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.