I’ve heard of Tepper as one of the early-ish feminist SF authors who got quite a lot of attention. This came out in 1988, so not early at all, but nonetheless it’s one whose name seems to kinda float around in the ether as an example of feminist writing. It’s been sitting on my shelf for ages, so I figured I should give it a go.
Set some time in the future, on Earth, this is largely an exploration of a society through one character’s life. There are a few significant events, but most of them are daily-life-level, rather than world or even community-level: it’s intentionally small scale, I think, to explore the issues on Tepper’s mind rather than to present an epic narrative.
This is a very complicated book to think about. Firstly, although it’s only mentioned in passing this is a deeply homophobic book. I don’t think there’s any mention of female same-sex relationships, and male homosexuality is regarded as an illness that needs to be cured; men who want to sleep with other men are deeply suspect.
Secondly, it’s an example of that sub-genre where women and men live largely segregated lives. The women are mostly in towns, while many of the men live outside the town walls in a garrison. There are exceptions: the men who return to the towns, through ‘the gate to women’s country’, and why they choose this and how the other men regard them is one of the key aspects that’s explored through the story – eventually, anyway. I don’t think Tepper is advocating for this segregation as a real way to live, but it’s an interesting thought experiment.
Thirdly, the narrative structure isn’t linear. It largely follows Stavia, and her experiences both as a child and as woman; a large part of this is about how childhood experiences influence her as an adult (the child is the mother of the woman, etc etc). This isn’t too complicated, but it is occasionally confusing, since there’s no textual indication at the start of the chapter or whatever to indicate which time the chapter is in. It does become evident pretty quickly, but it’s still something to be aware of.
Fourthly, there’s the Iphigenia at Ilium aspect. This is probably the strangest bit. The book is set some centuries after some sort of disaster has killed a massive proportion of the population and devastated the environment. Lots has been lost, but somehow a variation of The Trojan Women has survived, and become so important that it’s staged every year. I can see some of the thematic similarities that Tepper is trying to convey – Achilles’ ghost is basically laughed at, and it seems to try and remind the women that there are problems with warriors and senseless violence, or something like that? Perhaps I missed something deeper, because overall it just didn’t make sense to me.
Lastly, one of the big revelations towards the end is a major spoiler, so if you don’t want that, look away now…
It’s revealed that the warriors generally don’t father the children. Instead, the women are impregnated by the men who have returned to Women’s Country – the servitors – and basically a small group of the women are attempting to breed out an inclination towards violence. Without telling most of the people involved. This also includes forced sterilisation without telling the people involved. The characters acknowledge that this is problematic, but it’s also presented – to my mind – as a tragic but necessary step for humanity to survive. So that’s… deeply problematic.
Overall, I did like the book – it’s well written and easy to read, it’s got some interesting ways of thinking about recovering from a disaster, even if it’s not particularly practical. But I would be hesitant to recommend this to someone without a grounding in other feminist texts, in particular, to compare it and hold it in discussion with.