Every once in a while, when I’m deciding what to read next, I realize that I have gotten stuck in a habit of always reaching for what is newest, what is being talked about, what is influencing thinkers right now. But there are so many great books in the world, written five or eight or twenty years ago, still to be read. (This is why I used to joke with my kids, when they were all still young teenagers, that I needed about, oh…a year in jail. Just to sit on a cot and read until I was finally caught up with everything I want to read. They could bring me books every day! Perfect, yes?) (“Never go to jail” is one of my life mottos, by the way!)
The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper is a book I read about during my work at the library, when I was putting together a new science fiction list. It was published in 1988. Science fiction has always been interesting to me, and I have made many such lists at work—but somehow, I never knew about this novel until now. I think the summary from the Foreword by Adam Roberts sums the story up well:
What separates women’s country from the rest of the world? A wall with a gate in it, of course: the title of the novel alone tells us that. But it’s more than than that. In this richly imagined post-nuclear, women live in walled communities with names such as “Marthatown,” “Tabithatown” and the like. Most men live outside the walls in military camps, and spend their lives training for, and fighting, wars. The flavor of this world is neo-Hellenic: the warriors train and fight like Spartans with spear and shield; technology in the “post-convulsion” cities is, by modern standards, rudimentary. Marthatown has been deliberately modelled upon the prototype of a fifth-century BC Greek polis, right down to the collective performance of tragic drama—Tepper interleaves her chapters with scenes from this latter, a play called “Iphigenia at Ilium,” modelled in part on Euripides’ Trojan Woman.
OK, if you know me at all, you know how much of this summary would grab my attention: post-apocalyptic communities controlled by women? And a thread of classic Greek narrative running through it? I’m not sure there could be a more perfect book for me. It explores so many of my defining issues: motherhood, the work of women, the difference in relationships between mothers and daughters, mothers and sons; how we might solve society’s ills. Feminist thought made into story: these are my favorite novels.
It takes the fear of all feminist-hating men and turns it into a story: what if women ran the world?
Well, what if? Would it be a better or worse world?
In the story, it is as if men are given everything they seem to want. So, fear not, feminist-haters and misunderstanders of the world! If women did control everything, look how great it would be for you. In essence, the story works with men in stereotypes: unfettered access to sex, not much responsibility to babies, the freedom to prepare for and fight in battle. They don’t have to worry about jobs, finding or raising food, making clothing, or anything else that the women do. They only have to protect the women. In this way, women are also presented as stereotypes.
If that was all the story did, however, it would be highly unsatisfying. Instead, it sets up this society, but then shows us how real characters (not stereotypes) move within it. Some characters—both men and women—resist, some fulfill the fullness of the role their society gives them, in all its negatives and positives.
And that underlying thread of narrative about Iphigenia (remember, she was sacrificed by her father Agamemnon after he tricked her with the promise of marriage to Achilles; he needed the winds to change so he could sail his fleet to Troy and start the war to get Helen back) is the perfect one to weave. It serves the same purpose that a black outline does in a tapestry with figures: sets them apart from the background and underlines what is implied but never said.
In case I haven’t made it clear: I loved this novel.
My only problem with it is that since it’s not new and shiny, there’s no one else to talk to about it. So I’ve read reviews and recommended it to my friends (and now I am recommending it whole-heartedly to you, my friendly blog reader!) and I continue to want to discuss it. Its weaknesses (the way it deals with homosexuality would cause quite a stir in today’s society, for example, and I can see many points upon which I might have some delicious arguments over). Its characters. The absolutely unexpected turn the plot took, and how right this turn is to the underlying wisdom of the story.
It is not a feminist utopia, as some reviewers have suggested. It is also not a dystopia. It is a science fiction story in the truest sense: it asks “what if?” and then it answers. It is blunt in its realizations about war, and about how men are deeply entwined with all the wars in history. It explores how technology leaves ripples in time, and how having power changes individuals, and how individual choices change society at large. It asks: what is the true nature of men, and of women? Or is there one at all? What are our weaknesses and our strengths? Can we work together?
However I learned about The Gate to Women’s Country (and I’m not sure I can even pinpoint it), I am glad I discovered it. Like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Mists of Avalon and A Wrinkle in Time (and many, many others) it changed how I think about and perceive the world, as well as my ability to influence some part of it. And I hope someone out there has also read it, and that you’ll tell me what you thought. (Even if you hated it!)