Monday, December 17, 2007

Feminist Sci-fi

Last week on Tuesday I went to my parents' house for a little while after my foreign policy exam, and picked up some things I had left there. Mainly, a couple picture albums and a book which had been hiding in my closet ever since I had moved into that house 6 or so years ago. The book was labeled "Novels." It wasn't all novels, but "books" was too vague, and most of it was fiction anyhow. There were a few books of plays (Ibsen and lots of Shakespeare) and a book of short biographies (Profiles of Courage) by the late JFK.

But the only reason I went looking for these books in the first place was this: to find a book I had read many years ago, vaguely recalled, in order to read it again. And I found it! And I read it this weekend, while my fiancé was held hostage by the Saudi French bank. It was almost as good as I remembered... and worth writing about.

It's called The Shore of Women, by Pamela Sargent, and is Copyright 1986, but this book was only published in 2004. I found it in the science-fiction/fantasy section of Barnes & Noble years ago, and, finding the title rather strange and the back-cover teaser interesting enough, and decided to give it a try. Here is what's on the back cover:

In order to survive after the violent holocaust of a nuclear war, the women of Earth expel men from their cities, using superior technology to call them back only for loveless, deceptive reproduction. Posing as goddesses, the women exercise tight control over the unknowing fathers of their children, guiding the men's religious faith and sexual desires to suit their own purposes. Birana, a young woman with many questions about this way of life, is forced to face those questions head on when she is exiled from the comfortable world of women, her very survival now dependent upon the men she has been taught to loathe and pity her entire life.

Arvil, a young man with his own questions about the reality of the goddess, wanders the wild countryside alone after the cruel slaughter of his band. He soon finds himself the sole protector of Birana, the strange woman who has much knowledge about the ways of the goddess, but few of her powers. As Arvil and Birana struggle to survive in a world hostile to them both, they discover feelings for each other they had thought impossible. Their reconciliation of these feelings ultimately threatens to rip apart the fabric of both their societies.
So basically... the women live in cities, and the men live in the wild. The women had erected 'shrines' where the men would visit and "pray" using a device called a mindspeaker to communicate their thoughts to a woman who might answer on the other end--a woman in the city. They would also pray on their own other places, but the other benefit of the shrine was that sometimes they would have visions--virtual-reality interactive sex. And then, sometimes they would be "called" to actually go to the cities which they called enclaves and would after more visions would have their semen taken (while they were unconscious pretty much) which the women would use to inseminate themselves, and reproduce. There were a few women in the city, the higher echelon if you will, who were actually allowed to have boy children, the other women were only allowed to have girls. The boys after a certain age had most of their memories wiped and were sent out into the wild, usually with the father, but he wouldn't know that. In fact, the poor men just considered it a sign of status, how many times they had been called, how many boys they had been given.

Both societies were homosexual. For the women it was consensual, but for the men... sometimes was, sometimes wasn't. They best to come by was the visions but that didn't restrain everyone from exercising their will on younger boys. Brutal. The men of course were taught to worship women, and then they would receive these "blessings" in the shrines or enclaves if called (blessings... the VR...). The women were pretty much taught to loathe men. Thought them disgusting, beastly, etc. But want to know what's really brutal? If a group of men gathered together, to get stronger, develop new skills, cultivate the land, form some semblance of a civilization... they would be destroyed by the women with high-tech super blast-o-rays. (No they weren't called that in the book.) This was considered to be a sign that they people had defied the will of the "goddess." So mostly the men kept in small groups, killing each other for food, control of water sources, etc.

So... maybe you're wondering why I thought this book was so interesting that I could read it in two or three sittings? Think about it... absolute segregation... gender superiority... exaggeration of biological differences between men and women. Think about it... a world where it's perceived that men are deficient in civilizing qualities like control over anger, compassion.

There is a part of the book where the two characters find a small group of inbreeds for whom the table is slightly turned. The women in this group are sure that women somewhere have this power or magic to exercise over men and they are just missing it. The men, however, have realized that they in fact are stronger than these women and are convinced that women are holding the world captive with superior technology because they lack strength. And these men have forced their women into submission, to obey them on command, serve them, and please them on demand pretty much (not taking no for an answer.) Even when a woman is pregnant a man might force her to serve him food, standing for a long period of time while he sits. And yet they still try to reproduce and a baby is a real treasure (especially, oddly enough, if it's a girl.) They aren't sophisticated enough to realize that the lack of genetic diversity is causing their babies to die early on, though.

I think that part of the story is really interesting, for contrast. The whole book though really emphasizes for me that men and women instead of one serving the other (as is so often implied in religious cultures) or the two competing with each other (as is implied in many modern secular cultures) really ought to complement and help one another.

Why isn't that obvious to everyone else?

No comments: