One of the perennial issues in science fiction is how to handle the role of women. Ursula Le Guin famously wrote about this in her introduction to Tehanu, where she explores the difficulties of writing a heroic woman without just writing about the things a heroic man would do. What does it mean to be a woman, a protagonist, and a fully-developed character in a book, while still being interesting to read? As I said in my review of that book, “The artistic challenge is to establish some kind of actual difference between men and women that keeps the readers’ interest while giving both their full and equal due as unique types of human beings.”
This is nothing new, of course. In the Southern Baptist world we’ve spent the last convention discussing the role of women in the institutional church. [Disclaimer: I had friends involved on both sides of that particular debate.] The broader culture is exploring this through film, novel, and music. As this discussion continues, there is something to be gained by looking into the works of an author who carefully thinks through the relationship between femininity and society. Sheri S. Tepper has regularly dealt with this question in her works, and both The Gate to Women’s Country and A Plague of Angels directly engage the topic.
They are also both excellent books–and that’s Tepper’s great strength in this conversation. She has a story she wants to tell, and she tells it very well. Her points about women and feminism and society all come out in the telling of the story, but they don’t drive it. This is the secret to writing a great book (and don’t take my word for it: I just stole that point from Stephen King): tell your story without worrying about your political/religious/artistic agenda. Your agenda will take care of itself if the story is good. If the story is bad–and any story written to prove a point is going to be bad–then the agenda won’t matter anyway.
I’m not going to go into great detail on either book, but just as a quick overview: The Gate to Women’s Country explores a future world where men spend their time fighting and women spend their time running society. Men protect the women, women care for the homes and children. It would seem to be a Platonic paradise, with each side living its full biological function, until the lead character starts to look under the skin of society. What secret are the women holding? Will the men’s desire to dominate overcome their desire to protect? And is this whole society just built on a lie? These are all interesting questions and cleverly explored.
A Plague of Angels is likewise set in a post-civilization future, where cities are slowly dying, technology is restricted to the few, and legendary monsters once again roam the wastelands. In this world, the mad witch Ellel searches for the child who can guide a spaceship from before the collapse of civilization to the space station, where legendary weapons await her that will give her the ability to conquer the world and set herself up as supreme ruler. And there’s not much more I can say without giving away plot points, but know that it’s an excellent book.
In fact, both of these books are excellent. And while you’re reading them you’ll realize that you’re being invited to think about things like gender roles, society, and the assumptions we make about human nature. Tepper (usually) doesn’t hit us over the head with these questions. Instead she just tells a good story that leaves us with much to chew on.
And obviously good stories without being hit over the head by social messages is something we could all use a little more of these days.