Since the flames died three centuries ago, human civilization has evolved into a dual sociey: Women’s Country, where walled towns enclose what’s left of past civilisation, nurtured by women and a few nonviolent men; and the adjacent garrisons where warrior men live – the lost brothers, sons, and lovers of those in Women’s Country.
Two societies. Two competing dreams. Two ways of life, kept apart by walls stronger than stone. And yet there is a gate between them…
The Gate To Women’s Country was recommended to me for inclusion in the Queering the Genre project. For reasons I shall make abundantly clear later, I suspect this was not a serious suggestion. That doesn’t mean the book isn’t worth discussing, albeit with spoilers and TRIGGER WARNINGS for rape, assault, transphobia, homophobia
That said, Tepper is introducing some fascinating ideas for discussion in the book. Despite a stunningly binarist view of gender (women are, apparently, inherently and automatically nurturing [p290]) and an amazingly monogamist view of the world (in a society where for over two centuries various polyamories have been the norm, apparently possessiveness and jealousy are still standard [p293]), Tepper does do some things to her world. The key one is the idea of tthe importance of choice; The Gate To Women’s Country centres on the motif of the gate that male children can choose to walk through, if they feel unsuited to warrior life and would prefer to live with the women. What lies on each side of this gate, the mistrust across it and the problems this divided society creates are all themes across the novel that Tepper does explore interestingly, especially in the context of layered mystery and secrets.
She also does some interesting things with story; here, we have multiple different plots simultaneously on display, from the present, one from fifteen years prior that starts out as flashbacks but is increasingly broader and more fleshed out as we get a wider variety of perspectives, and a play within the novel, Iphigenia at Ilium (Tepper’s response, it seems, to both Trojan Women and Iphigenia at Tauris). The Gate To Women’s Country uses these multiple time periods to reinforce and discuss each other, to lay out and emphasise its themes, and to ensure that its message is strongly conveyed.
Unfortunately, that message is rather problematic. Not only is The Gate To Women’s Country (written in 1988) predicated on the idea that women are inherently peaceful and conciliatory – an unsustainable proposition in the era of Thatcher, with her actions in the Falklands and on domestic soil against the miners – but it also displays very binarist views of gender, and essentialist ones at that; while men may have a variety of characteristics, including the gentler ones who return through the gate, women are all portrayed as nurturing, caring, and loving. Furthermore, I mentioned earlier that this was recommended for the Queering the Genre project; Tepper’s homophobia exists not only in an exclusion of homosexual characters, but in a full on attack on homosexuality itself included in the novel:
Even in preconvulsion times it had been known that the so-called “gay syndrome” was caused by aberrant hormone levels during pregnancy. The women doctors now identified the condition as “hormonal reproductive maladaptation” and corrected it before birth. There were very few actual HNRMs – called HenRams – either male or female, born in Women’s Country, though there was still the occasional unsexed person or the omnisexed who would, so the instructors said, mate with a grasshopper if it would hold still long enough.
That paragraph, from page 76, is the only mention of people outside the basic gender binary in the whole novel. The Gate To Women’s Country has one person who may be attracted to the same sex, and he is a rapist who probably only did it for power, rather than actually out of homosexuality – a mixed blessing at best. This is also a book that blurs the line of consent:
He took hold of her as she approached the camp, pulling her away from the donkey, dragging her towards his spread sheets, covering her mouth with his own so she had no time to speak. He gave her no time, no word, nothing but a frenzied and almost forcible ravishment […] If it had not precisely been rape, it had been close to it.
And yet, on the pages following this passage (p237), Tepper does her best to imply that the offence was not the clearly nonconsensual sex but not talking sweetly beforehand; forget the idea of enthusiastic consent, in this case, a lack of active objection prevents it being rape. Tepper’s nod towards this being problematic is at most minimal, and The Gate To Women’s Country manages to undermine an awful lot of arguments that follow about domestic violence with this scene between two sort-of-lovers.
On a narrative level, the plot is a little convoluted and relies on a major deus ex machina for its resolution, one that makes essentially no sense within the world Tepper has created. However, the society-building Tepper does with this future utopia(?) is fantastic; and she pulls some great twists off as the novel progresses, changing our understanding of the world and society, and the characters are actually surprisingly human, especially Chernon, whose loyalties to his family and the women and his loyalty to the garrison and an (inexplicable extant – where does it come from in this postapocalypse?) patriarchal ideal are in interesting tension. Similarly, Stavia’s increasing understanding of the whys behind the ordering of society bring her into tension with her own feelings and previous actions; The Gate To Women’s Country doesn’t shy away from the fact that mistakes have consequences and that a lack of knowledge can lead to dangerous repercussions rippling out.
That isn’t to say the writing is fantastic, mind you. Tepper has passages like this, from page 193:
…parts of her went all wet-crotched at his words. She could feel some inner part of her breaking loose, panting against the thick wall between them, ready to dig through it to him, some frantic bitch part with hard little tits and with all four feet flailing.
If this isn’t the workmanlike prose of the Golden Age, it’s gone in the opposite direction; meaninglessly bland in its attempt to capture a feeling, laughably badly written (which parts of her went wet-crotched other than her crotch, one has to wonder?). The Gate To Women’s Country is peppered with infelicities like this, in the Iphigenia in Ilium sections and in the main plot; and each and every one of them is a slip that Tepper or her editor ought to have caught.
The Gate To Women’s Country is often called a feminist SF classic, and Gollancz have recently brought out an SFMasterworks edition. Sheri S. Tepper’s politics rule out the idea of it as a feminist novel, and her writing itself rules out any meaningful classification of it as a masterwork. This is a book to avoid; if you want great feminist SF, go for the Masterworks of Nicola Griffith, Joanna Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin, Pat Cadigan (and more!) instead.