The Shore of Women, Pamela Sargent (1986)
Review by Ian Sales
After a nuclear war and a long nuclear winter, small groups of people managed to survive in underground shelters. And once the Earth was habitable again, they ventured out – but by that point things had changed and the women were in charge. So the women built walled cities in which they could live, and all the men were sent out to fend for themselves in the wild. Thousands of years later, the sexes are completely segregated, the women living in technological luxury in their enclaves, and the men, controlled by their worship of the Lady, existing in small hunter-gatherer bands in the surrounding countryside.
Laissa, a young woman in one of the cities, witnesses the expulsion of a woman and her daughter for murder. They are sent out into the country, where they will likely die very quickly. Laissa is having problems with her own mother, who has delayed giving up her very young son. Male children are usually handed to men, who are called to their nearest city to be blessed by the Lady (and have their semen milked while they are drugged and enjoying VR sex). Laissa begins to question the way the cities are run…
Arvil is Laissa’s brother, though neither know it. He lives with a small band of men not far from Laissa’s city, and seems typical of his gender. One day, men on horses appear at the band’s camp and invite them to join their own camp, which is much, much larger. Shortly after Arvil’s arrival there, the big camp is destroyed by flying ships from the nearby city. Arvil manages to escape…
And subsequently stumbles across Birana, the daughter exiled earlier. Her mother has been killed, but her killers had fled on realising they had murdered an “aspect” of the Lady. Arvil, however, is more intelligent and questioning than most men. Thinking Birana is an aspect of the Lady, and so possesses her powers, he helps her. She even hypnotises him so he can convince the women in the city – who the men “talk” to via circlets in shrines as acts of worship – that she has been killed. Arvil and Birana, safe from pursuit by the women of the city, decide to head to the west, where perhaps a refuge of exiled women may exist. They pass out of the lands controlled by the women of the cities, and find several small agrarian male communities scattered around a large lake. An exiled woman lives, and is worshipped, in one of the settlements, and so Arvil and Birana join her.
But men being men, there is a price to pay for the safety the settlement offers. While Nallei, the exiled woman, keeps Birana safe, it’s a situation that can’t last forever. And when Birana finally overcomes her disgust of sex with a male, and begins a secret affair with Arvil, it comes as no surprise when she finds herself pregnant. Events come to a head, Arvil kills the jealous headman, and women from the nearest city attack and raze the settlement. Birana and Arvil escape and head yet further west…
Where they eventually reach the Pacific Ocean, and find a small band of men and women. But the men are in charge. Birana gives birth to a girl, but she wants more for her child then a patriarchal inbred band of seashore foragers, so she and Arvil head back to the interior intending to hand over the child to one of the cities. This is where Laissa re-enters the story. She has persuaded the city to allow her to camp out in a shrine and record the stories of the men who visit there. Birana and Arvil meet her there, tell their story – which becomes the narrative of The Shore of Women – and give her the baby to raise in the city. Laissa’s actions, however, cannot go unpunished, so on her return she is reduced in status and forbidden to have children. Birana and Arvil disappear off into the countryside.
Most novels featuring feminist utopias seem to set out to demonstrate that women do not need men – cf Sally Miller’s Gearhart’s The Wanderground – but in The Shore of Women men are very much necessary. The women use religion, and their technology, to control the men, but without them they cannot breed. Of course, this does not require actual physical contact – see the earlier mention of VR sex. The problem here is that while the men believe women to be divine, as in the many aspects of the Lady present in the shrines, they are also conditioned to see intercourse with women as something to aspire to, as a reward for worship. In their mean camps they may turn to one other for comfort and release (the novel is surprisingly coy on this aspect), but their society is still chiefly heteronormative, even if the women are not actually present.
It’s different for the women in their cities. They consider men to be little better than animals, and their society is built on relationships between women. Though they may use the male of the species to provide genetic material, it’s all done by machine, and any boy children they bear are sent from the city at a very young age (their memories carefully wiped so they don’t know what they’ve lost). This viewpoint is most forcibly expressed by Council member Eilaan, who seems so fierce an advocate of the city way of life that she reads like a deliberate foil to the more considered voices of Laissa, Birana and Arvil.
According to the story, this set-up has been in place for thousands of years, but there’s no real sense of history attached. Who built the cities? Who invented whatever power it is that keeps the flying ships aloft? When Laissa falls out with her mother, and her girlfriend dumps her because she has become “politically undesirable”, Laissa moves in with Zoreen. Who she normally avoided because Zoreen works as an historian. Zoreen also lives near the normal women of the city (Laissa and her friends are all upper class, “Mothers of the City”, the only women in the city permitted to have children). There’s a hippyish flavour to the lives of the normal women, but other than arts and crafts and food outlets, no real indication that they maintain and operate the various services of the city. It’s as if the enclave magically appeared and the women simply populated it.
The men’s society is no less realistic. Given the life they lead, it’s likely nasty brutish sorts would prosper, eventually leading to that type predominating. Any attempt at organisation, at creating larger settled communities, in which other male personalities might prove useful, are quickly destroyed by the women. And yet, despite all this, the system still manages to produce Arvil – who figures out human reproduction from a couple of remarks made by Birana, who works out how the entire society functions after inadvertently waking up while being milked of semen… Not only is he more intelligent than the other men, he is also sensitive and treats Birana like an equal. It is because of this that Birana eventually falls in love with him and overcomes her anti-male feelings.
Despite all this, The Shore of Women is an engaging story, even if the setting is not especially plausible. But that final swerve into reconciliation between man and woman feels too much like an undoing of the point the story initially seemed to be making. The sexes were segregated for the safety of the women, and human society has subsequently survived for thousands of years – unchanged and slowly stagnating, it is true; but the Earth is safe and the race is in no danger of self-extinction. To pretend all along that the women don’t know what they’re missing because they refuse to interact with the men directly contradicts what the cities demonstrate. Birana may have found true love with Arvil, but he’s hardly an average specimen of his gender – and, further, circumstances forced her to find some accommodation with the males of the species. It’s almost as if the story were suggesting male-female relationships were more fulfilling, carried greater emotional weight. It’s a conclusion that sits badly with all that has gone before. In fact, it feels banal, given the contortions placed upon history, society and human nature the setting requires. Disappointing.