Gender and the Apocalypse

The finalists for this year's Philip K. Dick Award for best paperback science fiction book share concerns about gender and sexuality.

May 30, 2015

    ON APRIL 3, 2015, the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society and the Philip K. Dick Trust announced this year’s winners of the Philip K. Dick Award for the best science fiction novels published in paperback format. The award focuses exclusively on paperbacks for two reasons: first, PKD’s novels originally appeared in paperback; second, the work of new writers often appears in paperback until they have established a reputation. This criterion generally excludes new works by, for example, William Gibson, C. J. Cherryh, and Nnedi Okorafor (all of whom published a novel in hardcover in 2014).

    For the 2014 award, the nominees included Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett (Aqueduct Press), The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter by Rod Duncan (Angry Robot), The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison (Sybaritic Press), Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta (Harper Voyager), Maplecroft: The Borden Dispatches by Cherie Priest (Roc), and Reach for Infinity edited by Jonathan Strahan (Solaris). The top award was given to Elison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, with a “special citation” given to Brissett’s Elysium.

    It would be difficult to draw many conclusions from these six books about the overall genre of science fiction in the year 2014 — except, perhaps, that reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. At first glance, the six finalists hold little in common thematically. Elysium appears to be a post-invasion apocalypse, but with a PKD-like twist. The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter is a steampunk mystery set in an alternate universe. Unnamed Midwife relates the effects of a global plague that wipes out nearly all females and ends all childbirth. Memory of Water represents the effects of global warming, including a severe water shortage and a dramatic political realignment in the world. Maplecroft offers a reimagining of the Lizzie Borden story by way of Lovecraftian horror. Reach for Infinity offers 14 original short stories by some of the best writers today, each of which imagine the future of humanity beyond Earth.

    One element that these books share, however, is a concern about gender and sexuality. Four of the six novels are written by women. Five of the six have a female protagonist at their center. Even the Reach for Infinity anthology, a collection of hard science fiction, which has traditionally been a masculine-dominated subgenre, contains stories by six women, and some of the stories feature a concern for gender. Of the contenders, Elison’s novel offers the most thorough, most compelling, and most radical reexamination of gender and sexuality in our society. Through the figure of the unnamed midwife and the new social order that emerges in the aftermath of apocalyptic events, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife suggests that the breakdown of society creates a space for a comprehensive redefinition of gender and sexual roles.

    Elison’s Midwife is a postapocalyptic tale of death and destruction. Although many postapocalyptic stories offer specific causes for our demise, Midwife does not; neither the characters nor the reader have any idea of what is causing global catastrophe. No one knows why the population dies off or why children no longer survive childbirth, and this uncertainty makes the horror all the more frightening. A narrative centered on the dread of nuclear war, the fear of a nuclear meltdown, or the pollution from fracking potentially offers a redemptive solution; in such cases, we have a clearly defined threat, and we know how to stop it. In Midwife, no one knows what has caused the apocalypse or how to respond, and everyone lingers in a continuous state of existential dread.

    Postapocalyptic tales also tend to choose one of two narrative strategies: they focus either on the principal players in the apocalypse (for example, the scientists who caused it, or the politicians who gather the remnants) or on the effects upon individuals (for example, a small enclave of survivors in a remote area, or the valiant survivalist who makes it). Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Sarah Hall’s Daughters of the North (2007) both emphasize how a catastrophe affects individuals, and Elison follows these examples, focusing primarily on one unnamed woman who wanders from California to Oregon, Utah, and Missouri. Are scientists and politicians still around, hidden in some bunker, trying to right the world? No one knows.

    The unnamed protagonist works as a nurse and midwife in San Francisco. As people begin to die off in droves, she is left for dead. The midwife alters her appearance and dresses in men’s clothing in order to lessen the risk of assault and rape. She also gathers all the medicines and contraceptives that she can manage. As she makes her way out of the city, she encounters individuals and groups, and they all pose a risk. When she — rarely — meets a woman, she offers to share her contraceptives so that they both can reclaim some semblance of control in a world without order.

    In Utah, she finds an enclave of Mormons, who have created what appears to be a stable, safe community. But the midwife never really feels secure there, and she retreats to a house in a nearby town. After a long northern winter, she heads further south and — quite by chance — finds herself inside the gated Fort Nowhere, a utopian return to order.

    In constructing the story of the unnamed midwife, Elison employs a frame tale to structure the novel, and this signals to the reader that something survives; something comes after, and children will return. However, as the narrative itself makes plain, nothing will ever be the same. For example, family structures transform in response to the new circumstances. Since men far outnumber women, new “hives” develop in which one woman will have a swarm of “bees” — men who serve her materially and sexually. In other contexts, one woman might develop a partnership with two men, and the three of them might then form a family unit. Because so few women survive, some men turn to each other for love, companionship, and sex. Others, particularly those from more traditional backgrounds, still hold on to the heterosexual nuclear notion of family, even when they have to adopt a child to do so.

    What the novel makes clear is that in the face of cataclysm, social categories and institutions can fall apart and be reshaped. As scholars (such as Adrienne Rich) have pointed out, social institutions such as family, marriage, parenthood, kinship, and sexuality develop within a particular set of historical, social, and religious contexts. They are not fixed, and they are not givens; after the apocalypse, these institutions might very well be reorganized and redefined.

    Midwife’s frame tale begins in an indeterminate future: Mother Ina instructs a room of young male scribes who copy out, word for word, the 19 journals that comprise “The Book of the Unnamed Midwife.” As the unnamed midwife flees San Francisco, she takes with her a journal in which she narrates her travels, her encounters, and her thoughts. Along the way, she also incorporates the tales of other refugees, either by transcribing their accounts into her journal or by allowing them to write in the journal directly. Chapter Three, for example, contains “The Book of Roxanne,” who has written her own story. In Chapters Seven, Eight, and Nine, the unnamed midwife has transcribed sections of “The Book of Honus Obermeyer.” Finally, Chapter Thirteen contains snippets from seven individuals who have made their way to Fort Nowhere.

    The novel does not, however, adhere strictly to the journal format: every chapter contains pieces of the unnamed midwife’s journal, but the bulk of the chapters are also comprised of third-person narrative. While these ruptures provide relief from the first-person voice of the journal, they also allow an omniscient narrator to provide insights to which the midwife is not privy.

    The novel makes several detours from this carefully constructed narrative structure in order to tie up loose ends. For example, Chapter Eight begins: “The story of Duke and Roxanne was never written.” What, then, are we reading? Granted, the third-person narrator probably means that neither Duke nor Roxanne ever wrote their own story in a journal. Their “story” ties up a loose end regarding the radio broadcasts promising a safe haven for women, but the detail is, ultimately, somewhat unnecessary for the midwife’s tale.

    Another rupture in the narrative reveals the fate of the midwife’s partner, Jack. Throughout her sojourn, the midwife wonders whether or not Jack lived through the epidemic. Chapter Eight explains that Jack has been medevaced to a safe location. In a moment of too-perfect narrative closure, the unnamed midwife learns that — years earlier — her husband had been in the very same Fort Nowhere where she herself takes refuge. In this example, her knowledge of Jack’s death allows her to set the past behind her and begin to look to the future.


    As Elison notes in a blog post, too many books and TV shows fail to consider the ways in which the loss of social order and stability disproportionately affects women. For one, far more women than men often die when social order breaks down, and the result of this disparity can be twofold. On the one hand, because women are so rare, men claim ownership of them, hold them as sexual (and reproductive) property, and fight over them. As the midwife tells Roxanne as she prepares to ride off with Duke, he will be a target for other men: they will want what he has. Similarly, she tells the young Jodi that the men in Huntsville — good, God-fearing LDS men — will want what Honus has. On the other hand, the fact that women are so rare gives them a certain power. The “Book” describes a number of “hives” wherein the queen bee controls 10–40 men at a time. The hives are safe because of their numbers; they are (relatively) stable because of the shared workload, and they are satisfying because of the sex. In these hives, women wield the power of inclusion and exclusion.

    Furthermore, Elison proposes that many more women die in childbirth in the absence of secure social institutions. Because both the maternal and infant mortality rates are near 100 percent, people panic. They fear the end of humanity. At the same time, Roxanne tells the midwife that every single man believes that he is the one who will succeed; he will be the progenitor of a new humanity. He will keep impregnating women despite the likelihood of maternal mortality. It is for this reason that the midwife gathers all the antibiotics and contraceptives that she can carry. She tries to distribute these to every woman she meets along the way. The midwife sees women’s loss of the ability to self-determine their reproductive lives. She sees the effects of the loss of safe and effective birth control, and she is determined to ensure the possibility of reproductive choice for women.

    The novel also confronts shifts in sexual identity and practices. The unnamed midwife tells the reader that her first true love had been another woman. After the apocalypse, her desire for Jodi is unrequited because of Jodi’s strict religious beliefs. When she leaves San Francisco, the midwife dresses in drag, not as a reflection or statement of identity, but as a means of safety. She binds her breasts and completes daily exercises in order to build her size and strength.

    After the apocalypse, the “Hives” also challenge and redefine cultural norms regarding sexuality. While the men engage in sex with the queen bee, they also engage in sex with one another. Some men, who are not comfortable with the hive family, pair off in same-sex couples. Some identify as gay, while others, like Archie Sinclair, insist that they are straight. The realignment of the balance of males and females creates a wide range of alternative sexual possibilities.

    In the end, Elison offers a troubling yet hopeful vision of the future. One traditional challenge for feminist writers has often been to carve out a space in which a new social order can emerge. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Herland, 1915) imagines an undiscovered valley; Joanna Russ (“When It Changed,” 1972) imagines a settlement on a planet in which a plague kills off all the men. In her own twist on this tradition, Elison imagines a plague that kills off the majority of the world’s population. This nearly clean slate creates the space for new structures of gendered possibility to emerge.

    The other challenge for feminist writers has often been to imagine what a new society might look like. Will it offer new possibilities for equality, or will it reinscribe familiar gendered and sexualized social roles? In 1973, Russ’s story “When It Changed” earned a Nebula Award partly because it offered a compelling vision for gender equality. The women of Whileaway were not limited by their sex and could express a full range of human identities. In 2015, Elison’s novel won the Philip K. Dick Award, in part because it offers an equally compelling — although markedly different — re-imagination of gender and sexual roles. Elison, quite cleverly, does not reduce women to one meaning or one role; instead, she offers a number of familial structures, including redefinitions of gender and sexuality. In the utopian space of Fort Nowhere, any person can pursue any professional or vocational role, and any person can partake in any one of a range of sociosexual roles. This may not be a fully realized feminist utopia, but it’s a start.


    Ritch Calvin is an Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies in the Department of Cultural Analysis and Theory at SUNY Stony Brook on Long Island, New York.


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