To imagine the future is a political practice, which means that it’s both strangely awful and awfully strange. In 1990, a team of scientists and researchers was given the task of mapping far-future scenarios for the disposal of nuclear waste. Their dilemma: how to design a warning system to make sure humans in twenty centuries’ time don’t dig in the wrong place and kill the world. As part of the report, a group of academics—all men—came up with a set of “generic scenarios” for how these future humans might live. Their most terrifying scenario? “A feminist world.”
According to this bizarre piece of nuclear science fan-fiction, in the “feminist world” reached in the year 2091:
Women dominated in society, numerically through the choice of having girl babies and socially. Extreme feminist values and perspectives also dominated. Twentieth-century science was discredited as misguided male aggressive epistemological arrogance. The Feminist Alternative Potash Corporation began mining in the WIPP site. Although the miners saw the markers, they dismissed the warnings as another example of inferior, inadequate, and muddled masculine thinking.
It goes on to describe how “extreme feminists” reject the entire concept of knowledge as “masculine,” and instead “put values and practices of attention to the feelings and emotions of particular individuals,” dooming the world in the process.
Why is it that mainstream culture is either afraid of a feminist future—a world where women have equal power at all levels of politics and society, a world beyond the violent stereotypes that squash all of us into narrow boxes of behavior and strangle our selfhood—or unable to envision it at all? The types of future we can conceive of say a great deal about the limits of our political imagination. From alt-right hate-sites and hysterical pulp novels to revered works of literature, male visions of a post-collapse civilization have traditionally fallen along two lines: a cozy Wild West where men can be real men, or a living nightmare where dangerously confident females have ruined everything after someone let them out of the kitchen long enough to think they deserved power.
Fredric Jameson famously observed (in 2003) that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, and that was the slogan that ricocheted around the left in the early years of the Great Recession. In fact, however, the two are linked: capitalist patriarchy has always justified its own existence by insisting that there is no alternative but chaos, destruction, the end of civilization as we know it. The explosion of dystopian literature in this low, dishonest decade emerges from our inability to imagine the end of capitalism without also imagining the end of the world. And for many writers and readers, that comes with a curious sense of relief.
It has become commonplace to speak of a modern “crisis in masculinity,” often when we’re trying to avoid talking about the broader crisis of capitalism. According to this “mancession” theory, the rise of feminism combined with the collapse in the job market means that men can no longer be certain of their role as providers and husbands, and begin to feel irrelevant. Apocalyptic dystopia plays directly into that sense of irrelevance, comforting men with the assurance that they will always be useful in a world that needs men to rebuild it.
Since female enfranchisement is a relatively late development, it counts alongside nylon stockings and air conditioning as one of those modern luxuries that will have to be done without in the post-civilization.
Dystopia offers a fantasy of those very aspects of masculinity that feminists supposedly condemn becoming crucial in a scenario in which you must not get torn apart by raiders from the bunker next door. For the alt-right imaginary, that means traditional patriarchy of the sort that only ever existed in febrile myth. A core idea behind this logic is that since female enfranchisement is a relatively late development, it therefore counts alongside nylon stockings and air conditioning as one of those modern luxuries that will have to be done without in the post-civilization. Feminism, to the conservative imagination, is a modern indulgence, one of many trivialities to be cast by the wayside like a child’s empty-eyed doll on a nuclear battlefield. This suspicion is not limited to the frothing neo-con contingent. You can still find doomsayers on the left discussing women’s liberation as a bourgeois deviation that will disappear after the revolution along with all the other inconveniences of emasculating capitalism.
Over at Return Of Kings, an alt-right discussion hub and steaming compost-heap of the sort of diatribes that pass for serious philosophy in the less hinged corners of the conservative internet, writer Corey Savage tells us “4 Reasons Why Collapse Will Be The Best Thing To Happen For Men.”
The collapse will mean the restoration of natural order: the rule of the jungle . . .
One of the best aspect of the new order would be the return of masculine virtue . . . only an organized group of men with strength, courage, mastery, and honor . . . will prevail in the post-apocalyptic world. Men will be men again. Who knows what savage energy is begging to be unleashed within that man serving as an office drone?
And guess what? There won’t be feminist harpies demanding “equality” when strong men are needed to rebuild civilization and defend against gangs and rival tribes. They’ll be begging for some of that “toxic” masculinity to come and protect them. They’ll kneel in submission to a patriarchal order faster than they would have screamed “rape!” in the previous world . . . the unstable and fat ones will likely disappear first as they offer no value to anyone.
For all its toenail-chewing bigotry, there is something poignant about this yearning for return to a world that never was, where former office workers can live their dreams of dominance by kicking all the fat chicks out of the compound. No wonder the impending collapse of this degenerate world of gender quotas and rape alarms is a core part of the New Right narrative. The brotopoia is a consoling, familiar fantasy, in particular for those to whom the promise of modern masculinity never paid off. A desolate wasteland bristling with bandits you have to fight to survive might involve more physical discomfort than a feminist future, but it is far more emotionally comforting.
The dystopian fantasies that attract many alt-righters are ones in which they finally get to be the hero on terms they recognize—as the rugged frontiersmen battling gamely against a world gone rotten, with women back in their proper places as helpmeets, homesteaders, and occasional tragic victims so that our heroes can have something to cry about in chapter four.
A future shaped, at least in part, by women poses such a profound identity threat as to be unthinkable to many ordinary joes. A few brave truthsayers, however, have attempted to warn their fellow men about the coming gynopocalypse—writers like Parley J. Cooper in his prophetic 1971 tome The Feminists. Here’s the blurb:
Take a look into the future…women now rule the world—or most of what’s left of it—and their world is not a pretty place to live in. Men have been reduced to mere chattel, good only for procreation. THE FEMINISTS are working to eliminate even this strictly male function . . .
Men must get permission to make love to any female—even if she is willing—or the penalty is death!
In this literary disasterpiece, male sexuality is strictly controlled, and after a criminal one-night fumble our hero must go on the run, aided only by a few women who have strong feelings about the importance of motherhood and are incidentally very sexy and totally up for it.
What is missing from these eyewatering misogynist prophecies is just as interesting as their substance. Significantly, while most posit a world in which women take terrible socio-sexual revenge for centuries of male violence and structural oppression, not one of them denies that that violence and oppression actually happened. At best they come up with exceptions that prove the rule—the few good men standing against the rest, about whom the Hive Vagina was perfectly correct. The chief injustice is that decent men who don’t hate women very much get swept up in the collective punishment of those who do.
The most terrifying prospect of all is what happens when women work collectively. The idea of women organizing, sharing information and resources, and coming together to change the world—rather than competing for male attention as is right and natural—is terrifying enough when it’s a few pink-haired weirdoes on the internet. The thought of what they might do with real political power sends shudders through the locker room. This, incidentally, is how we got to the point where a bloviating man-child with distressing hair and an entitlement complex bigger than his unpaid tax bill, a man whose main political strategy is to stand at a podium screaming about Muslims and Mexican rapists, is still, to millions of Americans, a more conceivable president than his only normally monstrous opponent who happens to be female. A world with women in charge, a world where women stand together and for each other in any respect, is not just inconceivable—to conceive of it is an active identity threat for those whose sense of self has always needed a story with men on top.
Right now, innovative, exciting stories by and about women, queers, and people of color are having a moment in science fiction. From Hollywood to the Hugos, the genre’s most prestigious awards, a new kind of narrative is gaining in popularity, one where they get to be more than just side-notes in the Hero’s Journey. Worse still, and most offensively to the alt-right, a lot of these stories have the temerity to be objectively brilliant, entertaining enough to provoke a cognitive dissonance that cannot be allowed. The net-patriarchal internet feels itself deeply wronged by the emergence and inexplicable popularity of stories where straight boys with guns aren’t the only heroes who matter, and the backlash has been staggering.
For two years, anti-feminist, racist pundits like Theodore Robert Beale, blogging as Vox Day, have attempted to rig and ruin the Hugo awards to protest the celebration of stories that don’t always involve cowboys in space. Leslie Jones, star of the female-led Ghostbusters reboot, was inundated with racist abuse and death threats. Hurt male pride is sparking off everywhere through modern culture and politics, dangerous and unpredictable as Donald Trump on the debate floor when it encounters challenges to its worldview.
It’s become commonplace to say that science fiction is always, at least in part, about the time it was written in. The twentieth century was a time of seismic change in gender relations, and these stories reflect the anxieties and aspirations of their age—but so do the manner in which they were produced and read. Feminist science fiction has always been of huge literary importance within the field. Writers like James Tiptree Jr., Octavia Butler, and Ursula Le Guin aren’t just innovators in how they approach gender—they’re innovators full stop. The stories are gripping. The language is gorgeous. The pieces stay with you. So why are they always overlooked when we talk about the Golden Age of Science Fiction? Because there were people reading in secret whose dreams were considered unimportant. Because these visions had to be written out of the broader story humanity tells about its desires—until now.
Over a century and more of thought experiments, women of all backgrounds have come up with social structures that foreground the emotional work of building and sustaining communities of survival. The very best, like Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country, Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, and N. K. Jemisin’s recent bestseller The Fifth Season, create drama precisely out of the daily grind of trying to get people to work together when they’re crabby and anxious and difficult.
A great deal of post-apocalyptic fiction written by women imagines society in a way that is so radically different from the patriarchal literary imagination that it would read as science fiction even without the nuclear fallout. The alt-right cannot imagine a world in which the rights of men and those of women are not opposite and antithetical, in which gains for women must by definition entail losses for men. The alt-right could really do with reading some Octavia Butler, although I’m not sure their delicate sensibilities could cope with the alien sex scenes in Dawn.
People were using metal implants to prevent pregnancy and artificial hormones to adjust their gendered appearance decades before “body hackers” started jamming magnets in their fingertips and calling themselves cyborgs.
One reason it seems easier for women, queers, and people of color to come up with nuanced and diverse futures is that, in many ways, the future is where we’ve always already lived. Women’s liberation today is an artifact of technology as well as culture: contraceptive and medical technology mean that, for the first time in the history of the species, women are able to control their reproductive destiny, to decide when and if they want children, and to take as much control of their sexual experience as society will allow. (Society has been slow to allow it: this is not the sort of progress futurists get excited about.) It has been noted that many of the soi-disant “disruptive” products being marketed as game changers by Silicon Valley startup kids are things that women thought of years ago. Food substitutes like Soylent and Huel are pushed as the future of nutrition whilst women have been consuming exactly the same stuff for years as weight-loss shakes and meal replacements. People were using metal implants to prevent pregnancy and artificial hormones to adjust their gendered appearance decades before “body hackers” started jamming magnets in their fingertips and calling themselves cyborgs.
But what precisely is it about stories by women and people of color, stories in which civilization is built and rebuilt by humans of all shapes and flavor working together, that throws water on the exposed wires of masculine pride? It’s all about how humans cope when their core beliefs are threatened. As Frantz Fanon wrote, “When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.” Core beliefs are the ur-myths essential to the way we understand our lives, our identities, our place in the world. For example: “It is right and natural for men to hold most of the offices of power in society.” For example: “Male violence plays a vital role in society, and you can adapt to it, but you can’t resist it.” For example: “Feminism has gone too far.”
For all the alt-right’s vaulted claims to base their reasoning on scientific opinion—most of it hand-wavy, cod-evolutionary psychology filtered through the unreality engine of mass media headline wrangling—they tend to react very badly when presented with evidence against their ideology. As I write, all the evidence suggests that in just under three weeks, a woman will become President of the United States, despite the best efforts of a man who is the very personification of a wilting erection in a suit, leaking drivel everywhere in his failure to grab America by the pussy. Have Trump’s armies of online followers accepted that perhaps a woman in power might not mean the end of society as they know it? Have they hell. For those to whom even the all-female Ghostbusters film was an existential threat, the concept of a female president is enough to fry vital circuits somewhere in the groaning motherboard of neoconservative culture.
If you can imagine spaceships, if you can imagine time-travel, if you can conjure entire languages and alien races out of the wet space behind your eyes, you shouldn’t have a problem imagining a society beyond patriarchy. A feminist future may be inconceivable—but it is coming nonetheless. It is already being written and rewritten by those who reject the brostradamus logic of late capitalism, by those who refuse to cling to the paleofutures of previous times.
Here’s a reading list:
Naomi Alderman, The Power
N. K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season
Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents
Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time
Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed
Sheri S. Tepper, The Gate to Women’s Country
Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology, eds. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer