James Thurber, the great American humorist, poked fun at “the battle of the sexes” in a long-running series of cartoons in The New Yorker, and in a 1959 film starring Peter Sellers. Thurber, like so many men, then and now, didn’t like strong women. This isn’t just a dying stereotype: Wal-Mart is currently embroiled in the largest class-action lawsuit in history because management has strived to keep the girls down. The on-going fact of women earning 79 cents to a man’s dollar gives bite to the feminist critique of our patriarchal culture—I should say, is just one of the many sharp teeth in that bite.
Feminist sociologists, like investigative journalists, “follow the money” when trying to root out the source of a thorny problem. The capitalist system, the argument runs (at least in its baldest, least-nuanced form), is self-destructive in the same way that an addiction is. Greed, power and violence are intertwined, and everyday women and children pay the price, with their bodies and their souls, in the bosom of the nuclear family, the American home. Earth, too, pays the price with her body as the ice caps melt and the rivers run red with toxins. Mass death is the ultimate price, of course, and while this is merely something to snicker at for the elites who are killing us, for many scientists (only a few of them actually women) it is a fact of impending disaster.
Take the foregoing as you will, it serves as the backstory of Pamela Sargent’s brilliant and beautiful novel, The Shore of Women. After “fire and ice” (nuclear war and the consequent “winter”) has been sent to “punish” the people of Earth, the battle of the sexes reaches its logical extreme: a complete segregation of men from women. Savvy readers will instantly recognize this as the theme of, for lack of a better term, the “feminist utopia”; Sargent’s most famous predecessor is probably Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915). For Gilman, though, the idea of living apart from men was truly utopian. Sargent, to her credit, doesn’t see it that way: The Shore of Women is a moving contribution to the counter-form, the dystopian novel.
Gilman, too, was essentially a 19th-century novelist of ideas (making Herland, short as it is, a tough go for modern readers), while Sargent’s novel (originally published in 1986) is a fully realized novel of character. “No ideas but in things,” said William Carlos Williams; in other words, let your polemics arise from your powers of observation. Sargent is a powerhouse of observation.
In this distant, post-“fire and ice” future, women have sequestered themselves in high-tech, weather-controlled enclaves, leaving the men, both literally and figuratively, out in the cold to lead essentially neolithic lives. Women have set up an elaborate ruse, a sort of virtual-reality religion. The men come to shrines in the wilderness, don “crowns,” and consort with “the Lady.” During these VR couplings, the men are milked of semen, and women reproduce through artificial insemination.
Within the enclaves, women live, for the most part, happy lives. But occasionally violence breaks out. At the beginning of the novel, one woman murders her lover (obviously, all humans are homosexual in the future; the need for day-today love and companionship doesn’t go away). The punishment for murder is exile from the city of women into the wilderness of men. The assumption of the Mothers of the City, as the elite women are known, is that any such exile will quickly result in death.
The elegant twist, of course, is that men worship women. To see an actual woman, flesh and bone instead of virtual image, is a profoundly religious experience. And therein lies a tale. What results is a thrilling adventure and a study in human potential as Birana, the exiled women, and Arvil, the sensitive neolithic man, struggle with fear, desire and power in order to survive. Ultimately, The Shore of Women is about our ability to change, to heed the better angels of our nature. At the end of the book, a conservative Mother observes, “This is how it begins... with one misplaced act of mercy, with setting one life above one’s duty.” As a result, “our lives—very slowly, perhaps, will change.” Indeed; the ability to value particulars over principles, when appropriate, may yet be our saving grace.
BenBella Books has done a great service by reissuing The Shore of Women. It’s unfortunate the publishers wrapped the book in a truly hideous, cartoonish cover. Queer theorists, feminists, and lovers of great literature (not just SF fans) will simply have to look past the cover, to the great heart within.