Apr 12 2011 4:01pm

Sheri S. Tepper’s Dystopias

Sheri S. Tepper dystopias

Sheri S. Tepper is one of those science fiction writers whom people either adore or despise. Her work, at its least successful, is frustratingly didactic and even at her best she’s not much of one for subtlety. In many ways her writing epitomizes the problems of the second-wave feminist movement, a movement that was largely defined by and for middle-class white women and notoriously failed to deal with the complex intersections of gender, race, class, and sexuality that women outside that narrow bracket negotiate daily. 

The Gate to Women’s Country is one of the most explicitly dystopian of her books. It’s set after the “convulsions,” an unspecified disaster that’s implied to be global nuclear war. A group of survivors have walled themselves off into Women’s Country, where towns segregated by gender are circled by garrisons filled with male warriors. Men and women mingle once a year for the sake of procreation; boy children, when they’re fifteen, decide to either leave Women’s Country and join their fathers in the garrison, or become servitors in the women’s houses and help the women raise children, grow food, manufacture medicines, and maintain order. It’s women in Tepper’s future who have both technology and science, who develop governments, who build and create; the warriors are little better than scheming cave men, plotting to take back Women’s Country and waving their spears about. Women who don’t like the system can leave Women’s Country, never to return; they live outside its gates in encampments, where they become prostitutes for the warriors.

Women’s Country is compelling, thanks to strong characterization and Tepper’s rich, lovely prose, but it’s overshadowed by a politics so essentialist that there’s not much room to breathe. The book isn’t quite so black and white as “women peaceful, men warlike”—in the servitors, she allows for a different kind of masculinity, and the women certainly have their problems. But at its heart, the novel relies on the idea that women nurture, men destroy; for Tepper, it’s literally wired into our genes. There’s no space for queerness here: “the so-called ‘gay syndrome,’” she writes, “was caused by aberrant hormone levels during pregnancy. The women doctors now identified the condition...and corrected it before birth.”

The dubious science is, perhaps, forgivable; Women’s Country came out in 1988, when the papers were full of scientists crowing about their discovery of the “gay gene.” But why the “condition” needs to be “corrected” in order to preserve a more harmonious union is never made clear, and though it’s the first-person narrator who speaks those words, the possibility of queerness is so thoroughly erased from the book it seems clear it’s Tepper’s voice behind them. The novel’s ultimate reveal—that the women are trying to selectively breed out the “war gene”—is equally dependent on a problematic science that assigns no agency to human action. 

It’s a short trip from those kinds of assertions to the project of eugenics, and Tepper herself is an unapologetic advocate. “Persons who look human but who are uncontrollable or who habitually hurt other people will no longer be defined as human,” she said in a 2008 interview with Strange Horizons.

Walled cities will be built in the wastelands and all nonhuman persons will be sterilized and sent to live there, together, raising their own food. There will be no traffic in, no traffic out, except for studies that may be done which might lead to a ‘cure.’ There will be no chat about this sequestration being ‘inhumane,’ because the persons so confined are not human by definition.

(Whether she is unaware that forced sterilization has been used routinely against low-income women of color well into the 1970s, or whether she simply doesn’t care, isn’t clear.) Tepper’s ideal society is a terrifying dystopia in and of itself, and once you know that about her, it’s easy to see those politics reflected in everything she writes.

And yet, for all of that, her best work remains some of my favorite SF: the brilliant 1989 novel Grass (which, although it has dystopian elements, is less a dystopian novel than an environmental one), and the dystopian fairytale Beauty, published in 1991. The novel is narrated by the titular Beauty, the sharply funny daughter of a fourteenth-century duke; the reader quickly recognizes her story as that of Sleeping Beauty. Dodging the curse laid on her, she skips through time, from the fourteenth century to a terrifying twenty-second, where the open spaces of the world have been replaced by vast agribusinesses and human beings live in overcrowded underground warrens. Moving deftly between fairy tales and a harrowing vision of the future, Beauty is a thoughtful meditation on what makes us human. Though here as elsewhere, it’s derailed in places by Tepper’s intrusion into her own narrative, she’s managed to create a character that transcends her shortcomings as a writer. It’s hard not to like wisecracking, resourceful Beauty.

Tepper’s politics affect her writing more than they might a more subtle author; it’s impossible to miss the writer behind the story in any of her books, and for me, it’s impossible to lose myself fully in her work as an adult, knowing what I know about her larger view of the world. But she’s also a writer who consistently creates strong, interesting female characters, who tackles big questions, and who builds fascinating and fully realized alien worlds. Her predictions of environmental collapse feel as prescient now as they did twenty years ago, and watching the dystopia of the bills rocketing through the House one after another in our very real world, one sees echoes of her alien worlds controlled by religious fundamentalists (Grass’s Sanctity, for example, or the fundamentalist Holylander cult in The Gate to Women’s Country). Tepper has been lambasted as a man-hating militant feminist for the entirety of her career, and I suppose there’s something funny in me insisting she is, in fact, nowhere near feminist enough. If one is willing to negotiate the uglier aspects of her politics (and I certainly sympathize with anyone who is not), her work can offer rich rewards.

The Rejectionist is a freelance writer and ebullient nerd. She blogs at www.therejectionist.com.

This article is part of Dystopia Week: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Madeline F
1. Madeline F
Tepper is probably aware of how sterilization is generally used to take out "undesirables" ie the poor and the brown, and she just doesn't care. I found _Beauty_ infuriating... Surprise rape, so far as I recall? But also that Tepper's reason that the future is a terrible dystopia is because in our time we were all about "feeding the poor". Which naturally leads to the destruction of everything good in the world. Contemptible politics.

I don't think she's all about gender essentialism; I could be wrong, but I remember that the "sellout woman" character type shows up in nearly all of her books. I'd suggest she has the view that humans are shite and women are less likely to be shite, but we're all doomed. I do like the way she grasps how social pressures bind women and puts that in her books; I think it was the Marianne books where someone is able to to escape a nasty man by swapping out his creepy gifts to her with similar, supportive things?

The "gendered breeding program" trope irriates me in every book I've seen it in. Tiptree, the kzin, Sarah Bear's _Carnival_... They all have the "we will breed one side of the species one way" without taking into account that the other side comes from the same goddamned genes and will evince the exact same stuff you're breeding towards... Grah! I suppose Tepper's _Gate to Women's Country_ at least has the base-level genetics correct, as a point in its favor. Huge consent issues, unworkable, towards a foolish end, but at least some of the science isn't BS.
Madeline F
2. Foxessa
Perhaps her professional life spent working to help women who are victims of assault, rape, beating, particularly poor women, who are denied contraception, education, rights or any dignity at all has had something to do with Tepper's pov on these matters, and why she too impatient to bother with ritual disclaimers, etc.
Madeline F
4. Laura B
Given that those women would be among those sterilized, declared inhuman, or denied food in her ideal future, supporting them can hardly be her reason.
[da ve]
5. slickhop
I, with some reservations, love Sheri S. Teper.

I do remember my intense disappointment when I realized that she was going to do That with every single one of her books. But then, is it excusable because there weren't/aren't enough other people writing on those themes? Unclear...

I think the issue is that she posits these very direct cause-effect patterns as if the causes she identifies are the only relevant factor in any given relationship .... no sense of intersectionality.

Teper's politics are definitely inescapable, but I still find her novels to have an incredible amount of world-building and, as you said, I really enjoy her consistent portayel of complex female protagonists.

@2: I don't think anyone is suggesting the good work of good people is undone when they do/say/write problematic things, just that they will have it discussed and be called on it like anyone else. And I hear what you're saying regarding the influence on her POV ... but I think the phrase "ritual disclaimers, etc." comes across as dismissing the other concerns brought up regarding essentialism, implicit homophobia & pro-eugenics stance.
Madeline F
6. arjumand
But also that Tepper's reason that the future is a terrible dystopia is because in our time we were all about "feeding the poor".

And that's not the worst; The Rejectionist has failed to discuss Plague of Angels, which contains the most dystopian of Tepper's dystopian futures. The City (which is eventually brought down by angelic intervention, yes, I know, don't ask, ok), is a cesspool of disease, which has to be burnt out rather than treated. And the reason for this is the treatment of people with AIDS, rather, than, I guess, collecting them in a room and shooting them in the head. It's quite clearly implied that treating people with HIV or AIDS was a horrendous mistake, causing all sorts of terrible diseases to crop up in the heavily symbolic / fairytale inspired future of the novel.

And, no, Tepper isn't feminist enough. I don't consider it very feminist for the female protagonist to have to sacrifice herself to defeat a female baddie.
Madeline F
7. Eva van Loon
An experiment with rats a couple of decades ago did lead researchers to conclude that the maternal rodent body mistakes adrenalin (or cortisol--I forget which) for male hormones needed by the male foetus, thus producing, biologically speaking, an incomplete male. Thus, a group of fearful females, or mothers subjected to fearsome events during a certain stage in pregnancy, would tend to produce more gay males than a serene, secure group of mothers-to-be. Interesting as it is, however, this theory does not explain lesbians.
Madeline F
8. floorfloor
I loved her earlier works, but stopped reading her after Plague of Angels. Arjumand's comment is spot on, so I won't repeat it.

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