Swords and Spaceships

Post-Apocalyptic Novels Where Women Do the Things

Hello SFF fans! Amanda Nelson here, Executive Editor of Book Riot, filling in for Jenn while she’s on vacation! In this edition of Swords and Spaceships, I want to talk about the end of the world.

Sponsored by Hollywood Dead by Richard Kadrey

Life and death takes on an entirely new meaning for James Stark, aka, Sandman Slim. He’s back from Hell and trailing more trouble in his wake. To return to L.A., he had to make a deal—an arrangement that came with a catch. While he may be home, Stark isn’t quite himself . . . because he’s only partially alive.

There’s a time limit on his reanimated body, and unless Stark can find his targets, he will die again—and this time there will be no coming back. Stark knows he can’t do this alone. Meet new friends, and unexpected old faces, in Hollywood Dead.

I’ve been on a kick this year of randomly picking up post-apocalyptic sci-fi centered on women’s stories: women taking power, women leading, and (perhaps most interestingly) what reproductive health would look like at the end of civilization. All of these books take different views of what the apocalypse would look like for women: some are more hopeful than others, some more violent. All of them involve women having to defend themselves with weapons of some kind, even if that weapon is their own body. Here are three notable picks (trigger warnings for all three for harm to children and violence, including sexual violence):

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison

A flu-like illness decimates the human population, but kills women at a higher rate than men and sends the stillbirth rate to 100%. Our heroine, a midwife at a California hospital, is one of the rare female survivors. She disguises herself as a man and sets out to…well, live. Along the way, she raids pharmacies and dispenses birth control to the women she meets, trying to save them all from a fate of having to give birth (which they likely won’t survive), and which will result in a dead child. Elison’s future where men outnumber women ten to one or more is brutal and frightening, mostly because it exposes how thin the veneer of personhood women have now. Would extreme circumstances strip us of it that quickly? This book is like if Station Eleven had an exponential increase of conversation about IUDs (which is awesome), AND the main character is queer.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

In a post-apocalyptic world where the end didn’t come suddenly (a pandemic, a bomb, an asteroid) but over time (class oppression, climate change, racism), a young woman starts a new religion based on the idea that the only god worth worshiping is change. Add to the mix the fact that she’s hyper-empathetic: she literally feels the physical pain of the people around her, making self-defense…complicated. Lauren is wise beyond her years and manages to gather together a rag-tag group of followers and refugees looking for peace and togetherness in a rough and violent world.

the powerThe Power by Naomi Alderman

Patriarchy is built upon the presumption that men are physically more powerful than women, but what if that were suddenly reversed? Girls begin developing the ability to send electricity through their hands, shocking and killing at a touch. The power spreads to older women, and soon all girls are born with it. Would women descend into the same brutality and violence that male-dominated societies based on physical strength are characterized by? I will say that this book is very binary in its view of gender and sex (what would happen to a non-binary person in this scenario?), but it’s an interesting thought experiment.

That’s it for me in this edition! I’ll be back at the end of the week for more SFF talk, and Jenn will be back in two!