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Once, women had lived with men; the thought was appalling.

The Shore of Women

By Pamela Sargent 

29 Oct, 2014



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1986’s The Shore of Women takes us to a time in the distant future after nuclear war has nearly destroyed civilization. Just as it happened in Suzy McKee Charnas’ novel Walk to the End of the World, those in charge after the war decided to lay all of the blame on one sex. This time round, the people in charge are women and the ones assigned scapegoat status are the men. 

Women live in well-defended high-tech cities, while men are consigned to life as short-lived hunter-gathers, Reproduction is handled … remotely. The men are provided much needed guidance by the women, guidance in the form of a Goddess-based religion. Although there are signs the system is slowly winding down, it has functioned for a fairly long time and the ongoing violence between the savage men out in the wilderness appears to prove that the society’s central thesis, that men are inherently brutish and need to be kept exiled to the wilderness, is correct.

It probably doesn’t help with the whole nasty, brutish and short’ aspect of men’s lives that any community that looks like it is exploring lifestyles outside those deemed correct for men, experimenting with towns or agriculture, is exterminated by the women as soon as they notice it. 

While the cities of women are comparatively peaceful, they do have their lawbreakers and apostates. Yvara and her daughter Birana are exiled because Yvara tried to murder Yvara’s lover and Birana did not immediately call for help. Dorlei is threatened with expulsion because she refused to send her young son Button to live with the men, The example of Birana, punished for her mother’s transgression, is used to bully Dorlei’s daughter Laissa. It does not help Laissa at all that she and Birana were friends. 

Laissa has a twin brother she barely remembers and it is this twin, Arvil, who stumbles across Birana. By this time, Yvara has been murdered by men who did not see that she was a woman and Birana is quick to use Arvil’s instinctive awe of her in her own defense. She survives, for the moment.

The Enclave’s purpose in exiling Yvara and Birana was to provide a useful moral example; the two are expected to die as quickly and painfully as possible. When Arvil unwillingly reveals that Birana is still alive, the logical response should be to give Birana some help living up to her end of the deal, perhaps through the medium of death rays and mass murder. However it happens that Laissa is the Enclave woman who is told the news. In order to protect her brother Button (newly sent out to the men) Laissa turns Arvil into a human weapon aimed directly at Birana. If he kills Birana, then the Enclave will not need to kill Arvil’s allies and so doom Button. 

Laissa’s cunning gambit fails abjectly. To keep the Enclave from finding out and resorting to more forceful measures, Arvil and Birana flee, searching for some more remote region where they can hope to escape detection and death, at least for a time. They find that other regions have other ways and that Birana is neither the first woman to be exiled nor the first to survive.

Something else becomes clear, much to Birana’s initial disgust, which is that Arvil’s regard for her is as much physical as it is theological. This adds an unwanted complication to their relationship, particularly since Birana cannot trust Arvil not to resort to force. Force is, after all, men’s forte .

The Shore of Women belongs to a long, sometimes glorious, literary tradition of post-disaster sex-segregated and unequal societies. Some works in this tradition depict utopias, although this particular work offers neither a utopian present nor any realistic prospect of one in the near future. One such novel, published before Shore, would be Carr’s Leviathan’s Deep (1979); later examples would include Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s County (1988), Brin’s Glory Season (1993), and Arnason’s Hwarhath stories (1993 – present?). Feel free to point out in comments all the examples I missed. I am totally not composing a reading list from them!

I am comfortable with how tiny this book’s social world is, given that the men don’t live all that long, whereas the women can live for centuries. The male population must be many times smaller than the female. Also, Arvil came from the Enclave himself, and it makes sense that the men do not wander far from where they were born; that would require invading other tribes’ territories. 

There were a couple of details that puzzled me. The first is what exactly was going on after the war that allowed the women to establish this particular society in the first place. Did the men of that time agree and cooperate? Had the use of mechanized force somehow become a female monopoly? The order of things is natural to everyone and they seldom dwell on origins except to use them to assure themselves that their way is the right way, so I will never know.

I was also bothered a bit when poor Button fell out of the narrative. He is left in his father’s care. Button is still alive the last time we see him but various events suggest that Laissa overestimated the father’s long-term utility as a guardian. I suspect Button’s future will be particularly brief even by male standards.

Although most of the women buy into the rightness of their system, they are aware other alternatives exist. They just cannot be bothered to implement them, at least not just yet. I am about 80% sure they lack the means for a Ceratiidae-style [1] solution, for what that is worth. 

Unsurprisingly, however much the women in the Enclave and communities endorse their way of life as the true and right way, I doubt the author is sympathetic to their claims. It’s true that the men are for the most part casually violent but several characters point out how that violence is carefully orchestrated by the Enclave. Arvil provides an example of a man who exercises self-control. As for the women — not only does Birana demonstrate command of one-on-one violence, the women of the Enclave have a proven aptitude for mass murder.

Rather than pass quickly over messy details, Sargent embraces them and makes them a part of her narrative. Readers hoping to avoid discussions of menstruation may wish to avert their eyes, along with anyone who thinks childbirth with stone-age medical tools is a big heap of fun. 

I can’t really discuss Sargent in my Because My Tears are Delicious to You reviews. While her career did begin when I was a teen, most of her more interesting novels were published after March 18, 1981 (Tears’ cut-off date). Three of her Women of Wonder anthologies did come out when I was fourteen, fifteen, and seventeen respectively, but they’re getting their own review series in 2015. With added interview! 

The Shore of Women is available from Open Road Media.

  1. Enjoy!