The Gate to Women's Country
by Sherri S Tepper (HarperCollins Voyager, £5.99, 315 pages, paperback, 1999.)
I read another of Sheri S Tepper's books, Grass, just a few months ago. Having read an article about her in Foundation I was intrigued enough to borrow a copy from my local library and enjoyed it. I was still intrigued enough to want to review The Gate To Women's Country when it was offered, and again I enjoyed it.
Centuries after a global war has devastated Earth North America is, at least, beginning to recover and develop. Women's Country, a loose-knit collection of towns and villages composed mostly, as you might expect, of women is the basis of this recovery.
Men for the most part live just outside Women's Country in warrior garrisons, Spartan-like encampments where life revolves around meaningless displays of "honour". Any man can decide to leave the garrisons and join Women's Country as a "servitor" but this is an unacceptable humbling for most. The few who do make the break "lack honour" and worse. It's all very Klingon.
Women's Country is the basis of order in this post-apocalypse world. While the men are parading silly banners, ribbons and decorations around inside their camp, (and being forbidden access to the slowly reviving technologies of Women's Country) their "sisters" are rediscovering, reproducing and reorganising civilisation. But it is being done so along rather different lines to the previous one, which initiated the apocalypse (ours, presumably - whoops).
Stavia, whom we follow contemporaneously at three important stages in her life, is initially entering adulthood in Women's Country and about to discover that everything is not quite what it seems in her homeland.
The Gate To Women's Country reminds me, as did Grass, of Ursula K Le Guin's work, not least because Tepper is writing about similar things in a similar, though less well-rounded, style. Human interaction is well to the fore, with a strong and intelligent (and female) main character who is "Learning Something Important", which in this case is the secret behind Women's Country.
Although traditional sf trappings are there with both writers (just the minimum amount required by law to allow use of the "sf" label) the point in this case is the establishment of, if not a utopian society, then certainly what seems to be a better run and organised society than we currently have.
I'm not sure I entirely believe in Women's Country but I applaud most of its sentiments. The men's garrison is well depicted as some horrible mutant rugby club, but importantly, there are some strong (though deliberately underplayed) male characters among the servitors and some very silly girls amongst the women. Tepper admits that neither side is perfect, and the end of the book, I think it's safe to give away, reveals that the initial chasm between the two sexes is being slowly whittled away to the mutual benefit of both.
If Women's Country is a feminist utopia it's one that recognises and involves men only as equals, which is surely not too terrible a future to hope for, is it?
My only small PC quibble with The Gate To Women's Country is the absolute denial of homosexuality as a 'so-called "gay syndrome" caused by aberrant hormone levels during pregnancy' (p76). If you told the original Spartans their sexual preferences were solely due to 'viciousness and dominance, not from any libidinal need' (p76 again) you'd soon feel the sharp end of one of their javelins!
I'm at a loss to understand this nasty slip in what is otherwise a well-recommended book.
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© Stuart Carter 22 January 2000