None of these works purport to be survival manuals. That said, survivors of a wide variety of apocalyptic events could most certainly use the accumulated wisdom of the resourceful, empathetic, and honorable heroines of these five post-apocalyptic stories. For that reason alone I recommend that everyone keep a copy of the following books on their shelves at home.
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid’s Tale is the one that really got things rolling in the women-of-the-apocalypse literary stakes, a feminist classic that’s hard to see past both as a reader and a writer. However, it presents an older vision of women facing imminent doom, one born of 1970s feminism. We’ve changed—and so has Margaret Atwood. In The Year of the Flood, the groundbreaking author takes a new and admirable second run at her own theme. The female protagonists of The Year of the Flood are still the victims of the sexual derangement of men (always worse in end times) but in this new scenario they survive (mostly) by looking out for each other. There are no good men in vans coming to save the day: sisters are doing it for themselves. First they do a good job of simply surviving some kind of devastating man-made plague. Then, armed with little more than a foolhardy amount of grit and character, they go out of their apocalyptic way to find and save their friend from a couple of raging man-beasts. Female camaraderie and gender loyalty may not be the only themes of The Year of the Flood (environmental destruction, insatiable consumerism, quack religion and demeaning sexual politics all vie for our attention), but they are most certainly the lights in the dark that make this second book in the MaddAddam trilogy really shine.
The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison
Almost everyone is dead of an unknown plague that returns like a fever every now and again. There are no more live births. Only one in ten survivors are women, many of them shackled to gangs of men who use them for sex. Most of the world has devolved into savagery. Decent men and free women are rare and vulnerable creatures, safe only in awful and total isolation. Danger lurks in desolate corners and boldly stalks the empty highways. Enter the unnamed midwife, dressed like a man, armed like a cowboy, capable of surviving on her own and sometimes willing to save others. Written both in the first and the third person (a slightly unnerving literary device that offers both emotional proximity and critical distance) this is a strikingly powerful story of one woman’s physical and emotional resourcefulness under the most dire of circumstances. An apocalyptic page-turner that picks up where Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale left off.
Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall
Sarah Hall’s Daughters of the North may have received a mixed bag of reviews (too much heavy political discussion and not enough drama/the wrong kind of political discussion and not enough drama), and to be sure it’s not encouraging that our heroine can only speak to us via a police interrogation, but it remains a personal favorite. I love the idyllic rural setting, I like vicariously experiencing the daily rhythms of life in an all-girls apocalyptic boot-camp and I don’t mind the aggressive tone of some of the women. These are emotionally scarred escapees of an environmental and social disaster, not lady politicians. I’d be happy to have any one of them watching my back and if I ever find myself imprisoned by a gender-oppressive regime, then I too will dream of a platoon of foul-mouthed women in the hills of Cumbria; working the land by day, making love by night, and daring to fight back even when fighting back is the stupidest thing to do. Kudos to the brave, lost, sisters of the Carhullan Army.
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
Apocalyptic books don’t all have unhappy endings, and that’s a literary fact. They just all begin with a dire premise. In Seveneves, the moon blows up. It is the end of the world as we know it—well, make that in two years’ time—but in this case not everyone uses that as an excuse to behave badly. A collaborative world group of politicians and scientists race to convert the international space station into the last great hope for the survival of humanity. There are many pages detailing the minutiae of this momentous task. Along the way we meet an eclectic bunch of female astronauts and other smart, talented women. In the final days of life on Earth, one thousand fairly chosen and diverse souls are sent into space. Uplifting as that part of the story is, things don’t exactly go to plan. Warning/Spoiler Alert! Only seven of the space-station colonists survive. Seven women—the Seven Eves (not seven eaves as I was expecting, having misread the title). Thank you, Neal Stephenson, for this miraculous victory against both physical and literary odds. Seven great female characters using their collective smarts to save the human race itself. What a spectacular way to give women their apocalyptic due.
Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett
Last but not least, a gender-bending postmodern tale in which a woman’s life and relationships survive only as pieces of fragmented code. Elysium is a delicate end-of-days tale seen through the eyes of an alternative heroine with more heart and soul than weaponry. Although there is certainly enough tough material in this book to call it dystopian fiction, the story of Adrian/ne and Anthony/Antoinette is ultimately a gentler and queerer vision of life after the end—one that transforms the notion of post-apocalyptic memoir and offers us a different way of viewing the end itself. Offering a strikingly different Doomsday narrative, an unusual female (most of the time) narrator and an alien twist, Elysium is a book that I imagine will make the sentimental reader weep and the practical reader review their computer backup systems.
Jackie Hatton is the author of Flesh and Wires (Aqueduct Press, November 2015), a post-apocalyptic, post-alien novel that imagines women as the agents of their own destiny.