Skip to Content

The Gate to Women's Country

I have been slowly reading my way through the Gollancz SF Masterworks series over the past few years and have enjoyed most of what I've read. Very rarely do I find a book I don't get on with, or would not recommend to others. Unfortunately, The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S. Tepper may be one of them.

At first glance, it seems to have all the elements for an interesting piece of social commentary. It's set in a post apocalyptic dystopia where much of the population live in towns where the women handle most of the day to day tasks of growing food and administration, whereas the men live in garrisons outside the town and spend most of their days training for war (no mention is made of intersex individuals, who have presumably been bred out of the population, just like the homosexuals whose mention is one of the first signs in a worrying trend towards authoritarianism). Much mention is made about the parallels between this society and the homeric ideal of men trained only to be warriors, much like the Spartans of ancient Greece. All good fuel for a piece of satire upon western attitudes towards women. Unfortunately, the book is let down by weak characters and a gradually increasing support for a fascist society.

I think social commentary is most affective when it is subtle. The books that work best for me in challenging assumptions about society are ones in which the characters are complex and varied. Cautionary tales are far more chilling when you can almost feel yourself empathising with the monstrous behaviour the characters commit. Sheri S. Tepper's characters, however, are almost universally two-dimensional.

When they reach the age of 5, the women of Woman's Country surrender their sons to their "Warrior Fathers". This is a hugely emotional event, and worry over the fate of their sons - and whether they will ever return - often shapes the women for the rest of their lives. Despite the trauma of this, however, they are quite happy to soon continue their 'assignations' with the warriors and bear them more children. Mention is made a couple of times to having to reduce grain rations due to overpopulation, but most of the female characters seem quite happy to have families 4 or 5 children. Other aspects of their lives are talked about, such as their continual education and crafts, but they are mostly glossed over as seemingly having little import to the book.

In contrast to this, the men spend most of their time competing in sports and training for battle. They are almost universally obsessed with honour and when not fantasising about taking over and conquering the women, or worshipping their fallic idols, behave like spoiled children. Every now and again they will becoming embroiled in a war with another town's garrison, but no justification is ever given for this beyond that's just what men do; trade seems to be robust amongst the towns, and when one suffers a shortage they all seem to. Not all men choose to stay as warriors, but the tiny majority who do elect to return and serve the women as 'servitors' are those almost supermen born with some kind of second sight.

Later on in the books contact is made with another society who are like an extreme version of American Christian sects such as the Mormons. Here, the men have gained the upper hand and the elders take multiple wives whom they all abuse, while the women mostly obey their masters as it is the will of god. Again, this behaviour is universal amongst the men, and the only explanation for why the characters act in this fashion seems to be that they are men, and therefore will always abuse women if they find themselves in a position to do so.

Very few of the characters in any of the different societies have any depth to their personalties, and all act out their roles in the book much like the characters in the play that the citizens of Woman's Country endlessly re-enact. Even the protagonist is only really distinguished by the guilt she feels about breaking some of her society's rules about bringing books to a young warrior.

I don't mind characters in books being bigots; there are plenty of them in the real world, after all, and to pretend otherwise is delusion. When so many of the characters are cookie cutter copies of on another, with the same prejudices and personalities, however, you can't help but wonder whether this may be a reflection of the author's own views and beliefs; in light of the gradual revelations that the leaders of Woman's Country are quite willing to resort to state secrets, forced sterilisation, eugenics, covert assassinations and, finally, mass murder, that is quite a worrying thought. By the end, Woman's Country very much resembles a fascist regime, and the book leaves you uncomfortably wondering whether that's something the author entirely disapproves of.

The Gate to Women's Country does have its moments. Some of the more homeric prose can be quite beautiful in places, but it has a tendency to be over-flowery and, to my British eyes at least, the odd out of place word like trash frequently breaks the illusion. The pacing is also spot on and goes some way to counteracting how bland the characters are.

In conclusion, The Gate to Women's Country is not a book I would recommend. It had so much potential to be a powerful piece of social commentary, and the frequent references to ancient Greece invite a rather more poetic style of prose in the style of Mary Renault's Theseus novels that is sadly mostly absent in this book. The lack of any real personalties in the vast majority of the characters seriously let it down, however, and the frequent scenes of abuse and other atrocities feel like they were included only for shock factor, or, more worryingly, that the author might actually feel like they are justified. Not one I will be returning to, I think.