We few, we Damned Few

Somewhere, over the rainbow, way up high ...

Somewhere, over the rainbow, way up high …

Banding together to discuss a book, the Beamers often break up into several camps of opinion, particularly when the book itself is a bit of a polemic.  Surprisingly, the disagreements were few in our look at Sherri S. Tepper’s feminist post-apocalyptic reshaped society in The Gate to Women’s Country.  For the most part, we all agreed on the substance and the style of the novel, but we did give slightly differing marks to those shared judgements.

New New York, It Ain’t

Taking place 350 years in the future, after a civilization-ending war called the Great Convulsion, Tepper’s novel tells the story, in long flashback, of Stavia, a Council member of the founding city of Marthatown, who is met on her visit to the men’s garrison barracks where her son Dawid is to renounce her and choose to become a warrior.  The story follows Stavia back to watching her mother bring her younger brother to the garrison at age 5 to be raised by the men and then follows her own maturing and education into the ways of Women’s Country, the nation to which she belongs as well as the name for everything outside of the barracks, be it town, field, or countryside.

Intertwined with sections of the present-day Stavia practicing for the annual performance of Iphigenia in Ilium (based on Euripides’ The Trojan Women) are incidents of the younger Stavia falling in love, breaking the ordinances, learning to be a doctor, and taking part in an expedition where she is captured by the cruel and inbred Holylanders to the south.  At the end, the climax of both novel and play reveals the secret burden that the Council bears and which Stavia comes to accept as well.

Well, Lady Jessica Was *Supposed to* Have a Daughter

While Tepper seems to be clearly on the side of the women of the Council and the men who renounce the garrison life for non-violent service to Women’s Country, we were a bit unsure.  Jon posed us the question of whether this society was a dystopia or not, and we could see it both ways.  The very dispassionate, even cold-blooded demeanor that the Councilors and their servitors embrace was somewhat off-putting to most of us.  Looking at their agenda to breed better citizens (less violent males, more psychic females), Robin tossed out the phrase “Bene Gesserit witches”, a term which fit them well.

And their political dealings were similarly clinical, as Jon noted the arrangement between Morgot (Stavia’s mother) and representatives of Susantown, overheard by a sleepy Stavia, included a snippet about “reduction by a third”, followed not long after by a “war” (ritual battle) between the respective garrisons that produced losses of about a third of the men. What puzzled us most was why none of the men in the garrisons seemed to catch on (though outside males like itinerant performer Septimus Bird do figure out) that the battles are staged, the herd is being culled.  “Not the sharpest tools in the shed”, opined Alan.  And the alternative, to leave the garrison with its easy life of available beer and military honors and to undergo ritual humiliation and actual assault to become a servant, does tend to stack the deck against defection.

The Runts of the Litter

And yet, would a policy of self-selection work as a breeding program?  As Jon pointed out, the males who would least want to stay are not necessarily the least violent/most sensitive; they are more likely to be the ones who incur social stigmas and suffer bullying, and who are, in turn, more likely to become bullies when removed from the barracks.  Plus, the sheer boredom of barracks life (an issue in present-day militaries, who often conduct field exercises to alleviate the problem) would also drive men out of the garrisons without necessarily picking out the less violent, more patient. Worse, would inherent nature overcome nurture, as Liz and Alan objected, seeing the 10 years of a boy’s early life (from 5 to 15) as a period in which indoctrination into the warrior life would be ingrained and unlikely to be forgotten or foresworn.

Tepper’s book is littered with inconsistencies between the behavior of her characters and what we believe human nature to historically be. I observed that romantic love does not appear in the book, even if infatuation is present.  We all wondered if homosexuality could be “cured” by removing its genetic basis, particularly where segregated males are permitted sex on only a few occasions in a year (especially with access to females being a big driver of aggression in mammalian males, as Jon commented).  Could the rigid structures of Women’s County survive contact with human hormonal drives, be they sexual or parental?  We did not see how they could, or at least not for 350 years.

At Least the Neighbors are Nice and Religious

In a much starker example, the religious misogynists of Holyland were even harder to explain.  We did note their resemblance to a number of intolerant, oppressive sects that feature polygyny, though some of us thought that the Holylanders were clearly much less stable due to their intense adherence to patriarchy.  That such an inbred (literally) society would implode was not a surprise to us, but that it would take so long (or happen so conveniently for the plot) did.  And the purpose of having the Holylanders in the book
seems solely to cast the Women’s Country in a better light as they are clearly not an acceptable alternative on any level, not even as a caution against trading morality for worldly success.  Even their sheep were genetically challenged.

All the World is a Stage

The other element of the book that sticks out was the play, a Greek tragedy played as farce (performers wear clown makeup and costumes, for example).  But the text of the play is derived from The Trojan Women, a searing drama lamenting the fate of the women of conquered Troy and their children.  Would anyone be able to read these lines as farce?  Even in the book, at close, the actors are weeping real tears and the audience sits in silence.  But could it be for the first time?

I liked the sections of drama woven into the novel, though more Beamers would prefer to skip over them. But, for me, these sections highlighted the stagey nature of the book, in which the lack of certain inconvenient emotions and physical facts (radioactive “desolations” would cover over or blow away in 350 years, say) can be explained by seeing the action as occurring on a stage rather than in a future Pacific Northwest (as best we could tell).  Chris and Jon, who came at the play sections from a different direction, found the same artificiality that I saw, disliking its lack of detail and failure to world-build its
setting.  Two roads to the same destination, it seems.

Drama, Carnivals, but No Cats?

For the most part, though, Tepper’s skill in creating such vivid characters as Stavia and Morgot and Septimus Bird (who deserves to have the tales of his wanderings told, we thought) and in presenting a large collection of sf tropes (post-apocalyptic world, segregated societies, genetic selection and breeding of humans, control by a secret group of “enlightened” ruler, emerging psychic powers) in a visibly united if not necessarily persuasive way did win a majority of high ratings (‘7’ from all but 2 of us, who gave it a ‘5’ for similar reasons of literary quality over intellectual integrity).  It was a work that struck us, as Robin said, as “implausible but coherent”.  And that was not a bad combination, at all.

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