Tag Archives: gender

Book Review: The Wanderground

The Wanderground

Sally Miller Gearhart

Persephone Press, 1980

196 pages

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.

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Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

Original artwork, Naomi Wright.

Original artwork, Naomi Wright.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

ACE Books, 1969 – 304 pages

If you hate science fiction and would never consider yourself feminist, Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness was written for you. Yes, the book is set on another planet populated by male-female aliens, but its richly complex prose defies genre and the aliens in many ways are more “human” than any Earth dweller. Much can be gleaned from Le Guin’s cultural and political commentary, but ultimately The Left Hand of Darkness examines the tremendous power of the interpersonal relationship and the universal human need to connect– with others and with our own internal worlds.

The Left Hand of Darkness follows Genly Ai, an intergalactic diplomat representing the coalition of humanoid worlds known as the Ekumen. He aims to enlist a potential member planet, Gethen, a frozen tundra the Ekumen refer to as Winter. Ai, a native of the planet Terra fits our concept of the human male, tall, bearded, deep-voiced, and (Le Guin discretely adds) dark-skinned. He serves as ambassador not only for the Ekumen, but for the reader as well. Gethen’s humanoid species resembles Ai such that he can pass as native, but their cultural and physical differences make them distinctly alien.

The reader joins Ai two years into his task in the kingdom of Karhide, one of Gethen’s two major countries. Ai has made little progress, though he seems to have convinced the Karhiddish Prime Minister of the value of joining the Ekumen. Moreover, Ai’s sexual oddity among the androgyne Gethens marks him a “pervert .” The people of Gethen are “ambisexual,” spending the majority of time as asexual “potentials.” They only adopt gendered attributes once-monthly, during a period of sexual receptivenesss and high fertility, called kemmer, in which individuals can assume male or female attributes, depending on context and relationships. The Gethens perceive Ai’s constant sexual readiness as obscene and repulsive. As the solitary representative of a world where “the heaviest single factor in one’s life is whether one’s born male or female,” Ai (and by extension the reader) must question a central element of his identity. In contrast to 1969 America, Gethen allows the reader to explore a world where gender is temporary.

As a foreigner, Ai must adapt to the social expectations of Karhide. He is stubbornly incapable of grasping shifgrethor, or shadow, the intricate set of unspoken social rules that dictate Karhidish interactions. Thus, when Karhide’s Prime Minister, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, tries to openly express his support for Ai’s mission, Ai is perplexed. Estraven, Ai’s strongest political ally in Karhide, is deemed a traitor for advocating the interests of Ai and the Ekumen. He is banished from the country, and his continued presence is deemed punishable by death. After this revelation, Ai’s audience with the king flounders. Ai is spared, but all his political capital in Karhide is spent. To continue the Ekumen’s mission, Ai leaves for Orgoreyn, the neighboring country on Gethen.

In Orgoreyn, themes of cross-cultural communication and social norms surface again. For these people, shifgrethor demands a smile on every face, and maintenance of productive spirit. Yet there is an unspoken aura of fear, including the potential of being sent to gulag-esque “Voluntary Farms” as (often arbitrary) punishment for non-governmental compliance. While Ai seems to be convincing Orgoreyn’s leaders to join the Ekumen, he is once again blindsided. Overnight, he is sent to a far-northern work camp to meet his death by cold, labor, and sterilizing drugs.

At this point, exactly halfway through the book– to the page– a pivotal shift away from the political and toward the interpersonal begins. For the first time, Estraven narrates a chapter, allowing us to enter the alien perspective. To the surprise of both Ai and the reader (who has seen Estraven only through Ai’s eyes), Estraven goes to great lengths to save Ai. After breaking out of the work camp, the pair begin the long trek across the Gobrin Glacier back to Karhide, where Estraven believes they will finally be able to maneuver acceptance of the Ekumen treaty. The journey onto the ice strips the societal and political confusion of earlier chapters, allowing complete focus on the relationship between Ai and Estraven.

On the glacier, the narrative transformation intensifies. The world of the book is distilled into two tiny lives amid a “silent vastness” of white.  As Estraven puts it, “up here on the ice, each of us is singular, isolate, I as cut off from those like me, from my society and its rules, as he is from his.” In such isolation, neither is alien. Their similarity proves no revelation for Estraven who, despite the shadow of shifgrethor, fully accepted Ai and his Ekumen mission of peace from the beginning. It is Ai, the reader’s avatar, who did not venture to fully trust until this moment. Ai comes to realize what Le Guin so succinctly states in her 1976 introduction to the novel: “if you look at us [humans, Terrans] at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are [androgynous].” Duality and wholeness do not preclude each other. With gender, and a host of social divisions, the “two are one, life and death, lying / together like lovers in kemmer, / like hands joined together, / like the end and the way.” Read for yourself to discover whether Estraven and Ai succeed in unifying their two worlds.

We experience Ai’s time on Gethen through a series of transcripted communications sent to the Ekumen– including his own observations, myths of the native cultures, and another character’s account. As with several Fem-SF authors, Le Guin’s anthropological background informs her writing. The interpolation of cultural myths and practices with traditional narrative creates a more fragmented and complex reading experience. For a 21st century reader, this innovation may be hard to appreciate, but the (primarily male-authored) science fiction of the time was markedly straightforward and linear.

Le Guin’s exploration of these complex thought-experiments arises from the context of her historical moment. War, international political stalemate, and the rumblings of social change ripped into Le Guin’s contemporary reality; a world plagued by fear of the “other.” As the title indicates, the book centers on the inversion of the other: initially we relate most to Ai (the male), yet the true focus is Estraven (the more effeminate); clear, sunny weather proves the more deadly than a blizzard on the polar ice; darkness, rather than light, is “right”. Similarly, this book could invert even the views of the SF-hating non-feminist. It succeeds on its own merits as a novel, and long after the final page the characters will linger with you—regardless of their sex.


This is a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World

Image courtesy of “Creative Cock” Tumblr.

**Involves quote summary in the interest of making the post public.

Not having access to Joanna Russ’s responses to James Tiptree, Jr. makes it hard to gauge the reception of Tiptree’s writing. As a third-party observer– with the 20/20 hindsight that Tiptree is truly female Alice Sheldon– Tiptree’s male self-depiction veers all over the map.

Tiptree begins a letter in February 1975 with an over-defiant stab at manliness, proclaiming  that, of course, zhe knows of the possibility of ejaculation without orgasm. Because all men know that, right?

In the same letter, Tiptree has the poignant insight that only an extremely empathetic man could make: that women are the only slaves whose captors (men) cannot afford to kill them, and who have absolutely no means of escape.

Zhe concludes this letter in a confused near-plea to Russ, asking if Russ would have invented men if they did not already exist. While somewhat less provocative than Tiptree’s wielding zher non-existent penis, this desperate question seemed to me the saddest and most poignant bit I’ve read. Zhe is asking for Russ’s unknowing approval of the invention of the Tiptree alias. Indeed, by this letter’s end, Tiptree writes that zhe’s feeling unreal– possibly humoring zher way out of a rocky topic, or a larger lament that zher avatar is losing its viability.

Perhaps Tiptree was tiring of being in a man in a world where feminism increasingly permitted women freedom and acceptance. Or– on the contrary– perhaps the inconsistencies stem from zher frustration at being unable to become fully male.

Box 10, File 29, Correspondence with Tiptree, James Jr., Joanna Russ Papers, Coll 261, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Or.


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