Pamela Sargent’s The Shore of Women is a dystopian novel written in 1986. It explores both gender as well as religious issues. A Google search finds that this book has been called a feminist classic, a dystopian classic and a science fiction classic. Though perhaps not a classic, I found it to be a worthy story and a thought provoking exploration of important themes.
Set thousands of years after a nuclear war, Sargent depicts a world divided by gender as well as power. Though the story is plot driven, this is mostly a novel of ideas.
In the future that Sargent depicts women exclusively live in cities. Their society is high technology and their lives are comfortable. They segregate themselves from men in order to prevent violence and war from encroaching on their civilization.
At a young age, males are sent out of the cities. The all male culture that exists outside of the cities is primitive. The society consists of small, violent hunting bands. The men adhere to a religion that worships the image of women. This belief is reinforced through a virtual reality system, controlled by the women, that presents them with deistic and sexualized visions of women. All the virtual women that they encounter are seen as Aspects of a single Goddess known as “The Lady”. From time to time men are called to cities where their semen is collected so that the procreation of humanity can continue.
Laissa is a young woman who begins to question the tenants of her society. Birana is another young woman who is exiled from the cities into the wilderness as punishment for being an accomplice to murder. Arvil, who is Laissa’s brother, is a young man who encounters Birana after she is exiled. Much of the narrative consists of Birana and Arvil coming to understand one another, falling in love and encountering various groups of men and women as they travel. Their encounters provide lots of grist for social commentary. The book is told in first person narrative split between three different main characters.
This novel tells an interesting story using interesting characters as vehicles. It is a thoughtful exploration of themes that relate to humanity. The book is full of observations on gender, religion violence, etc.
Arvil’s character presents, among other things, an examination of a person learning to question religion. Even before he meets Birana, he as questions why “The Lady” allows cruelty and suffering in the world. Furthermore he begins to doubt several assumptions of his theology. At one point he ponders the following,
“I tried to silence my questions, knowing that they would only lead to unholiness, but my mind’s voice persisted. Why did the Lady, knowing men were sinful, allow us to live?”
When he first encounters Brianna, Arvil believes that she is a Goddess. He slowly begins to realize that she is a human being like himself as his skepticism reaches a zenith.
Obviously this story explores gender issues in all sorts of ways. This book is thoughtful. Even when I disagree with Sargent’s speculations, it is clear that the author has thought deeply and carefully about these topics. I think that one thing that the author gets right is her depiction of violence and cruelty as it relates to gender. The all - female society that is depicted has some violence in it. Furthermore, its leadership is the source of terrible oppression of the male portion of the population. At times mass murder is even committed against bands of men for various reasons. But this female - only society is still less violent then human societies have been throughout history. Violence between women exists but is rare. There is no war. I think that there are evolutionary biological reasons that support this picture. Large groups of women will be less violent on average then large groups of men, but at times will still display violence and cruelty. This depiction is contrary to those who argue that gender is entirely a social construct. However, I believe that the "social construct" argument is unsupported by both history and science.
The male society in this book is extremely violent. This depiction also makes sense. Such hunter - gatherer, illiterate and non - technological cultures are almost always more violent then more organized, urbanized and agricultural based societies. This is contrary to certain theories that can be characterized as belief in the "noble savage". That is, primitive societies are usually non - violent and posses other ethical attributes that more technologically advanced societies lack. I think that such theories are unsupported by evidence.
Sargent is also saying something controversial about the female - only culture that she depicts. Though technologically advanced, it is stagnant. There are many references in the text to the fact that there is no longer any collective will to make scientific advances or to explore the universe.
At several points in the narrative, Laissa and some of the other women speculate that men, and even violence, might be an important part in spurring human progress. At one point, a critic of this society observes,
“our past achievements in the sciences, the most important ones, took place during times when people were building their most powerful weapons. One might almost say that building the weapons brought about other, more constructive discoveries that otherwise wouldn’t have taken place…You know, most of the physicists in ancient times, before the Rebirth, were men.”
Though at times throughout history military buildups, research and war have prompted social and technical progress, history also shows that as societies become more peaceful, technical and social progress increases. I would point readers to Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature to back this contention up. Thus I do not agree with Sargent’s message here.
Furthermore, I think that there is no reason to believe that a female only society would be technologically stagnant. Of course, it is impossible to know for sure.
However, Sargent’s theme that society works best when masculine and famine aspects are in balance, seems to ring true.
This book is not perfect. The writing is at points weak. For instance, Sargent relies excessively on description her characters eyes widening or narrowing to express emotion. Sometimes the dialog is a bit wooden. Though he is an interesting character, Arvil thinks too much like a citizen of an enlightened society despite that fact that he grew up in a warrior/hunter band.
This book is also not for everyone. The lovemaking scenes between Birana and Arvil are extremely explicit. The story depicts many violent incidents including descriptions of both rape and murder. This violence is not gratuitous but it may disturb some readers.
Despite a few flaws this is a fine work of speculative fiction that is not afraid to tackle all sorts of the ideas. The story and characters are interesting. The themes explored are thought provoking. I recommend this book for both science fiction fans as well as those interested in stories that explore gender and religious related issues.