Last evening, I finished reading Red Clocks by Leni Zumas. It won the 2019 Oregon Book Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction and the Neukom Award for Speculative Fiction. And for good reason, I think.
The story is a dystopian future in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. In many ways, I prefer Red Clocks. This is mainly because it is much more accessible and hits much closer to the world we live in today. Atwood’s story takes place in a future where a conservative Christian coup has taken place and overthrown the government of the United States. The result is a society that subjugates women in the name of protecting them. It is certainly a scary prospect but feels a bit remote.
Zumas’ tale could take place any time in the next decade, should things go in that direction. No date is given but it feels like today with a few twists.
Two years ago the United States Congress ratified the Personhood Amendment, which gives the constitutional right to life, liberty, and property to a fertilized egg at the moment of conception. Abortion is now illegal in all fifty states. Abortion providers can be charged with second-degree murder, abortion seekers with conspiracy to commit murder. In vitro fertilization, too, is federally banned, because the amendment outlaws the transfer of embryos from laboratory to uterus. (The embryos can’t give their consent to be moved.)Chapter 10, Red Clock by Leni Zumas
The story is about four women that are each dealing with challenges in their lives that are made more challenging by these laws. The magic is in the storytelling; the author never goes into a lengthy exposition about why these laws are wrong. The strength of the novel is in simply showing how these laws affect the women, individually and personally.
The girl slumps down against a green filing cabinet. Holds her head in both hands, knees up to her chest, rocking a little. “I just want it out of my body. I want to stop being infiltrated. God, please get this out of my body. Make this stop.” Rocking, rocking.Chapter 100, Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
She is terrified, realizes the biographer….
Mattie is a kid, light boned and soft cheeked. She can’t even legally drive.
Four and a half months.
Of swelling and aching and burning and straining and worrying and waiting and feeling her body burst its banks. Of hiding from the stares in town, the questions at school. Of seeing the faces, each day, of her parents as they watch the grandchild who won’t be their grandchild be grown. Having to wonder, later on, where is the someone she grew.
This story helps to break the illusion that difficult questions like these are black and white. They affect real people whose welfare and future need to be taken into account.
The characters are compelling and fully human. This is exactly the kind of speculative fiction that I like most, taking a current possibility and extending it into a near future to explore what the consequences might be. The result is both entertaining and thought provoking. Thank you, Professor Zumas.