Feminist Science Fiction? The Power, Red Clocks, and The Salt Line
When Laura put out the call to the Nursing Clio team for Beach Reads essays, I didn’t think I’d have anything this summer. Not that I wasn’t reading; I always have a long summer reading list, including a lot of trash, science fiction, and new books from my favorite authors. I just didn’t think there was anything that would make a lot of sense for our gender/history/medicine blog. But even as I dismissed the possibility, I was shocked to discover a very relevant subplot in the book I was reading at that moment: The Salt Line by Holly Goddard Jones, a sci-fi thriller about an eco-apocalyptic America where abortion is illegal.
I was not expecting this. I didn’t read about The Salt Line in any feminist Facebook groups or The Atlantic articles. I picked it up by chance. I read the book jacket, which promised a horrifying post-semi-apocalyptic world ravaged by a blood-thirsty parasite, and dove in. It’s not the most scintillating prose, but it read quickly and had enough adventure to keep me interested. Ultimately, though, this book is about so much more than a bug apocalypse. When I mentioned that to Laura, she pointed out that this horrifying (and imminent?) issue of reproductive rights (or lack thereof) is #trending right now in feminist sci fi. “Like Red Clocks and The Power,” she said, and I said, “What’s that now?”
This is something that I, as a person with a uterus and no desire whatsoever for babies to be inside of me, think and worry about a lot. I feel inordinately fortunate to live in New York, which is better (in some ways) than most states when it comes to abortion access (but we also have our ongoing battles to make that decent situation better). It seems like every week there is some new threat to reproductive rights and health in this country. Whether it is the President threatening to stop federal funding to doctors who provide abortion information, or someone sharing the Guttmacher Institute’s helpful infographic of the 29 states that were hostile to abortion in 2017 on Twitter, it’s been a rough two years. I spend a lot of time researching progressive campaigns for the House and Senate in red states to which I can donate money.
The Salt Line is terrifying in a completely different dimension than any reviews or descriptions realize. Per Laura’s assessment (though she hasn’t read The Salt Line yet) it is par for the course in the current feminist sci fi trend. I’d already read The Power, and I picked up Red Clocks right after I finished The Salt Line because I wanted to test this hypothesis for myself.1 The Salt Line isn’t transformative or earth-shattering, but the way that it fits (or doesn’t fit) in this feminist science fiction trend is interesting in and of itself.
The Power, by Naomi Alderman, published in October 2016, was a well-timed release. The premise of the book is that women around the world develop the ability to generate electric power from a muscle in their chests, which they can direct into anything, living or inanimate. The unfolding story explores how that frees, chains, and empowers the world’s women. In a Trump world, the revenge fantasy of women taking control of their lives and the world is a pretty satisfying read, despite its narrative pacing. In many ways, Alderman’s world is a response to the misogyny that women experience daily, on the web, in the workplace, in the White House. But it’s also an exploration of the philosophical question of how absolutely power corrupts. To those who call her world a dystopia for men, Alderman responded: “Well, as nothing happens to a man in it that’s not happening to a woman right now, if my novel is a dystopia, we’re living in a dystopia today.”
Red Clocks by Leni Zumas was published this January. In a near future — all too near, to be honest — a fundamentalist Christian American government passes a series of laws that take away reproductive rights. Kind of disappointingly, womanhood in Red Clocks revolves around reproduction (hence the menstrual timebomb of the title): the children one woman already has and hates, or that another has given up and wants to know; the pregnancy one woman doesn’t want, or another wants so desperately she considers compromising her commitment to a woman’s right to an abortion. Though they are given titles like “Biographer,” “Wife,” “Daughter,” and “Mender,” ultimately their stories and identifies are rooted firmly in reproductive abilities and rights — or lack thereof.
The writing is great, but it has some major shortcomings. I will echo S. E. Smith’s disappointment about how little Zumas thought about the broader implications of the near-future and how she missed the opportunity to produce an intersectional feminist analysis. It’s so white and so middle class that it is almost like second wave feminism’s ghost come back to haunt my summer reading list. But it is in line with the traditions of The Handmaid’s Tale and certainly echoes the fears so many of us have had since Trump/Pence took the White House.
It doesn’t take much to realize that The Salt Line is not like The Power or Red Clocks in most ways. It is not on Must-Read Feminist Sci Fi lists. It has not be lauded as a feminist classic. It’s a pretty run-of-the-mill ecological disaster novel. In the near-future, a particularly gross and deadly bug, the “Miner Tick,” has made most of the United States uninhabitable. Needless to say, after the first description of how the miner tick burrows under the skin and lays its eggs, I looked it up to make sure it wasn’t real. I’ll let you find out for yourself. At the start of the book, millions are already dead. The survivors have retreated to zones surrounding cities where pavement discourages the leaping arachnids. East coast cities are effectively the zones of power, money, and political influence. Other zones (the South, Midwest, etc.) are desperately poor and absolutely necessary to feed the large populations of the cities. A near-future of stark inequality and oppression. Shocking, I know.
Out of left field, a few chapters in, there is another revelation about this divided United States: as in Red Clocks, abortion is illegal in The Salt Line. This impacts only one character directly, and her rich boyfriend’s ability to obtain her an illegal abortion becomes her reason for joining him on a sightseeing adventure out into the tick wilderness beyond the zone walls.
Most of the story takes place in a community hidden out in this wilderness. The people there have developed a 100% effective tick repellent. Everyone in the community ingests the repellant in a daily cup of tea. That tea, however, turns out to be a contraceptive and abortifacient. Women in the community miscarry or simply can’t get pregnant. The infertility caused by the repellant is not permanent; when a character stops taking the repellant doses, her menstrual cycle eventually resumes and she gets pregnant. Fertility, infertility, reproductive rights, and the control of women’s bodies is, in the end, more central to this narrative than the gross bugs that drove humanity to batten down the hatches.
This wasn’t something I was expecting to encounter in this book. This was not marketed as being like The Handmaid’s Tale or other feminist dystopian near-future sci-fi. Unlike Red Clocks or The Power, both award-winning and undoubtedly slated to be counted among the feminist classics of science fiction, The Salt Line is not loudly and intentionally about women’s rights and reproduction. I think the added horror of that background information is probably specific to science fiction written by women. In one of my favorite sci fi novels, We Are Legion by Denis E. Taylor, the United States is also a Christian fundamentalist theocracy, but little detail is revealed about reproduction and women’s rights, even in passing. But for Red Clocks and The Power, the impetus to discuss these issues is front and center is effectively the driving force behind these books.
In its goals and plotlines, I’d group The Salt Line with Station Eleven, which follows people trying to live normalish lives in a post-apocalyptic North America. The pulsing current of fear about our rights, our bodies, our power or powerlessness in this current political and social climate is palpable. I don’t know what Jones’s intentions or thought-processes were when she wrote these subplots into her novel. I just know that it certainly struck a chord with me. I was already creeped out by the burrowing bugs. If the tick apocalypse is yet another road to the end of women’s rights, then I am downright terrified.
- Many authors have credited Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as inspiration, and certainly many of the most anticipated novels of the genre have been published and found readership in the wake of the Hulu adaptation of the 1980s Gilead reproductive dystopia. Nursing Clio has published several essays on the Hulu series, and you should read them all. Return to text.
Averill Earls is the Executive Producer of the award-winning Dig: A History Podcast, and an Assistant Professor of History at St. Olaf College. She writes about same-sex desire in modern Ireland, with recent articles out in the Journal of the History of Sexuality (2019) and Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques (2020). Her forthcoming book, Love in the Lave: A Social Biography of Same-Sex Desire in Postcolonial Ireland is under contract with Temple University Press.