The Upside of Dystopia: Meg Elison’s Characters are Free to be Themselves in The Book of Flora

Meg Elison set a record (and she didn’t even know she was competing) for being the most interviewed guest on New Books in Science Fiction. I had her back on the show for the current episode to discuss the final book in The Road to Nowhere trilogy, and, just as in our conversations about the first two books, we had plenty to talk about.

Read excerpts from my recent interviews (including this episode with Meg Elison) on Literary Hub.

The Road to Nowhere is as much about gender as it is about surviving the apocalypse. The first installment, the Philip K. Dick Award-winning The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, set the tone with a pandemic that destroyed civilization, leaving behind 10 men for every woman. To avoid rape and enslavement in this male-dominated landscape, the eponymous midwife must present herself as a man to survive.

In the next volume, The Books of Etta, which takes place a century later, gender remains fraught but the rules have changed. The midwife’s legacy lives on in the town of Nowhere, where women are decision-makers and leaders. In this evolved world, Etta is allowed to choose the traditionally male job of raider, although she must still pretend to be a man to travel across a sparsely populated Midwest. Fortunately, this isn’t as heavy a lift for Etta as it had been for the midwife since Etta prefers to be called Eddie and identifies as male.

The notion of choice is one that Elison takes a step further in the trilogy’s latest and final installment, The Book of Flora. Assigned male gender at birth, Flora was castrated as a youth by a slaver, and, as an adult, identifies as female. Although she doesn’t always find acceptance among the communities she encounters, she refuses to hide her gender identity even when traveling alone, preferring the risk of being female to hiding who she is.

“As the world goes from absolute chaos to small pockets of … a more peaceful existence for women, I thought the most gendered person in the series, Flora, was the right person to come to something like peace,” Elison says.

Set in a still dangerous world, The Book of Flora is nonetheless a riot of humanity, full of characters representing marginalized voices and communities incubating new cultures and norms. There’s even a hint of an evolutionary leap that may one day make gender obsolete.

“I was really interested in books like Gulliver’s Travels, but also in the idea of, after the loss of national media and immediate communications, how different our societies would immediately become: we’d have these little pockets of culture where every town would have its own urban legends and every town might have its own religion and every town might have its own courtship rituals. So that that gave me a real opportunity to get weird and I got really weird with it, and it was extremely fun.”

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