Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Shore of Women by Pamela Sargent

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.  


Jonathan said...

I think we have to accept that much sci-fi writing is not great literature but the good stuff contains interesting questions and ideas. I may have to check this one out.

Suko said...

This sounds like a thought-provoking book with many important themes. Excellent review, Brian Joseph. I will keep an eye out for this book.

So many books, so little time said...

Great review as always Brian, I think sometimes the stories with the hardest to read or hard hitting scenes and plots can often be the best ones. They certainly stay with you long after you finish the last page.


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jonathan - Indeed, there are so many interesting and thought provoking science fiction books that are lacking in other areas.

I am thinking about writing a blog on this issue.

If you read this I would love to know what you thought about it.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko. I find these These explorations of gender related issues so interesting.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Lainy.

As someone who is disturbed by some descriptions of graphic violence, I did not find anything in this book too disturbing. With that, everyone is different when it comes to being bothered by this kind of thing.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

This sounds like it has so much to offer. Definitely a book I think both Mr T and I would enjoy, I'm going to add it to my wish list.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - If he read it, I would love to know what he thought about it.

The Reader's Tales said...

Great review as always, Brian!!
This sounds like a really tough-sexy science fiction novel. I am not surprised to hear that the writing is at points weak. Usually sci-fi books are supposed to be entertaining nothing else. Have a great week, Brian :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Reader's Tales.

I may quibble with you on the intent of science fiction :) I find a lot of books that are about serious and big ideas. Alas, the writing and characterizations are often, but not always a bit weak.

Have a great week!

James said...

This sounds like an interesting book in that it covers themes that I have not often encountered in dystopian fiction. Currently I find books like this on my reading "radar" as I have just read Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and soon will be reading It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis.

Kate Scott said...

This sounds like a very unique dystopian novel. Its take on gender intrigues me. I think I'll add this one to my TBR list.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - It seems dystopian fiction is very popular these days. As you mention, this book is somewhat different from what a lot of people are reading.

I think that It Can't Happen Here is the one major dystopian work that o have not yet read.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kate - I usual find explorations on gender such as this fascinating.

If you read this, I would love to know what you thought about it.

efhs@63 said...

Here is what I like most about your excellent review: your candid portrayal of the book's warts-and-all qualities. That too often is not present in reviews. Your caveat emptor approach is very helpful (i.e., I can avoid including this one, not my cup of tea, on my reading list). Thanks!

Stefanie said...

I have never heard of this book before. Sounds interesting. Reminds me a little of The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S. Tepper. That too is about gender, takes place after a nuclear holocaust and has women living in a city and warrior men outside of it. the rest, however, is quite different.

Brian Joseph said...

Thsnks R.T. I am glad that my cautions were helpful.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephanie. As this book got me curious about this type of dystopia, I just finished reading The Gate to Women's Country. I will be posting commentary on it in a few weeks.

Caroline said...

This sounds very interesting. It reminded me a little bit of Sheri S. Tepper's Tha Gate to Women's Country ( I hope I remembered the title correctly. ) what you say about violence is something I've been wondering so often. Why do s t that men are so much more violent.

Maria Behar said...

EXCELLENT commentary as usual, Brian!

As I started reading your review, I was initially excited about this book. I am very much interested in reading more SF novels written by women, and I have heard of Sargent before, although I have so far not read anything she has written.

As I continued to read your thoughts, though, I started to have my doubts about reading "The Shore of Women". By the end of your review, I knew that I wouldn't be reading it. The reasons are the points you've mentioned -- the author believes that an all-female society would eventually become technologically stagnant, the violence perpetrated mostly by men is actually "necessary" for human progress, as well as the graphic depictions of rape and murder.

I'm very disappointed that a female writer would actually write a novel that is supposedly a feminist work, and yet, she states in that very same novel that women, if living in a female-only society, would not produce any technological innovations. How could she possibly make such an assertion? Had a male writer made such a statement, I would immediately say that he's obviously a misogynist. But a woman?! Well, I guess there are female misogynists, too.... Incredible!

Since I don't like erotica, precisely because of its VERY graphic depictions of lovemaking, I know I wouldn't enjoy this book. And there's actually graphic RAPE depicted! Again, I am VERY disappointed. I would have thought that surely a female writer would be more sensitive to this issue.

While this novel does seem to include some interesting reflections on gender and future societal developments, I don't feel drawn to it at all. So thank you for pointing out the things you did in your review, Brian!

Oh, and BTW, I know I would find the whole thing about eyes widening and narrowing very annoying, as well! Lol.

Thanks for your fascinating insights!! Hope you're having a GREAT day!! :) :) :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - You point out something very interesting and very true. If a male writer had made the argument that we are discussing, he would catch enormous flack for it. Personally, I think that I would have reacted more negatively when reading it. When a remember of a group disparages their own group it is so interesting how to some extent, they can "get away with it".

The idea that violence and war is necessary to spur human progress is an old one. As I mention above I do not agree with it.

I did not mean to give the impression that the rape and murder in this book was over the top graphic. It was not sugar coated however. In regards to this type of ugliness, I do think writers must shine a light on some of the terrible things that happen in this world.

The explicit erotica this book puzzled me. It seemed out of place.

Thanks for the great comment!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Having read and followed evolutionary biology all of my life. I am convinced that the higher chance that men are violent can be attributed to evolution and to genes. I recommend The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins and also The Black Slate by Steven Pinker. This is a controversial opinion to some, but I believe that the evidence is overwhelming.

I must note that this says nothing about individuals, any given man may be completely non violent, any given women may be very violent. Over large populations however, it is a lot more likely that men will be a lot more violent then women.

I have just finished Sheri S. Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country and I will be blogging about it in a couple of weeks.

Caroline said...

Thanks for the recommendations, Brian.
I'm looking forward to your review. I've got another one of Tepper's books here, Grass, very different but I think it will be worthwhile too.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Really excellent review, Brian. I like how you sum up and examine the different aspects of the story.

I don't like books like these but they certainly make one think. What would reality look like in such a society? Of course she is probably not advocating such a society. Separating men and women is a tool she is using in order to better examine their traits and what life would look like if our communities were stripped of the special and valuable qualities men and women provide (plus the negative qualities).

I'm old fashioned: "Viva la difference!" between men and women. Yes, we are flawed but there are so many wonderful characteristics men and women possess and need from each other.

I also agree with you that men and women are built (I would say "designed") differently. Years ago I did a research paper on gender differences and its correlation with ambition and career choices. I read oodles of stuff asserting that gender differences were a social construct. I now do not believe this.

One interesting example: In a study, boys were given only dolls to play with. Guess what they did? Used the dolls as guns. And you can guess what the girls did when they were given guns to play with. (I won't tell you except that they rocked the guns and sang to them.)

Viva la difference!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon.

Sargent is defiantly not advocating the separation of genders, in fact this book comes out strongly against it.

I agree with you when it comes to the general differences between men and women. Where some people seem to misunderstand the argument is when it comes to individual. Any single man or woman may not manifest these differences. IE - A few boys will prefer to play with dolls or a few girls will prefer to play with guns. Over large populations the differences are undeniable.

Maria Behar said...

Hi, again! Thanks for your reply to my previous comment, Brian!

I'm back because I'd like to reaffirm your point that there are indeed individual differences among people. Whereas boys may overwhelmingly prefer to play with guns, and girls with dolls, some kids will diverge from the overall norm for their gender.

A case in point: the three female mathematicians in the book and movie "Hidden Figures". These women were absolutely brilliant! I think it's really terrible that their brilliance was not made public and praised for so many years. I wonder how many young girls are still being steered away from STEM careers because such careers are "only for boys".

The thing about these women is that they were just as feminine as women who were NOT mathematically talented. This means that trying to divide gender characteristics along rigidly biological lines is really not the best thing to do. There's also the example of the equally brilliant physicist, Marie Curie. She, too, was a feminine woman. She was married to another brilliant physicist, Pierre Curie, and had two daughters.

It is an undeniable fact that men and boys have traditionally had MANY more options on what to do with their lives than women. This is, of course, because women have been nurturers and keepers of the home fires. While this is something innate to women, I know from my own experience that something else often stirs in the female soul, and this something has to do with the desire to fulfill one's personal potential. The drive to fulfill this potential cannot possibly be considered a "male only" thing. If it were, then women wouldn't be feeling this urge.

(more coming!)

Maria Behar said...

I know....I really need to write a blog post about this!! Lol.

Anyway, to continue.... What really irks me about some -- and I stress the word "some" -- men is their blithe insistence in telling us women what we are "naturally" equipped and not equipped to do, simply based on our gender. As you have pointed out, Brian, there are individual differences. Yes, there are innate differences between the two genders, but that doesn't mean that these differences should be FORCED onto people, in a blanket fashion.

The other side of the coin is that there are men who do, indeed, manifest qualities traditionally considered to be female. For instance, qualities such as sensitivity to beauty, compassion, empathy, the desire for spiritual contemplation. If we rigidly label certain characteristics as EXCLUSIVELY male or female, we risk losing valuable contributions from BOTH men and women who do not fit the general stereotypes. In a free, democratic society, these differences should be respected, and no individual should be ridiculed or ostracized because of them. So yes, boys DO cry. In fact, stifling expressions of grief can be totally detrimental to men. This probably contributes to heart attacks and other stress-related diseases.

I might come back to post another comment, as this is something I feel very passionately about.

In closing (for now, lol), I would like to add that, for those of us who are Chrtistians, it's mostly the "feminine" qualities that Jesus displayed in the Gospels that have made him such an attractive figure for us.

Thanks again for your very thought-provoking post!! :) :) :)

efhs@63 said...

BTW: I'm back to blogging at new address.
I hope you will drop by every now and then.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for the information R.T.

I will be around.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - I agree, that despite the differences over large populations, we must look at individuals as individuals. Without a doubt, men have too often men have misrepresented differences to discriminate and oppress women.

In many quarters there is also a stigma that men not act like women. This is of course unfortunate.

baili said...

I always prefer books about womens and their psychological ups and downs.
This one sounds unique to me yet interesting.
Specifically liked the way you bring the review up it is amazing as always!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Bali.

I also find that books that delve into gender to be so interesting.

HKatz said...

Evidence that I've been watching lots of Star Trek TNG these past several months - my first thought went to the "Angel One" episode and its woman-dominated society (though in that one the men are made to be small, effeminate, and subservient, rather than exiled). TNG handles the gender theme clumsily in that one; it's easy to handle gender clumsily...

I think that sex/gender is a mix of biological and cultural - where the lines are aren't clear (because there are also studies showing that right from the get-go, parents treat babies differently depending on biological sex, and even attempts at "gender neutral" parenting may not be truly gender neutral, because much of this differential treatment may be carried out subconsciously). I agree that individual variation can be quite great (though often downplayed because of culturally enforced norms).

I remember as a kid I had a wide variety of interests, some traditionally more masculine and others more feminine, and there were people who frustrated me by trying to push me into either the "tomboy" or "angelic delicate girl" category, when I was neither.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - I am a Next Generation fan also. I have been recently been rewatching episodes. Angel One does come to mind. Indeed, the writers could have done so much more with the concept of matriarchy.

I completely agree, there is a genetic - cultural mix to the way that gender manifests it self. In the Black Slate Stephen Pinker explores this issue extensively.

I also think that it is ethically imperative to never judge individuals based on gender. However, any understanding of humanity requires us to look at the differences manifested across large groups.

As to your own experiences, It is i really too bad that folks categorize each other into simplistic groups. It seems so common with children.

The Bookworm said...

The Shore of Women sounds like an interesting and thought provoking read. I wonder why the author writes the female society as not wanting to make scientific discoveries or explorations? This reminds me of the tv series The Walking Dead, in one of the episodes one of the main characters stumbles upon a group of survivors consisting of females only. The main villain in the show killed all the men and boys in the group on purpose, thinking a female only group would not be a threat to him.
Enjoy your weekend!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - I think that Sargent's theory on a society that is exclusively female being technically stagnant has two sources. One is the old theory that war and conflict drive technical and social progress. The second is the general theme of this book that it takes equality and parody between genders for society to function properly.

Though war has at time prompted social and technical progress. I do not believe that it is essential.

I so wish that I had more time for television as there are multiple programs that I think that I would like. The Walking Dead is one of them.

Have a great weekend!

thecuecard said...

Oh I have not heard of this feminist classic as they call it, but it does sound interesting. I guess more attention went to The Handmaid's Tale from 1985; coincidental that they both came out around the same time. I would like to think that a female leadership or society might be quite a bit less warring or violent a place but perhaps I am mistaken? I don't think it would be stagnant, necessarily.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - Tge evidence seems overwhelming that as a group, women are a lot less violent then men. So I agree. A less violent society might even have faster technological advancement then a more violent one.