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Return to Isis by Jean Stewart
(Rising Tide, $9.99, 173 pages, paperback; July 1992.)

In the year 2093 what is now the United States has been sundered into two parts as an ill defined political consequence of an cover scanAIDS-related plague that has killed the vast majority of the population. In the East is the land called, ironically, Elysium, where a patriarchal, right-wing-fundamentalist Christianity holds paranoid sway: women are victims here, the healthy ones being confined to Breeding Pens where their sole role is to be fucked a lot so they may perpetuate the species. In the Western USA, outside the forcefield of the ultra-virtuous Elysium, there are the seven or so scattered colonies of Freeland, all up and down the coast: most of these are all-woman lesbian cultures, their perpetuation guaranteed by parthenogenesis.

Young Freelander Whit ventures into Elysium to conduct a two-year campaign of espionage. She discovers that the dread law-enforcers of Elysium, the Regulators, are after her, and makes her escape in a light plane. This plane crashes on a farm at the very edge of Elysium, where supposedly disease-ridden serf Amelia has been tending the furrows for longer than she can remember; later in the novel she will start to remember more of her life before this servitude began.

Whit initially assumes Amelia is at best an idiot savant, with the accent less on the savant, but adopts her anyway in the belief that she deserves her freedom as much as any other. Together, all the while falling in love, the two quest towards the nearest exit portal from Elysium into Freeland. At the end of their quest they are met by lesbian Freelanders, some of whom are delighted to see them, others of whom reckon that certainly Amelia and probably Whit are Fifth Columnists.

Ten years ago the Freelander colony of Isis was invaded by the Regulators, who somehow broke through all of Freeland's defenses to make a militaristic shock attack. Isis was put to the sword: all the women there were burnt alive except one, Kali, daughter of colony-leader Maat. No surprises that Kali turns out to be the submissive pseudo-Elysian Amelia.

This is a novel with a political agenda. Specifically, it is declaredly feminist. It must therefore be considered twice over, first as a political polemic, second as an sf novel.

Some of the politics of this polemic are, to be frank, a bit naive: the Elysian males are presented uniformly as racists, rapists, sadists and murderous bastards. Stewart is wise enough to the danger of stereotyping to avoid at least some of the usual simplifications: somewhere offstage there is a heterosexual colony whose men do not conform to this halfwitted portrayal. Much more interesting is Stewart's back-story depiction of the right-wing-fundamentalist Christian takeover of the Eastern USA; she clearly regards fundamentalist Christianity -- and fundamentalist religiosity of any denomination -- rather than males per se as the enemy. To judge by this novel, she recognizes that fundamentalist feminism falls into the same dangerous category.

She has some difficulties which she may not fully realize in her depiction of the swinish males of Elysium. Her story is set less than a century hence. It is feasible that in the space of a few decades a fascistic patriarchy might establish itself in the Eastern USA; it is not, though, feasible that within this short a span all of the males should somehow, magically, turn into mad rapist persecutors of females. To think otherwise is to assume that, sometime in the 1930s, every German, male or female, suddenly became a Jew-persecuting Nazi -- even Hollywood no longer makes that assumption. It is unfeasible, analogously, that there be no feminist-collaborating, or at least non-rapist, males in Elysium. Maybe Stewart just forgot to mention them.

A good test of any political novel is to start sticking in some equivalents of whatever section of society the author has decided are the baddies. Most feminist novels fail this test; swap the sexes or the skin colours and even the most politically correct writer gets into hellish difficulties. All men are violent bastards? Sounds a good bit of polemic until you substitute the notion that all blacks, or Japanese, or Jews, or lesbians, or Scots, or whatever, are violent bastards. The truth is that human beings cannot be compartmentalized in this simplistic way; to pretend otherwise is self-delusion.

One of the most laudable things about this book is the feel it conveys of post-Holocaust societies, whether male- or female-dominated, doing their best to muddle through. In Elysium the best is not very good; in Freeland it is better, but still not perfect. Stewart's Freeland is only on the surface a lesbian utopia: the worst villains in Return to Isis are not men but women. There's the bigoted Zoe, who wants to persecute Amelia/Kali for the supposed sins of her mother. There's another completely corrupt woman whom I shall not name in case I spoil the novel for you.

And there are some glorious feminist moments. Here's one:

They rarely talked because they were both struggling. Trying to distract herself from the ache she felt with each stride, Whit sang ribald marching songs about voluptuous women. After a few days, Amelia was singing along with the choruses, though Whit doubted that she understood what cunnilingus meant.

Who apart from Valerie Solanas said that militant lesbianism had to be grimly humourless?

Here's another moment, a description of Freeland that could be regarded as the political summation of this book:

This was what old America had aspired to be hundreds of years ago, before justice and freedom had become the province of rich, white men.

The neatest political trick Stewart plays with the plot concerns the forcefield surrounding Elysium. This was originally erected by the Elysians in order to keep the tainted people out -- "tainted" for reasons of skin colour or religion or sexual orientation -- but somewhere along the road its control has been taken over by the outsiders, so that now it is a device to keep the Elysians in ... and the Elysians, of course, have not noticed the difference.

(Mention should be made, parenthetically, of the cover by Evelyn Rysdyk. Although the style of Rysdyk's illustration for this book is unfashionable today, it is a startlingly well done example of its kind. The effect is probably not visible on-screen; the book-sized version has you constantly falling into the picture.)

Leaving politics aside, what is Return to Isis like as an sf novel?

The answer is: pretty goddam good.

This is not one of the great pivotal works of post-Holocaust sf -- it is no Earth Abides, no A Gift Upon the Shore, no The Gate to Woman's Country -- but it is constantly entertaining and thoughtful in the manner of a Wilson Tucker or a Leigh Brackett or a Lloyd Biggle, which is to say that it is about three times more enjoyable than the average sf novel currently being issued by the mainstream sf publishers. To be true, some of the dialogue is infuriatingly and (one loathes to use the term in this context) girlishly cute -- there is nothing more tedious than being told in repeated slantwise references about someone else's bonk -- but it's easy enough to skip over such stuff and concentrate on the main tale, which is very fine and in general very well told. Stewart has apparently written three more sf novels and a mainstream one; all four have been put on this reviewer's "To Be Read" list. Stewart has her own voice, which is a rich one, and somewhere down the line -- hopefully already -- she is going to produce the major novel of which Return to Isis is a foretaste.

Review by John Grant.
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© John Grant 7 July 2001