Sheri S. Tepper, The Gate to Women’s Country (1988)
In a post-apocalyptic future, after either conflict or Trump has brought our current civilisation to an end (it doesn’t say which, except that it was the fault of men), a Matriarchal culture scrapes a livelihood in the regions of fertile earth between the wastelands. The Gate to Women’s Country explores how such a society might channel male aggression, given its disastrous record. It also explores the issue that the male characteristics attractive to indiviual Women are not those that are attractive (or helpful) in men as a class.
The Women live in towns; They are the guardians of what science and learning has survived. At the age of five, boys are sent outside the walls to the garrison, which is entrusted with defending the town from the garrisons of other, equally Matriarchal, towns. There the boys spend ten years learning the ways of the soldier, absorbing the ideals of martial honour until, at fifteen, they have to make a choice: the honourable path of the warrior, or the humiliation of returning to the town as a ‘servitor’ to the Women.
Humiliation, because we first see the servitors in the words of the garrison: cowards; ‘tit suckers’; those too weak for the martial life:
“Good-bye,” whispered Habby from his place beside Chernon. Together with ninety-four other fifteen-year-olds, Chernon marched forward, leaving the five to strip off their tunics and stand naked in the chill wind. By the time the century had marched once around, eyes front, the five naked boys were gone, escorted into the gatehouse by the ceremonial company.
The servitors, though, are not all about pouring tea. they emerge as the power behind the throne; they have some strange, nebulous abilities, which they wield in defence of Women’s Country.
The warriors, meanwhile, continue on their merry way. Combat can only be hand-to-hand, by virtue of the ordinances, which are obeyed throughout Women’s Country, inside and outside the city walls. But there are hints through the book that the technology of warfare is not what it might be if the Women believed physical conflict to be important. There is the technology to produce steel, but the men still fight with bronze. And there is a hint of some pre-apocalypse weapon, still known to the Council of the Women’s Country. The warriors have their suspicions. What they do not perceive is the extent to which they are manipulated. The Women are many steps ahead of them.
Tepper has been criticised for overly-simplistic characters in this book. There may be an element of truth in that, but not all books are studies of human nature. This is a book about an idea, and it needs its black and white pieces to be moved around a chessboard, in order to see how things work out. The warriors are, admittedly, meat-headed: their lives are all breastplates and plumed helmets; training, trumpets, periodic spasms of combat and blood and glory, and talking about Girls, the Women behind the walls whom they protect, or believe they do. The Women are generally more intelligent, certainly more perceptive, if subject to wayward passions. But they are all alike products of their social structure, and believable on that basis.
The warriors are not the worst of it, though.
“What you goin’ to do, Ret? Run off and join the devil women up north?” “Figure I might catch one and bring her back.” “You think she’d stay? You’re talkin’ just plain silly.”
These are post-christian patriarchal types. You can tell, because they drop their ‘g’s. they live a fortnight’s walk away, but hardly anyone travels that far. they beat their Women on the justification of scripture. (The parallels with Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale – published three years earlier – are clear). It’s no spoiler to say they are no match for the Women’s Country.
i won’t write about the most interesting twist in the book, which would be a spoiler too far. It is not so much a plot twist as one of those revelations you sometimes meet with in SF whereby a simple fact about how things work suddenly explains everything that has been going on. It’s rather clever, and particularly enjoyable for those of us whose 15-year old selves would have sprinted for that gate.