The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S. Tepper

(discussed November 19, 1998)

On a ten-point scale (1=bad, 10=good), the people who read (and completed!) the book gave the following ratings: 6, 8, 9, 9, 9
Average: 8.2

This book was sponsored by Kerrie Gimmler, who had read it recently and liked it a lot.

Dedaimia Whitney started the discussion off by saying that she liked the book a lot. She liked the way that the author weaved in and out of Euripides. She thought it would be a good book to read at the end of a long semester on World Literature.

Dedaimia also thought that the book did a very good job of questioning (and getting the reader to question) the values of Odysseus in The Odyssey. The Odyssey is about "traditional men's values" -- war, domination, and aggression -- that the original audience took for granted, but which can seem horrific to modern sensibilities.

Dedaimia really liked the Iphigenia at Ilium play that is one of the central myths of Women's Country. Other things that Dedaimia really liked were the fact that everyone in Women's Country had to learn one art, one craft, and one science, and that everyone was expected to keep learning until they died. Finally, she was in suspense about what the consequences would be of Chernon, a warrior, getting a book intended strictly for the women, who have renounced war.

By contrast, Raja Thiagarajan found the Greek stuff heavy-handed and tedious. While he enjoyed it at first, and he appreciated the sentiments, it seemed to go on too long, and started to look all the same to him, which clearly shows his ignorance of classical Greek literature. ;-)

Overall, though, Raja rated the book as an 8. He thought it was a very good book -- perhaps even a great book -- that was marred by some clumsy writing. It is a book built around a "conceptual breakthrough", which is one of Raja's favorite approaches in SF: The main character lives in an unusual culture and takes that culture for granted. Along the way there are a few clues that things are not quite as they seem. At the climax of the book, the main character suddenly realizes the true nature of her culture, or the world it belongs to, or perhaps even the universe as a whole. The moment of realization is one of great giddiness and exhiliration for the character, and (hopefully) for the reader as well.

While Raja read the book, two other books came to mind: Frederik Pohl's Gateway (which Raja rates as the sixth-best SF book ever) and Theodore Sturgeon's Venus Plus X. Both use the same basic structure as The Gate to Women's Country: They are built around conceptual breakthroughs, and have two plot threads running in parallel: one representing the present, the other representing the past. Like Gateway, in The Gate to Women's Country, the main character seems to have suffered a trauma in the past, and the reader must figure it out. Like Venus Plus X, The Gate to Women's Country is a deeply-felt examination of gender roles.

But Raja feels that Gateway is a better book because, in The Gate to Women's Country, the present thread is almost event-less and serves no purpose for the main character -- the present thread exists only to illuminate issues for the reader. By contrast, in Gateway, the main character must reach his own understanding in the present thread, and survive it.

In fact, one of his other main complaints was that the main character in The Gate to Women's Country, Stavia, did not reach the conceptual breakthrough herself, but had to have it explained to her by her mother, Morgot. Morgot notes that the clues to the true nature of Women's Country are clearly visible for anyone who has the wit to see them -- something that Stavia seemed to lack. Raja thought Morgot was a more interesting character than Stavia, and would have preferred her as the main character. A few others agreed.

(Looking back at the book now, Raja thinks he was too hard on Stavia. It is true that Stavia does not reach the conceptual breakthrough until Morgot prompts her, but the explanation that immediately follows is not aimed at her. Rather, Morgot is explaining matters to a visiting outsider who has guessed part of it. Stavia overhears the explanation, and it is unclear how much of it is news to her.)

John Gallman couldn't finish the book in time for the meeting, and didn't like it much at all. Since he hadn't finished the book, he was not permitted to vote, but he loudly said that he would have given it a 3.

He thought that the first 130 pages (about the first half) were painful to slog through, in part because of the poor characterization -- none of the characters seemed like whole people. He said that the Iphigenia play didn't add much to the story (to which Kerrie, Dedaimia, and Raja strenuously objected). For him, the first part with narrative coherence was the bandit attack (which occurs on page 105 of the paperback edition).

Peter Kuchera didn't finish the book but looks forward to doing so. He raised an interesting question: Given that the two genders lived in completely different places, why wasn't there rampant homosexuality? Dedaimia pointed out that there was exactly one reference to this, on page 76, which dismissed homosexuality as a consequence of "aberrant hormone levels during pregnancy. The women doctors now identified the condition as `hormonal reproductive maladaption,' and corrected it before birth." Dedaimia found that borderline-offensive, and immediately looked at the copyright page to see when the book was written. Raja agreed that homosexuality should have been prevalent, especially in the strutting, all-male garrisons, where they worship a giant phallic symbol!

There were some complaints that the book seemed heavy-handed, to which Kerrie Gimmler disagreed. Kerrie thought that the book had some really good writing as well; the section on the Holyland was genuinely frigthening. (Dedaimia agreed, saying that she almost put the book down at that point.) Kerrie also really liked the handling of the rescue from the Holyland. The use of "angel feathers" showed that the harsh, inflexible beliefs of the Holylanders could be used as a weapon against them.

Julie England had a hard time starting the book, and found it initially annoying. She felt it was heavy-handed, and disagreed with some of the points that the author was trying to make. She did end up liking the book, but not at first.

One reason she found the book a bit disappointing is that Julie was reading Dan Simmons's The Rise of Endymion at the same time, and thought that book was far better written. In fact, she praised it enough that the next book we discuss will be Hyperion, the first volume of the series that ends with The Rise of Endymion.