend. California has long served as a symbol of the American utopian impulse and frontier promise. Nicknamed the Golden State, California is an imagined paradise, one particularly threatened by natural disaster exacerbated by climate change: drought, wildfires, mudslides, and rising sea levels. According to John Clute, California “is a region of the world where weather fluctuations seem more visibly linked to longer-term changes than elsewhere. This underlying fragility permeates, without necessarily taking the foreground, much California fiction.” For instance, Meg Elison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife (2014), the first of her Road to Nowhere series (The Book of Etta, 2017; The Book of Flora, 2019), begins in San Francisco. A global pandemic has killed most of humanity, targeting pregnant women and babies, leaving ten men alive for every woman. Climate change is a contributing factor, the mystery of the plague’s cause resonating with current fears that a biological threat will be released from melting Artic ice. Lepucki and Watkins set their novels in a recognizable California a little further down our current environmental trail. Los Angeles and its celebrity culture play a role in Gold Fame Citrus, as former-model Luz leaves a “starlet’s” canyon-side house she’s been squatting in with her boyfriend for the Mojave Desert’s austere danger. In Lepucki’s novel, Frida and her husband Cal leave Los Angeles for the secluded safety of California forests.
Elison’s work uses common tropes of feminist dystopian fiction in the vein of Octavia Butler’s 1993 Parable of the Sower and its 1998 sequel Parable of the Talents. Butler and Elison create strong female protagonists who survive multiple threats to establish supportive communities. California and Gold Fame Citrus reveal a countertrend, dystopian realism of an apolitical variety. For example, Butler’s protagonist is a young African American woman who demonstrates intelligence, strength, bravery, and leadership, characteristics also demonstrated by Elison’s bisexual Unnamed Midwife. Lepucki’s Frida and Watkins’s Luz, in contrast, are white women in their mid-twenties in heterosexual relationships who reinforce gender stereotypes they face few physical threats and are weak, untrustworthy, and not very likable. As Luz describes her relationship, “I was always needing saving. That was our deal—damsel, woodsman” (Watkins 137). Frida is naïve, a “little girl, hoarding her treasure” (7). Neither provides a feminist hero equipped to confront the threats before them.
These protagonists are climate refugees, fleeing the violence and chaos wrought by environmental crisis and the ensuing social breakdown. California alludes to deadly snowstorms, wildfires, rain, earthquakes, and flu pandemics that have decimated the population and created economic, government, and infrastructure collapse in the recent past, but these are background to the mild weather and fertile land in rural California where Frida and her husband now grow food. Climate change is a greater physical threat in Gold Fame Citrus. Luz and Ray leave the arid canyons around L.A. to cross the growing Mojave Desert in a desperate bid to escape the drought. Luz Dunn had been the “Poster child for promises vague and anyway broken” (Watkins 10), the child model for the Bureau of Conservation and its failed “heroic undertaking that will expand the California Aqueduct a hundredfold, so that Baby Dunn and all the children born this day and ever after will inherit a future more secure, more prosperous, and more fertile than our own” (11; italics original). Watkins evokes the devastating heat, drought, and fires that populate California’s recent forecast: “the ever-beaming, ever-heating, ever-evaporating sun. Sun of suns. Drought of droughts” (4). Climate catastrophe shapes the daily actions of the characters and the shattered society in which they survive.
Climate refugees are not welcome; they are a threat to scarce resources. Watkins’s “Mojavs,” the pejorative term for California refugees, are much as Butler had described Lauren and her fellow refugees in Parable of the Sower twenty years earlier: “You’ve got to sneak into Oregon if you get in at all. Even harder to sneak into Washington. People get shot every day trying to sneak into Canada. Nobody wants California trash” (Butler 73). In Gold Fame Citrus, traversing the desert seems safer than “the Oregon militiamen” guarding the border (59). For female refugees, threats include rape and sexual slavery, vividly depicted by Butler and Elison but largely ignored by Lepucki and Watkins. Frida and Luz are sheltered in heterosexual relationships with few threatening encounters. While Frida hears secondhand stories of rape and Luz suffered sexual abuse as a child model, neither experiences violence during their travels. While I’ve been calling these novels realistic, this lack of attention to male violence against women weakens the potential of each narrative to believably depict a post-apocalypse (let alone our current) world for women.
In addition to ignoring sexual threats and, indeed, any violence to their protagonists, Lepucki and Watkins reinforce conservative gendered reproductive roles. In both novels, reproduction is natural and wanted. Frida and Cal had used withdrawal as a birth control method because “Who wanted to bring children into this world? Who could find a doctor, who could afford condoms, let alone the Pill” (Lepucki 27). But Frida, although at times conflicted, is pleased to be pregnant throughout the novel: “Cal wanted Frida to be pregnant. And Frida wanted that, too, if she was honest with herself. It felt like a dare, the biggest, most important risk of all” (95). As O’Rourke-Suchoff notes, the novel can be read as “the rallying cry for motherhood above all else.” In Gold Fame Citrus, Luz steals a two-year-old, fulfilling a mothering role that anorexia may have taken from her (there is no mention of birth control). Luz finds fulfillment and purpose, reinforcing the ideal of motherhood. Both narratives depict the dangers of environmental and social collapse to children tangentially. Luz justifies taking the girl to protect her, although a child made resettling as a climate refugee more difficult: “Traffickers charged quadruple for children, and many hosts refused to take them, so toddlers were left to cook in cars, older kids locked in the apartments parents fled. Or children became the currency” (38). In both novels, pregnancy or its absence provide narrative tension in domestic and community relationships, weakening the potential for larger social critique.
As Rebecca Solnit demonstrates in A Paradise Built in Hell, contingent communities often form in the face of adversity. Many traditional feminist dystopias such as Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Elison’s Road to Nowhere series create pocket utopias, spaces of supportive possibility and intersectional diversity, in the face of governmental and environmental collapse. For instance, Butler’s Lauren wants to build “some kind of community where people look out for each other,” “something purposeful and constructive” (200, 247). The novel offers a fictional example of Solnit’s study of creative community-building that provides meaning in the face of disaster.
Lepucki and Watkins are more skeptical of this possibility, eschewing the optimism of redefining community and maintaining gendered hierarchies. These narratives illustrate charismatic male leaders of secretive communities that control female reproduction. Frida and Cal find The Land, a small community led by Frida’s controlling brother Micah. Frida works in the kitchen while Cal joins the inner-circle, reinforcing “rigid and unimaginative” gender dynamics (O’Rourke-Suchoff). Children are a liability, and when The Land discovers Frida’s pregnancy, they are cast out. While “Frida never wanted any man’s protection. To her, the whole idea of chivalry was pure self-congratulatory bullshit” (Lepucki 63), she enjoys talking with the women in the kitchen where she works and doesn’t protest the gendered hierarchy. This gender divide is foundational to the community they join next. The private, gated Community where they end the novel explicitly instantiates traditional binary gender roles: “This place is specifically designed for a certain kind of family. You know, the father at the office for long hours, the mother busy with the kids” and women “expected to devote everything to raising a family” (384). The rules are enforced via surveillance, and “Anyone who didn’t follow the rules was thrown out” (382). There is no explanation, no developed vision of government-controlled reproduction, missing the potential social insight that Atwood, Erdrich, and others develop. The novel ends with Frida eight months pregnant in this retro dystopia of socially enforced reproduction.
Found in the desert after Ray leaves to find help, Luz is taken in by a nomadic community at the edge of the shifting Amargosa Sea Dune and nursed back to health by Dallas, “a universal mother figure to all within the desert compound” (Mitchell 33). She soon begins a sexual relationship with Levi, its charismatic leader. Like Lepucki’s The Land, the community is mostly young or very old men and women with no children. This is controlled by the male leader, alert to threats to his dominance. As in California, narrative tension in the primary heterosexual relationship intensifies within community. When Ray reappears, breaking Luz’s sexual thrall to Levi, the couple is expelled. Levi demands that the two-year-old girl remain and, deciding that “Dallas was a better mother than she’d ever be” (337), Luz leaves her. The mother/whore dichotomy reaffirms gender stereotypes: Luz proved herself an unfit mother by letting Dallas care for the child while she enjoyed drug-fueled sex. The novel continues this conservative trajectory when Luz commits suicide shortly after her reunion with Ray, self-inflicting the ultimate punishment for promiscuous women. While I agree with Mitchell that the novel depicts “the bleak state of womanhood that exists at the conclusion of many feminist dystopias” (35), I do not see it “challeng[ing] the fixed ideology of womanhood by exposing the unnatural state of the female condition in relation to the social maintenance of its identity” (26). While Watkins may offer implicit critique, she provides no feminist alternative to limiting gender constructions.
Due to this lack of overt social critique, both California and Gold Fame Citrus are failed feminist dystopias, missing the political potential of the genre. The dearth of racial, sexual, or class diversity ignores how both the global climate crisis and female reproductive lives intersect with a range of social justice issues. California’s cast is so white that the single black character, largely defined by racist tropes,“liked to say he was the last black man on earth, and he might have been, around here” (Lepucki 11). Both novels tie women to motherhood, ignoring the reproductive potential of transgender bodies. For instance, Elison’s series depicts a future where trans bodies are pregnant, “maleness” is as much a description of behavior as a gender category, and, eventually, women can self-fertilize (reminiscent of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 utopian novel Herland). That is, Elison “suggests that the breakdown of society creates a space for a comprehensive redefinition of gender and sexual roles” (Calvin), while California and Gold Fame Citrus affirm those roles within social breakdown.
In The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, David Wallace-Wells connects the growth of climate-centric apocalyptic popular media to our slow coming-to-terms with climate change. He worries that we are acclimatizing (ha!) to this reality as a form of acceptance when we should be taking action to change it. The dystopian trend has lost political power and enables familiarity and resignation. Ursula Heise concurs, arguing that “far from unsettling their readers, [dystopias] have become familiar and comfortable.” California and Gold Fame Citrus offer possible confirmation of this fear, in the form of near-future narratives of climate threat and social breakdown that reinforce women’s sexual and reproductive roles. Children are wanted, and relationships are consensual and heterosexual. Rather than feminist communities of survival and support, they offer vaguely disquieting visions of isolation, examples of “near-dystopia fiction that fails to generate an innovative, or even particularly interesting, critical vision of contemporary society” (O’Rourke-Suchoff). They lack the “strange fusions of exuberance and catastrophe” that Frederick Buell identifies in successful climate-change fiction (280). The narratives are weakened by fatalism and lack the “prophetic message—we can still avert the worst by taking purposeful concrete action” (Phillips 307) – a message inherent to more explicitly feminist dystopias. Lepucki’s California and Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus reproduce gender roles in the now-familiar setting of environmental catastrophe. Their narratives of resignation offer no solutions or inspiration, echoing the sense of unfolding disaster that defines the Anthropocene.
 A partial list of recent feminist speculative fiction dealing with reproduction by US writers includes Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich (2017), The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch (2017), The Only Ones by Carola Dibbell (2015), and Red Clocks by Leni Zumas (2018). UK-based works include Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall (2008) and The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan (2017). Continued interest in The Handmaid’s Tale is evidenced by the popular Hulu series (2017–) and by Atwood’s forthcoming (September 2019) sequel, The Testaments. Atwood’s interest in dystopia and reproduction is also evident in her MaddAddam trilogy.
 On California in science fiction and dystopia, see Clute; Steiner; Nowak-McNeice and Zarzycka. On Los Angeles in the public imagination, see Davis.
 For instance, in Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, pregnant women are kept in “gravid female detention” centers so they can “give birth under controlled circumstances”. These narratives resonant with feminist rhetoric describing recent abortion restrictions as “forced pregnancy” bills and some male politicians referring to pregnant women as “host bodies.”
Cite This Article
Beth Capo. “Reproducing the Patriarchal Anthropocene”. Alluvium, 7.3 (2019): n. pag. Web. 1 July 2019. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v7.3.03
About the Author
Beth Widmaier Capo (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of English and director of the honors program at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, USA. She is the author of Textual Contraception: Birth Control and Modern American Fiction (2007), co-editor of Reproductive Rights Issues in Popular Media: International Perspectives (2017), and has published articles on 20th and 21st century fiction, pedagogy, and gender studies.
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