For some reason, when I heard that Veronica Roth was writing a sci-fi retelling of Antigone, the ancient tragedy by Sophocles, I assumed that it would be less faithful to the original story than Arch-Conspirator in fact turned out to be. Roth’s novella opens, sometime in the future in the last habitable and inhabited city on Earth, with Oedipus and Jocasta dead for years but their four children still very much alive and living in the house of their uncle Kreon, the High Commander. Like classical Athens, the world of Arch-Conspirator sets strict limits on women and on people whom the state deems to be women: the human population has shrunk so much that genetic diversity has become a distinct concern, and everyone who can bear children is required to do so. But in order to ensure the best chance of the survival of the species, everyone is required to select genes from the Archive for their offspring: those who are conceived naturally, rather than genetically edited and implanted, are considered questionable at best and soulless, empty vessels at worst, because the soul is believed to reside in genetic material that must be harvested from the deceased within twenty-four hours of death. This material, known as ichor, is presumably reproductive cells, though this is never precisely specified. Either way, everyone in the Archive is awaiting a form of genetic rebirth.
Oedipus and Jocasta are in the Archive. He was a politician and she was a scientist so brilliant that she could not be denied even though women cannot be scientists. They died in a riot not long after Oedipus won the only election in the city’s history; whether that riot is connected to their crime of conceiving their four children naturally is never made clear. But their actions are infamous, and so Antigone and her three siblings are at best tolerated rather than beloved in the city and in Kreon’s household.
If you’ve read or seen the play, you’ll know to expect that the rebellion fomented by Antigone’s brother Polyneikes does not go well, and that it ends with him and her other brother, Eteocles, dead at each other’s hands. In Roth’s novella, Antigone’s uncle—Jocasta’s brother—Kreon decrees that Polyneikes’s ichor is not to be extracted, but permits their sister Ismene to extract Eteocles’s. Antigone, unbowed by her uncle and his threats, determines that she will extract Polyneikes’s ichor in defiance of Kreon, because she promised Polyneikes that she would do so—even though she does not believe in or want the immortality of the soul promised by the Archive. She enlists the help of Haemon, Kreon’s son and her betrothed, when he more or less volunteers himself, even though she has (ironically) distrusted him from the beginning due to his parentage. And, though there are some minor deviations from the path of destiny that is laid beneath her feet by Kreon’s inflexibility, the tagline on the novella’s cover—“Doomed from the start. All of us.”—is essentially accurate. It is a tragedy, after all.
I haven’t read any of Roth’s previous novels, but I am aware that her bailiwick is dystopia, and the world she sketches in Arch-Conspirator is a very believable one. The sci-fi elements are on the one hand well done, but on the other the setting doesn’t even seem that far-fetched or far-future anymore: a post-climate collapse government that mandates binary gender roles, the oppression of women, compulsory eugenic reproduction, and which denies both queerness and trans identities? Well, that’s the vision for the United States that the far right explicitly wants and is pushing for right now, and it’s to Roth’s credit that, while the state in her book denies the existence of queer and trans people, Antigone and the narrative are quite clear on the fact that they continue to exist despite state opression. Both she and Polyneikes are also quite clear that his rebellion would go better if she were in on the planning, for example, but—even though he’s willing to rebel against the state—he’s unwilling to rebel against its gender norms, and he pays the price for his lack of vision.
The stifling of women is presented in the novella not only through Antigone but also through Ismene and through Eurydice, Kreon’s wife, as well as through the specter of Jocasta, whose memory cannot be banished or denied. Before her death, she was working on artificial womb technology that would have freed people capable of childbearing from the obligation to carry on the species through their own personal reproductive labor—no joke, in a world in which we are told that fifty percent of pregnancies end with the death of the pregnant person.
Antigone, the original, isn’t precisely about bodily autonomy and it certainly isn’t about reproductive freedom, but Roth’s decision to foreground these questions in her retelling pays off in richly thematic material, even if Antigone’s assumed obligation to extract Polyneikes’s ichor isn’t quite as powerfully felt as her burying him in the play—twice!—in similar defiance of an order from Kreon. But her defiance and its power remains the same in both stories, and it is meaningful to other people, even if they don’t care about her or Polyneikes personally: “She’s the figurehead of a resistance movement now,” one of Pol’s rebel friends tells Haemon.
“For some reason, you talk to people about food shortages, power outages, contaminated water, the government disappearing people—you might as well be speaking another language. But if you tell them their High Commander wants to send a pretty young thing into space to waste away? Suddenly they’re listening.”
It’s one of the story’s many ironies that Kreon sees Antigone as the arch-conspirator of the title, which in some senses she is and isn’t: she is kept out of the conspiracy and acts either entirely alone or with only Haemon’s help, but she is also the person whose defiance of, and unjust punishment by, Kreon shatters the stability of his regime.
While I suspect this story will be equally comprehensible to those who have no familiarity with the original play by Sophocles, for those who do it will be clear that Roth has paid close attention. Several lines are direct (translated) quotations of lines from the play, and the almost comical unease displayed by the messenger who tells Kreon of Antigone’s transgression is a humorous callback to the messenger in the play, who (rightly, because Kreon is a tyrant) is very much worried about what often happens to bearers of bad news. Interpretations of the original often point out that for the original audience, the male citizens of democratic Athens who could vote, one of the play’s underlying themes needed no explicit statement: the superiority of democratic government to government by tyranny—in which the people have no way to express their view to those in charge—was self-evident to them. In the same way, the basic assumption of Arch-Conspirator is equally self-evident: that bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom are rights everyone should have, and that a society that denies them is rotten to the core. The premise of Kreon’s regime is that the dregs of humanity only have to survive long enough to wait out the planet’s slow return to habitability. But as Antigone asks Ismene, “What good is survival if you trade yourself away in the process?”