Near future America is easily a frightening place in any imagination, and in Christina Dalcher’s third novel Femlandia, America in 2022 is a completely broken, lawless society. After a massive economic breakdown, things rapidly fall apart, supply chains run dry, violence is the only thing that works, there is little food to be found, and everyone is left scavenging as best they can, both for food and safety. 40-something Miranda and her 16 year old daughter Emma have been trying to eke out a survival in their home, but Miranda knows that they won’t be able to stay there much longer. There aren’t many options for them, other than to go to the one place Miranda had sworn off from years ago—Femlandia, the women only commune her mother Win had established before the world broke, a community that is ‘Women Oriented. Self sufficient. Cooperative. Safe. Accepting. Natural. Free’.
Or is it.
The start of the economic collapse was enough to drive Miranda’s husband to suicide, leaving her and Emma destitute even before everything else went to rot. It’s not clear what exactly caused the collapse of society (men, we must assume, but it doesn’t seem to matter how or why, specifically), or what the timeline for this collapse was. We meet Miranda when things are already quite bad, and she admits her ‘timeline is fuzzy these days, because it all seemed to happen at the same time’. America, she tells us, ‘was like a windshield with a chink in it that kept expanding, a tiny starburst that got hit repeatedly by another pebble’. Soon after we find ourselves on the road with them, as Miranda accepts that Femlandia may be the only place that offers her and her daughter any semblance of security. Terrible things happen to them on the road, with almost every mention of any man being negative, and every interaction with a man definitely being frightening. There are no good men out there, not in this world, which feels a bit extreme, but serves the purpose of what is to come once we get to Femlandia itself.
The colony (or commune, or cult) established by Miranda’s mother Win and her protege Jen is not all rainbows and butterflies. It is a tightly run, entirely independent, off the grid society of women who share all the work and appear to be living in complete peace and safety behind heavily guarded walls. Imagine a self contained separatist feminist socialist group if you will, one that collectively hates all men, disregards trans women entirely, won’t even help hurt children if they are male, and somehow manages to produce only female babies. Femlandia the community is radical, extreme and hugely problematic, to say the least. Dalcher makes it clear that just because women are in charge of women, it doesn’t mean that everything will be utopic. As always, the question remains—utopic for whom?
On the surface, everything seems to be calm and organised, with none of the women appearing unhappy or rebellious or ungrateful to be there. But Miranda is triggered by Jen’s immediate connection to Emma, and refuses to accept that Femlandia is a utopic haven. Once she starts to dig deeper into the community, she finds a lot more than she bargained for, and none of it good.
Femlandia the book is problematic, too. The book shifts between Miranda’s perspective (which includes many random and sometimes unnecessary flashbacks), and Win’s perspective (all in the past, leading up to Win and Miranda’s estrangement). From the very start, Miranda proves herself to be an unlikable and frustrating protagonist, as does Win. Neither character is truly empathetic, both are fairly erratic and it is very hard to really connect with either voice. Win has never understood why her daughter loved pink, boys and being a young stay at home wife and mother (Win’s brand of feminism does not allow room for other women to make choices differently than her, clearly). Miranda thinks her mother is a pushy, aggressive misandrist, and resents how Win chooses Jen as her stand in daughter (this stand in daughter business is additionally problematic for reasons that can’t be stated without spoilers, but there a few forced twists of this sort in the book). The plot itself is, in theory (like Femlandia the community itself), decent enough, with lots of action and a high readability factor, but with much of that action feeling sudden, spurred on by characters whose motivations are never quite clear. The novel has the veneer of a thriller, especially in the second half, but it’s a thin, superficial veneer.
Credit to Dalcher though, for attempting such an unlikable protagonist. While Miranda’s choice to not have faith in her mother’s separatist views makes Win dislike her, it isn’t enough for a reader to do the same—we know better than Win does that disliking someone because they choose a different life than you is not acceptable. No, what makes Miranda truly unlikeable is her self righteousness, and her in basic inability to connect with others, including her daughter, though there are many instances when she does and thinks terrible things that, in her mind, prioritise Emma. One would perhaps empathise with her daughter in this regard, but even that is difficult, since Emma (like most of the characters in this book) is fairly flat too. Much later in the book, we are given an unexpected insight into why Emma disconnects from her mother so easily and rapidly; an insight that doesn’t really add up since we don’t really much about Emma’s character in the first place.
Femlandia the book isn’t about a feminist utopia like Charlotte Gilman’s Herland was, or even a dystopia (again, who gets to decide what is what, anyway?). It is a jittery thriller about how all and any extreme shifts of power result inevitably in human cruelty, regardless of who is in charge of whom. Power, the desperate need for survival, the evolutionary circles which human society seems to turn in—these are all valid and strong concerns for Dalcher in Fermlandia. Subtlety sadly, is not a strong suit here, not in the community, nor the book.
Femlandia is published by Berkley.
Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction and appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories and interviews writers for the Tor.com podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.