The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (Harper Perennial, $19).
This 1962 novel is a tour de force of nonchronological, overlapping narratives in the form of five "notebooks" kept by a fictional South African writer. I remain as blown away by Lessing's formal innovations as I was the first day I encountered them.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (Anchor $16).
In this vital speculative novel, a totalitarian theocracy strips women of all rights, even to their own bodies. In 1985, it resembled a bright warning flare. Recently, I've begun leaving free copies on buses and subways and in women's bathrooms.
Lilith's Brood by Octavia Butler (Grand Central, $22).
This brilliant trilogy, composed of the novels Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago, examines tensions that might arise between humans and alien species and also extends Butler's practice of using genetically altered, hybrid characters to open up questions of race, class, and gender.
Empire of the Senseless by Kathy Acker (Grove, $15).
Acker's 1988 dystopian novel left me shredded. Narrators Abhor, who's "part robot, part black," and Thivai, a diagnosed paranoid, describe a world in which Algerian immigrants have taken over Paris, violence is omnipresent, Western cities are filled with zombies, and the CIA has mutated into a multinational behemoth. Acker depicts a kind of pornographic war zone, the logical extension of late capitalism and consumerism.
Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko (Penguin, $22).
Set in the American Southwest and Central America, Silko's 1991 novel follows dozens of characters, braiding together their stories. Arms dealers, revolutionaries, drug kingpins, and two psychic sisters inhabit a world where wars — water wars, drug wars, religious wars — are what's left of us.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (Ace, $10).
Drawing from her knowledge of sociology, anthropology, and psychology, Le Guin imagines a gender-bending future civilization. Her exploration of its culture invites many questions: Who are we? How might we make societies without gender divisions? What might an eco-democracy look like?
— Lidia Yuknavitch's new novel, The Book of Joan, imagines Joan of Arc emerging in a near future when humanity is almost extinct. Here, the author of The Chronology of Water and The Small Backs of Children recommends works by visionary women.