Last year, in an interview with Vulture, the pioneering sci-fi and cyberpunk author William Gibson was asked for his thoughts on the relationship between future-oriented dystopian fiction and present-day life. Do we need a different type of writing in order to compel us “into action to prevent the real-life collapse of civilization”? “Much of the planet’s human population, today, lives in conditions that many inhabitants of North America would regard as dystopian,” Gibson replied. “Quite a few citizens of the United States live under conditions that many people would regard as dystopian…. Naturalistic fiction written today is necessarily fairly pessimistic—otherwise it wouldn’t be a realistic depiction of the present.”
Gibson’s insight rejects a popular assumption about dystopias: that they must be firmly ensconced in the future in order to convey their meaning for the present. Human civilization, Gibson points out, isn’t that streamlined. In any given period, there are pharaohs and slaves, heirs and orphans, fat cats and alley cats. And in that way, Gibson’s comment poses a kind of epistemological dilemma for the dystopian genre: Why should calamity and woe be thrust into the distant future (or past)?
Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, which features an interplay of dystopian and realist elements, offers something of a variation on Gibson’s idea. The novel takes place in a United States only slightly extrapolated from our current one—and it’s through this familiarity that the book derives its power. At the outset, the federal government has outlawed abortion; in a dream scenario for certain sectors of present-day America, the Personhood Amendment has conferred the right to life, liberty, and property on every human embryo. And a complementary piece of legislation called “Every Child Needs Two,” which prohibits single women from adopting children, will soon be passed. In vitro fertilization has also been prohibited; the embryos can’t give their consent to the procedure.
The novel rotates among the perspectives of four different characters: an unmarried high-school history teacher in her early 40s; a bright teenager in crisis; a stay-at-home mom; and a local healer whom some townspeople have accused of being a witch. All four women live in Newville, a rustic village of fishing boats, tourist shops, and sightings of migrating whales, on the Oregon coast. Zumas sculpts her female protagonists with credibility and depth, and they overlap in unforced ways: Ro, the history teacher, has Mattie, the teenager, in one of her classes, while several of the women know Gin, the backwoods healer, because they’ve sought her assistance or know someone who has. Over the course of the novel, these three women will be directly impacted by the new laws, while the fourth—Susan, the housewife—slowly suffocates under the drudgery of a socially prescribed role she may never have wanted.
It’s easy to imagine that Zumas first conceived Red Clocks as working in the key of Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale, and to some extent it does. Red Clocks is also about a patriarchal government that wants to control what roles women fill, and for whom, under the cynical cover of moral “values.” But whereas The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a meticulously imagined future, Red Clocks feels like a handful of lives pulled from the present and plunged into the book’s crucible by a few all-too-plausible political developments.
Meanwhile, Zumas’s decision to tell the story from four different perspectives is not just a stylistic flourish. Together, they form a raw portrait of the forces of disenfranchisement that women have faced for millennia. What gives Red Clocks its lingering pungency is how, despite each character’s distinct circumstances, the same features—pregnancy, motherhood, and social expectations—trap and menace them all.
Zumas, who teaches at Portland State University, renders Oregon in careful, passionate detail from the very first pages: lush, panoramic, sea-spattered. The reader can see the rugged canopies and battered coast and thick morning fog—can practically smell them. Dystopian novels often take place in unnamed future cities, distancing the reader by way of time and place. But one of Red Clocks’ most consistent pleasures is its Pacific Northwest setting, which gives the novel a tactile verisimilitude that so many other dystopian works struggle to achieve. Here’s Mattie, looking out from the local lighthouse: “From here you can see massive cliffs soaring up from the ocean, rust veined, green mossed; giant pines gathering like soldiers along their rim; goblin trees jutting slant from the rock face.”
Brief, luminous morsels like this are sprinkled throughout the book. Instead of the popular dystopian transmogrifications—totalitarian regimes, augmented humans, blasted wastelands—Red Clocks offers a subtler nightmare. Zumas takes her time incorporating the new laws on abortion and adoption into her characters’ lives in Newville, which responds to reports of the legislation with “brackish calm.” The community’s chilly detachment feels at once disarming and realistic. Indeed, in our own world, one or two new laws might not have the slightest effect on a society’s seemingly placid surface, while still threatening and subjugating any number of individuals beneath it.
The multiple perspectives that Zumas provides give Red Clocks a brisk, off-kilter rhythm. Chapter openings deftly deposit the reader into an unfiltered point of view, creating a visual immediacy as we’re thrust into each character’s consciousness. The beginning of one chapter describes Susan’s stultifying routine: “Herd crumbs into palm. Spray table. Wipe down table. Rinse cups and bowls. Place cups and bowls in dishwasher.” Zumas pays close attention to life’s daily repetitions, and there’s authenticity in the characters’ looping toil. The overall effect is that of a series of glass shards—each an hour, a day, a week of lived experience—gradually gathered into a mosaic.
While the differences between the West Coast America in Red Clocks and the country we live in today may seem understated compared to other dystopias—say, Blade Runner, The Hunger Games, or, more recently, Station Eleven—Zumas’s novel also demonstrates how political changes can be more transformative than aesthetic ones. Blade Runner’s Los Angeles may be slick with perpetual rain and starved for sunlight, but most of its inhabitants are still free to pursue their technologically aided ambitions and desires. But in Red Clocks, being unhappily pregnant in a more familiar era—albeit one in which abortion has now been completely outlawed—can feel uncompromisingly apocalyptic.
About two-thirds of the way in, the unhurried pace of the novel quickens as the women’s lives intersect under increasingly exigent circumstances (a pregnancy, a criminal trial, an attempted border crossing). As the narrative canters toward its conclusion, taking more definitive shape, we can see Zumas massaging the final chapters into something more than just a series of female portraits or a parable of dystopian misery. She’s showing us how society—past, present, and future—is engineered to coerce, deprive, and pigeonhole women. Even the fierce 19th-century polar explorer Eivor Minervudottir, about whom Ro longs to write a biography, is ultimately defeated by the crushing strictures imposed on her.
Despite its broad political premise, Zumas’s novel is most focused on the frightening ordeals wreaked by individual circumstance: The new laws tear into each of her characters’ lives differently. That Red Clocks eschews futuristic world-building ultimately works to its advantage. As William Gibson noted, “I aspire to naturalism, which today is easily mistaken for the dystopian.”