The Wanderground, Sally Miller Gearhart

The Wanderground, Sally Miller Gearhart (1979)
Review by Ian Sales

While science fiction has long included a tradition of feminist utopian fiction, it has been marginalised by predominantly male, white and middle-class American fans and readers. And yet the genre is ideally suited to such fictions, as they are both thought experiments and cautionary tales. It is almost certainly overly charitable to ascribe their low profile among the sf community to their frequent reluctance to explain their mechanism of change. And, while Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground may be a typical feminist utopian fiction in this regard, it also demonstrates the strength and appeal of such stories.

At some indeterminate point in 1978’s near-future, the Earth itself rebels, and as a result “men’s sexual erections, like the operation of all mechanical and electronic devices, are confined to densely populated metropolitan areas” (from Sally Miller Gearhart’s website). A group of women – the Hill Women – have successfully escaped from the cities and now live in the countryside, interacting with each other, with nature, and trying to assist the Earth in its healing.

The Hill Women possess the ability to converse with animals and plants, who appear to have gained sentience during Earth’s revolt. The women are also telepathic, telekinetic and can fly. It’s implied that all women – well, those who break from the cities and join the Hill Women – have the potential to exercise these powers, although the characters in The Wanderground each have them only to differing degrees. The hows and whys of all this are left unexplained – in fact, in a number of instances, these powers are little more than literary devices, used to enable the plot.

The Wanderground comprises a series of interlinked stories about the Hill Women. Gearhart makes no concessions to her readers, and right from the start uses vocabulary peculiar to their society. On the first page alone, “anger was being spoken”, the protagonist waits for a “mind invitation”, which does not come, and then checks “her listenspread”. The stories of The Wanderground are very much focused on the relationships and interactions between the Hill Women (and others) – there is no overall plot per se to the book. This very much works to its advantage.

There are in The Wanderground some especially nice touches. While many of the invented portmanteau words feel a little unnecessary and forced, I was particularly taken with the neologism “carjer”:

Ono remembered Egathese’s carjer, one of those personal bands of prejudice where hard things had to be worked out or at least understood. (p 36)

This is a word which should enter common usage.

The Wanderground reads a little dated during the sections set in the city – there seems to have been no progress in the world of men and everything feels very mid-twentieth century. This presents a cognitive mismatch with the timeless nature of the society of the Hill Women, though the familiarity of city society does emphasis men’s appalling treatment of women. Nevertheless, the book builds to an affecting finish. The chapter detailing the “Revolt of the Mother” as a vision experienced by a group of Hill Women is also especially effective.

It’s not hard to see why The Wanderground is a classic feminist utopia. Perhaps, as is inevitable, there is an element of wish-fulfilment to its scenario – all those magical powers! – but there’s also a great deal of charm. The chapters set in the city are justifiably angry, and Gearhart keeps the righteousness firmly on target. And yet all is not as perfect as the Hill Women would have it, and it’s Gearhart’s introduction of the “gentles” which demonstrates the strength of the book’s conceit. The presence of the gentles (men who have rejected the cities) allows Gearhart to show that factions exist within Hill Women society, which in turn demonstrates that no place can be a utopia to all its inhabitants, no matter what magical powers they may possess. Recommended.

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