"There are no words more obscene than 'I can't live without you.' Count them the deepest affront to the person." This idea is presented in the opening"There are no words more obscene than 'I can't live without you.' Count them the deepest affront to the person." This idea is presented in the opening chapter of Sally Miller Gearhart's The Wanderground and, based on this, among other elements of that first chapter, I thought I might like this book. This does turn out to be an important idea in the book, but ultimately I could not get into The Wanderground. There are a couple of reasons for this.
The first is that The Wanderground, well, it kind of wanders. It does have a narrative, but it lacks a narrative drive or structure to help propel the reader through the text. In the end, there are only two reasons to keep reading the book: 1) enjoyment of the New Age-y spiritual tone of the book (I did not enjoy this), or 2) the (as it turns out, vain) hope that the source of the hill women's psychic powers and supernatural abilities (flying, communicating psychically not only with other humans but also with animals and trees and rivers (what.), and somehow preventing men's penises, technology, and weapons from working outside the limits of the city) would be explained. Eventually, Gearhart does describe more of the history of these hill women, who live in scattered communities throughout the countryside, reproducing themselves somehow without men (also not clearly explained if at all) and spending a lot of time guarding their borders and communing spiritually. But this history comes too little too late to make this a compelling narrative. And it still lacks some crucial details. How did the technology stop working? Magic? This isn't presented as a fantasy book but as a science fiction book, so I kept reading for explanations and feeling frustrated when I didn't find them.
The second reason I couldn't really get into the book was more ideological. There are some neat ideas within the wandering and the vagueness, but even those are often couched in problematic or troubling language. This book, written in the late 1970s, is born from a particular moment and particular tradition of feminist thought, one that I have never been able to endorse fully. At best, I have only been able to recognize why this approach might appeal to others and why it might seem, in the short term, useful. This type of feminism focuses primarily on "female nature" and the special gifts of women. It is essentialist (all women share this nature and these gifts and men do not), divisive, and can be harmful, both to the feminist movement and to human relationships.
Gearhart mostly seems to endorse this brand of feminism, but she does provide a brief critique of this idea as well. She has one of the benign male characters say the following:
"Just like every woman from the dawn of time. You demand your holy isolation from men so you can develop your unique female powers, but you are threatened to the core by the suggestion that we [men:] have equally unique powers--don't even whisper that they might be equally valuable."
This is an interesting response to the difference feminist insistence on the value of women's experience as somehow not only unique but also integral to women's being and value; however, it is not really followed up on, either in the discussion in which this statement is made or in the narrative. The tension presented here is allowed to just kind of fade into the background of the book as the final chapters move on to deal with a different issue.
In that final chapter another promising yet problematic idea is presented. The task of these women as they see it is to save the mother, the planet from ecological destruction and violence. Their task is this:
"To work as if the earth, the mother, can be saved. To work as if our healing care were not too late. Work to stay the slayer's hand, Helping him to change Or helping him to die. Work as if the earth, the mother, can be saved."
Despite my discomfort with Earth Mother rhetoric generally (seeing women as close to nature in a way that men are not has a long and troubling history) and despite my dislike of the casting of men as slayers (this casting is made even more clear contextually before this chant), I do really like the idea of working as if it's not too late, working to make things better even if success is not certain....more
**spoiler alert** On my second reading: I don't think I gave Tepper enough credit the first time I read this book.
The treatment of homosexuality stil**spoiler alert** On my second reading: I don't think I gave Tepper enough credit the first time I read this book.
The treatment of homosexuality still bothers me. Although, as one commenter has said, it could be argued that this is simply an authorial choice to make it easier for Tepper to explore the specific issues she wishes to focus on, it strikes me as too simplistic to simply say, "Oh, teh gay, we fixed that a while back," especially since the book is so much about questions of biology and essential natures and this particular issue (as opposed to the issues of violence and masculinity) seems to be rather taken for granted where it could be explored in very interesting ways.
Where I think I sold Tepper short on first reading is in her treatment of gender differences and biology. Upon re-reading, her approach to the issue of masculine versus feminine natures is quite complex. Tepper reinforces biological essentialism through the plot mechanic of breeding for nonviolence among the men (and through discussions of women's inherent nurturing natures) but also simultaneously critiques it by painting the actions of the Council as, at the very least, morally ambiguous. In the end, the women seem to be making some progress toward a world with no violence and no war, but, Tepper leads the reader to ask, is that acceptable if, to reach that world, they must engage in violence themselves?
As is said in the play-within-the-novel, Iphigenia at Ilium,
Dead or damned, that's the choice we make. Either you men kill us and are honored for it, or we women kill you and are damned for it. Dead or damned. Women don't have to make choices like that in Hades. There's no love there, nothing to betray. . . . Hades is Women's Country.
The women who are in the know, therefore, are damned by their choices to kill men to save themselves and their sisters; the women who live in Women's Country all unknowing (most of the women there) are in Hades, which is "like dream without waking. Like carrying water in a sieve. Like coming into harbor after storm. Barren harbor where the empty river runs through an endless desert into the sea. Where all the burdens have been taken away." They live in a hell of ignorance, lost choices, and emptiness. This is quite a condemnation.
This is a fascinating exploration of the relationship and differences between men and women. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, The Gate to Women's Country presents a society in which men and women have two very different cultures. The women live inside walled cities, growing food for both the men and the women, doing medicine and art and science and family; the men live in the garrison, outside the city walls, fighting and preparing for war. The women support the men and the men protect the women. Except for some men, who, after spending their childhood (from age 5) living in the garrison and being raised by the men to be warriors, choose to return to the city through the Women's Gate, to becomes servitors who live among the women and to learn to be productive members of that society instead of becoming warriors.
The book sets up several key dichotomies--men/women, warrior/servitor, strong/weak--and then calls them, or at least our assumptions about them, into question. In doing so, Tepper makes an argument for the women's cities as the beginning of a true feminist utopia, a utopia that is not without men but that is without a certain kind of men. Morgot, a powerful leader of the women's community, explains:
"Three hundred years ago almost everyone in the world had died in a great devastation brought about by men. It was men who made the weapons and men who were the diplomats and men who made the speeches about national pride and defense. And in the end it was men who did whatever they had to do, pushed the buttons or pulled the string to set the terrible things off. And we died. . . . Almost all of us. Women. Children. . . . Martha [a founder of women's country:] taught that the destruction had come about because of men's willingness--even eagerness--to fight, and she determined that this eagerness to fight must be bred out of our race, even though it might take a thousand years" (301-2).
Tepper, in this argument combines an argument against war as we know it with an argument for gender equality--for the violence and destruction unleashed by this war is mirrored in the violence and destruction that had existed within human society (e.g., domestic violence, rape, genital mutilation). She is very careful, however, to again make the distinction between types of men and types of society, as Morgot says that it wasn't "that bad as a general rule, I don't think. Love existed, after all. Some men and women have always loved one another. Not all cultures oppressed women" (292).
There are problems with this book, however. One is the essentialism of the argument. Although Tepper does allow for those men who are not warriors, who return to the cities as servitors, she still bases her argument on the assumption that men and women are fundamentally different. Men are, mostly, violent, aggressive, dominating; women are, mostly, cooperative, pacifist, nurturing. The fact that these things are changing as the women attempt to create a new kind of man, replacing the old kind through the process of genetic selection, could either be the saving grace or the final evidence that, in Tepper's world, men and women are fundamentally what biology says they are. The relationship between biology and culture definitely needs to be furthered explored.
Another major problem is the treatment of homosexuality. Basically, it doesn't exist any more. It's explained that "even in pre-convulsion times it was known that the so-called 'gay syndrome' was caused by aberrant hormone levels during pregnancy. The women doctors now identified the condition as 'hormonal reproductive maladaption' and corrected it before birth. There were very few actual HNRMS--called HenRams--either male or female, born in Women's Country" (76). This is troubling for the queer movement because it turns homosexuality into nothing more than a disease to be cured and reasserts the hegemony of heterosexuality. In a world where men and women are segregated, it seems that outlawing homosexual behavior or "curing" homosexuality as an orientation only serves to limit the kinds of love and desire available. Frankly, it seems unreasonable. It's an interesting counterpoint to other feminist utopias (for instance, Joanna Russ's The Female Man) and their treatment of female sexuality.
The other problem I have with the book is less theoretical and more aesthetic. Although I enjoyed the book greatly and found the ideas worth exploring (even if I didn't always agree with the assumptions made by Tepper), sometimes the prose itself grated on me. Mostly, it did this when it felt like Tepper was trying too hard to be artsy or complex. For example, here's the opening paragraph of the novel:
"Stavia saw herself as in a picture, from the outside, a darkly cloaked figure moving along a cobbled street, the stones sheened with a soft, early spring rain. On either side the gutters ran with an infant chuckle and gurgle, baby streams being amused with themselves. The corniced buildings smiled candlelit windows across at one another, their shoulders huddled protectively inward--though not enough to keep the rain from streaking the windows and making the candlelight seem the least bit weepy, a luxurious weepiness, as after a two-hanky drama of love lost or unrequited" (1).
Now while this does get the reader thinking immediately of love, loss, and children (important in the upcoming scene) and also introduces the concept of self-division that Stavia describes occurring to her repeatedly throughout the book, it also creates a rather garbled set of metaphors. There's joy in the gutters, protection in the windows, and sadness in the light--that's a lot of emotion to lay on one street.
One more example to make my point:
"Septemius and his people were in the street when they saw Stavia next, she coming along the walk with her marketing bag on her shoulder, brow furrowed with concentration over something or other, so she almost bumped them before hearing Kostia and Tonia's greeting, a vibrating 'Hello, Medic," which hung on the air like the reverberation of a gong" (170).
The contrived word order and the sheer length of this sentence serve only to complicate what should be a very simple encounter on the street. Not to mention the oddness of the description of Kostia and Tonia's greeting.
I mention the style because it is a recurring issue while reading the book, but it is only an infrequently occurring issue. Most of the time, Tepper's prose is perfectly clear and serves to advance the plot nicely. Some of the time, the style is even good (I particularly like the play-within-the-novel and some of the descriptions of the landscape outside the walls of the city).
In the end, because this is a book that I enjoyed, that raises interesting questions, and that isn't without ideological problems to be discussed and worked out, this would make a great book to teach, especially in conjunction with other feminist SF....more