Sally Miller Gearhart
Persephone Press, 1980
It is an unknown point in the future of the United States. The country has continued to promote rape culture, with society growing into a more and more male-dominated, woman-controlling world. It gets worse and worse, to the point that “cunt hunts” (page 160) become a pastime for some men, who go out into the country to chase and rape any women fleeing from the cities. Women live in submission, or terror, until one day, the Earth herself has had one too many rapes. In a moment’s notice, nothing man-made functions outside of the cities. Machinery and tools of every kind suddenly fail in the act.
Finally, there is some circle of peace for the women who have fled, the hill women. Forming separatist communities on the idea that it is not in man’s nature not to rape, and it is not in woman’s nature to be raped (page 25), they live in peace with nature and other women, in Wanderground, far from the old civilization. In this communion, they find their own psychic/spiritual power they can use to communicate with each other and their animals, which they call mindstretch, which is done with their soft-selves (as opposed to oral communication with one’s hard-self). This exchange of information allows them to share present thoughts and ideas more clearly and immediately, even over long distances. It also allows them to share memories without speaking, as if the receiver were there herself.
This power is a crucial part of what makes the Wanderground women’s lives possible. Communicating via mindstretch is the most genuine form of interaction, as it allows women to share so much more than just hard-self words convey. The women also depend on the distance communication mindstretching provides, in order to communicate with women in other communities of women, and to the women who live underground in the cities and on the borders, keeping watch. Besides current communication, it is soft-selves that are used for the conveyance of memories, both individual and collective that form the history of the hill women.
All of this knowledge gets imparted bit by bit through the stories of The Wanderground. What is not a book began as individual short stories, published in fanzines and magazines before they came together (at the encouragement of everyone’s favorite ray of sunshine, Joanna Russ, who Gearhart totally fangirled over) in a book. The narrative style of The Wanderground reflects this piecemeal history. All of the stories fit together loosely, all somehow adding to the story of The Wanderground.
The continuing narrative, that makes some appearance in all, or almost all of the stories, is caused by some kind of shift in the cosmic balance between the hill women and the cities. Rumors are whispered, things are getting worse. In a beautiful, gripping opening set of stories, an armed woman dressed in battle armor appears at the edge of the hill women’s territory, and the woman on watch, completely unarmed, convinces her to drop her arms, and let her armor be removed. She is unable to speak, and rattled to the point of losing part of her mind. Her truth is that she was raped, and then set loose like that, a truth she is only able to communicate via her soft-self, as her words still no longer work.
As the stories build on each other, subtle remarks are made about how things are getting worse, the cities are becoming even more controlling, it is more dangerous for the women underground, men are appearing outside of the cities, even to the point of rapes occurring in the borderlands. Something is changing.
The tension finally comes to the foreground when the gentles, (gay men, who have the greatest respect for all women, especially the hill women) request a meeting with the hill women. The message is smuggled out of the city, and a great discussion begins. Even though the gentles are considered to be allies of the hill women, they are still men, and this mixed status of ally and enemy causes a great debate. I won’t spoil how it turns out, but I assure you the process of getting to that point is something I marveled at.
After several stories in a row really focusing on the tension building in the book, the ending came as a surprise. It was completely removed from the semi-plot that Gearhart had been focusing on for most of the book, and instead was a death narrative. For anyone who has lost anyone important to them, I recommend reading these two, final chapters, “Voki at the Welling Place” and “The Telling of the Days of Artilidea” (with some tissues). They were touching, and beautiful, and an unexpected but welcome conclusion to the book.
Reading this book in the context of the books that we have been reading, that are either unintentionally constrained by the male-centric world of science fiction, or intentionally ‘passing’ as part of that genre, this book is a total departure from that idea. After doing research in Gearhart’s papers, I saw in this book the literary embodiment of what she hoped for in her theorization of lesbian separatism, from the intentionally inclusive communities of women to the treatment of gay men as allies but still essentially different than women.
The Wanderground isn’t a book I’d recommend for new readers of any kind of feminist literature, but I loved it. I think it transcends the boundaries of science fiction, and could be seen as utopian fiction, or even potentially as fantasy. (The concept of mindstretch reminded me mightily of a concept Tamora Pierce brings up in her Emelan books, with the main difference that Gearhart considers it a natural part of women’s communication rather than magic.) By virtue of being what it is, The Wanderground takes a feminist mind to enjoy, but for the feminist reader, it is an imagination-stretch and a joy to read.