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.