In her debut novel Yours for the Taking, Gabrielle Korn takes an oft-deployed dystopian/sci-fi literary premise — a world without men — and shreds it to pieces, exposing the inherent biases and dangers in society’s structured around gender and exposing just how exclusionary and hierarchal spaces and communities designed “for women” and even “for women and nonbinary people” often skew.
In Yours for the Taking, this “world without men” is an experiment dreamt up by the fictional final boss of corporate girlbosses, a woman named Jacqueline Millender who transformed her family’s oil empire into a recycling empire and pens a manifesto on why women should strive not for equality but for power.
This message resonates with some of the young women introduced at the beginning of the sprawling epic who are part of Korn’s imagined generation that follows Gen Z. The novel is set across the years 2050-2078. It’s the beginning of the end of the world, a climate crisis collapsing society and becoming the sole focus on a new world order to the extent that other social issues are either ignored or have regressed. Men’s rights groups are back with a vengeance. Jacqueline is easy to peg as a corporate-feminism-backed girlboss for the reader but holds a certain allure to some of the characters who have grown frustrated with the current conditions of their world. There’s Shelby, a young trans woman from a lower middle class family who sees Jacqueline’s call for matriarchal power as inspirational but also just a means of surviving what has become an unlivable earth. There’s Ava, a college-educated and privileged young queer woman from a wealthy family undergoing personal crisis (her girlfriend is abruptly leaving her) against the backdrop of the global crisis. And there’s my personal favorite character Olympia, a Black masc lesbian and recent med school grad who thinks she might be able to change Jacqueline’s proposed system from within while simultaneously reinforcing a vision that goes against everything she believes in. The moral complexity of Olympia’s arc makes for some of the meatiest parts of the book.
A new global initiative has sprung up in the wake of the climate disaster: Insides. Manmade, city-sized communities sealed off from the outside world where people can apply to live. Jacqueline loves this capitalism-based solution to the crisis and takes on the role of director of the North American Inside. She also sees this as an opportunity to execute her grand vision, explaining to Olympia as she courts her to run the health division that it’s the patriarchal greed of men that has ruined the planet. But Jacqueline isn’t setting her sights on patriarchy so much as on men in general. After all, she has personally benefitted from patriarchy (not to mention capitalism) through the years. Her vision for Inside is drastic: She wants to only admit women and nonbinary people and, basically, anyone who doesn’t self-identify as a man. And she wants to explore the possibility of eliminating men altogether.
In Jacqueline’s mind, to reconstruct the society of outside on the Inside would merely be to reproduce its problems. But in still designating a societal structure based on gender, she’s still reproducing hierarchies and systems of exclusion…just rebranded. “The future is female” gets a lot more complicated when someone reminds you trans people exist. A matriarchy is no better than a patriarchy if it’s just gender-flipping power structures.
Korn explores these contradictions and the failures of a narrow view of gender and power deftly throughout the novel, which is propulsive in its plotting but also its character work. Most of the characters are, indeed, queer women and nonbinary people, but while there isn’t a focus on many male characters, the novel itself doesn’t fall into the same traps it’s calling attention to.
In her construction of Inside — a dystopia within a dystopia — Korn reveals that radical movements driven by power, stratification, and money rather than community and equity all ultimately look the same and pose the same threats regardless of what side of the political spectrum they fall on. Jacqueline would never consider herself right wing; quite the contrary. She has a trans assistant! She believes in feminism! She loves the environment for goodness sake! (These declarative statements should be read with a heavy dose of skepticism; Jacqueline’s neoliberalism is so transparently self-serving.) But her governance leads to people essentially being forced into pregnancy. In Jacqueline’s Inside, the people with the most privilege are pregnant people, and this pedestaling of pregnancy doesn’t look all that different from far right religious extremist movements such as the one depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale. If bearing and raising children is seen as the ultimate “job” Inside, then where does that leave people who can’t or choose not to have kids?
Jacqueline’s nefarious schemes go even deeper than the flawed premise of her reimagined society, but I’ll spare you the spoilers as part of the fun of reading Yours for the Taking is that it really does read like thrilling dystopian sci-fi while still being grounded with more interpersonal storytelling that keeps it from being all plot and no guts. There are multiple queer storylines that include heartbreak, romance, friendship, and sex. Mental health comes up often, too, Ava’s depression during pregnancy particularly affecting. It’s a well devised work of climate horror, and while it races through time, it also zooms into the intimate impacts of its characters’ choices, which are often flawed.
Yours for the Taking understands well that in the face of climate change, capitalism won’t save us. Matriarchy won’t save us. Jacqueline’s attempts to reimagine the world aren’t revolutionary. She manufactures community rather than fostering it. And yet, communities and platonic love and queer love still find a way to bloom despite the constraints of surveillance and suppression. Korn captures those bursts of resistance and hope, but Yours for the Taking is often most enthralling when needling into its characters’ most harmful choices.