Sons and Decisions: Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country

The Gate to Women’s Country (1988) is post-apocalyptic SF about gender roles. It’s probably the best book in the subgenre of SF where the women live in civilized cities and the nasty rough men live outside. I talked about my problems with this kind of eighties feminist SF in my post on Native Tongue:

[Books like this are] taking the position that women and men are like cats and dogs who live together uneasily. These are all eighties books, and I think they were all written in reaction to and in dialogue with not just second wave feminism in general but Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (post) in specific, and I think there’s a way in which they’re all picking at the wrong end of The Female Man. The Female Man and The Left Hand of Darkness (post) both ask what worlds would be like if everyone was human and there was only one gender. Because Russ did that by killing off all the men, these eighties books write about men and women as different species, as natural enemies.

The Gate to Women’s Country is an effective distillation of the memes of this subgenre, and it’s a good story. It’s centrally a story about people, which is what keeps me reading, but it’s also playing with some very odd ideas about what people are, and especially what men are and what is possible for them. It constantly teeters on the edge of caricature but always stays on the right side, largely because in this novel Tepper appears to have empathy for her male characters. She gives us a set of conflicted characters in a world where the dice are loaded against them, characters who are constrained by the world they live in to be the people they are.  And she puts them in a story that leads you through — there’s a kind of story where there are questions raised and you want to keep reading to find out the answers to those questions. When you re-read a story like that knowing the answers it’s a very different experience. Some books don’t hold up at all, others develop more resonance. This is one of the latter.

The Gate to Women’s Country begins with Stavia being summoned to the men’s side of the wall to hear her fifteen year old son repudiate her. We then return through Stavia’s life from childhood, always returning to the ongoing present time, as we learn the events that led to this repudiation by her son. Along the way we discover the world these characters take for granted, and then we discover that the world really isn’t the way most people think it is.

Tepper is a very good writer, and even when I bitterly disagree with her philosophy I generally find her books extremely readable. She can be heavy handed but she’s terrific at conveying both world and characters. Even books of hers I hate (Beauty, grr) I remember really well years after reading. I frequently want to argue with her ideas while really caring about the characters. This is very much the case here. There are things I really enjoy about The Gate to Women’s Country — the wonderful re-write of Women of Troy as Iphigenia at Ilium, Stavia, seeing herself as two people, one who watches and one who acts, and Chernon, torn between expectations. Tepper is terrific at making me feel completely immersed in the people and the story. Even if I’m not enjoying it, I never question the reality of the world until I step away from it.

What’s annoying is that it’s much easier to talk about the irritating things in The Gate to Women’s Country than it is to talk about what makes it good. It’s good because it’s an unputdownable story about interesting people in difficult situations in a world that only science fiction could have made. But nobody ever talks about that, whereas they have long conversations about how irritating it is for a whole host of reasons, not least because the whole premise on which these people have deliberately and wilfully constructed their society is completely insane.

Serious world spoilers coming up, and part of the pleasure of reading this is definitely to discover how the world works!

The women of Women’s Country are breeding humanity for docility, consciously and intentionally, without the knowledge of most of the citizens of either gender. Leaving aside all issues of morality, the strange thing about this is the crazy way in which they are going about it. To start with, they have most of the men — eighty percent — living outside the walls as warriors, in a culture of honour and glory and bronze weapons and no medical care. Then they send their five year old sons to the warriors, and lead the warriors to believe they are the fathers of these boys. From five to fifteen the boys are forced to stay outside the walls, and from fifteen to twenty-five the boys are permitted to return home, if they are “dishonourable” enough. After that they are full warriors, old enough to be risked in battle and with no hope of return.

Aside from the way in which this breaks the mothers’ hearts and all of that, this seems to me like the world’s worst way to get civilized people! They are proud they have increased the returning percentage from five to twenty. They are convinced they have done this purely through eugenics — sons of returnees return at twenty percent, sons of warriors at only five. It’s insane! I’m not saying nature doesn’t have something to do with the way people behave, but so does nurture, and if you’re thrusting little kids into a militaristic culture like that they are going to be seduced by it, whereas if you kept them at home and taught them things then you’d have much less of a problem and less of a need to have manufactured wars to kill them off. Even if you grant the idea that men are inherently violent and awful, which I don’t for a second concede, indoctrinating them with barbarism so as to breed from the ones in which it doesn’t take seems like a completely mad idea.

So this is the one central absurdity of the novel. If you can either believe this or suspend your disbelief in it — or I suppose grit your teeth and roll your eyes a lot, which is what I do — then you can start to explore the morality and the characters and the questions Tepper’s actually interested in.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula nominated Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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