Native Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin

NativeTongueElginNative Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin (1984)
Review by M Fenn

Suzette Haden Elgin published Native Tongue, the first book in this eponymous trilogy, in 1984. I was 22 in 1984.

I remember Reagan’s election and how many of us on the left (I was already quite at home way over on the left wing) were frightened by the possibilities, many of which have come to pass. I also remember the beginnings of the backlash on feminism, a backlash that just keeps growing 30 years later. So, I get where Elgin’s coming from with her story of a dystopian future USA where women have lost all their rights and are now the property of men in worse ways then they were before the second wave of feminism. My 22 year-old self would have eaten this book up and looked for more.

I’m sad to report, however, that the book didn’t really do much for my 51 year-old self. The story immediately irked me with the premise that the constitutional amendments revoking the 19th amendment and turning women into minors under the law would have happened by 1991. I mean, okay, Reagan and his ilk scared me, too, but 1991? That seems awfully premature.

That’s always a risk writers take, putting events in the super-near future. I’m still miffed that 2001 came and it was nothing like the movie. There was a 33-year gap there. To predict something this cataclysmic happening less than 10 years from when you’re publishing? Might have wanted to think that through a little more.

So, I had to try to push that aside as I read further. Fortunately the rest of the book takes place centuries in the future, the 22nd to be exact. There we discover that not only do women still not have any rights, but society has been divided up into two antagonistic groups: the Linguists and everyone else. The Linguists are the only people capable of communicating with all the alien societies humans have met, so they’re necessary as translators to make all the treaties and do all the negotiating. Regular people hate them, so the Linguist families (the Lines) live in large communal houses buried in the earth away from prying eyes and violent reaction.

One of the reasons that regular folk hate the Linguists is that Linguist women are allowed to work outside the home as translators because, apparently, there’s so much translating that needs to be done, they have to. Then we have all the stuff happening with babies blowing up because they can’t fathom non-humanoid alien languages (no, really). I haven’t even gotten to the Linguist women’s work on creating a language that allows women to express their thoughts better than standard English, French, German, whatever. This, one might argue, is really the point of the book, but it gets lost, to me, amidst all the other stuff.

Oh, and there’s a serial killer. (Who’s actually my favorite part of the novel; her first murder? That chapter would make a great Tales from the Crypt of something.)

I hate to say this, because Elgin’s short story ‘Old Rocking Chair’s Got Me’ remains one of my favorite short stories (Top 10, no question. It’s awesome. And hard to find. I have it in Dick Allen’s Science Fiction: The Future (1983 edition).), but I found Native Tongue to be too bloated and ponderous, too preachy and heavy-handed. While not all the women are saints, by any means (see: serial killer), most of them are and there isn’t one kind man in the whole thing. They’re all stupid, misogynistic assholes, every one of them, which is just bullshit. Even in 1984, I had allies. Still do.

None of the characters are really developed at all; they’re all just game pieces for Elgin’s philosophical/linguistic chess board. And there are so many plot holes. What do the aliens in the Interface do all day when they’re not communicating with (and occasionally destroying) the babies? And what happened to all the kids who’d been fed hallucinogens in an attempt to keep them from blowing up after they were taken to the orphanage? The list goes on.

Things I liked? The serial killer character, as I said. She’s really the only person whose character evolved (however slightly) over the course of the novel. I also enjoyed Elgin’s discussions of language and the linguistic “tricks” that one male linguist in particular would use to win arguments. Those were interesting. And I liked the notion that an academic field such as linguistics would become so powerful. But the negative outweighs the positive for me.

Biggest disappointment? The cover of the edition I read. Nothing like that image happens in the book. I wanted my motherly alien!

This review originally appeared on Skinnier Than It Is Wide.

The Shore of Women, Pamela Sargent

shorewomenThe 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.

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.

For more information about this book, please see the entry on

Native Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin

Native, Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin (1984)
Review by Ian Sales

“The natural limitations of women being a clear and present danger to the national welfare when not constrained by the careful and constant supervision of a responsible male citizen, all citizens of the United States of the female gender shall be deemed legally minors, regardless of their chronological age…” (p 7)

In the future of Native Tongue, a series of amendments to the US Constitution in 1991 have repealed all rights for women. By 2179, this situation appears to have become global, though no good explanation for such a practice being adopted by other nations is presented. Earth also has colonies on other worlds, and is in contact with an unspecified number of alien races. In order to communicate with these aliens, several groups of linguists have come into being. Known as the Lines, these are extended families in which every member is trained from birth to be fluent in at least one alien language and a handful of human languages, as well as have working knowledge in many more languages. Nazareth is perhaps the most gifted linguist in Chornyak House, a Line located in North America. At an early age, she displays a talent for “Encoding”, ie, identifying concepts which do not exist as single words in any earthly language. A few samples are given at the end of Native Tongue in an appendix – ralaheb: something utterly spiceless, ‘like warm spit’, repulsively bland and blah” or wonewith: to be socially dyslexic; uncomprehending of the social signals of others”. These Encodings are important because they are the building blocks of a secret language called Láadan the women of the Lines are creating. The men know nothing of Láadan: they think the language the women are working on is Langlish, but that’s a smokescreen. The development and introduction of Láadan is the end point of the narrative of Native Tongue.

Most of the novel is concerned with describing a world in which Láadan’s creation both occurs and betters things for its speakers. And since those speakers are women… It’s not enough that females are second-class citizens, Nazareth is also married to a man she despises. A monstrous secret government project to train a baby to speak a “non-humanoid” alien language – run entirely by men – repeatedly results in the horrible deaths of its subjects. Michaela Landry murders her obnoxious husband and, working as a nurse, becomes a serial killer of old men… but changes her ways on meeting the old women of Chornyak Barren House. A “barren house” is just as the name suggests, a retirement home for women who can no longer bear children. And Chornyak Barren House is also where most of the work on Láadan is being done.

“…never for an instant, lose track of the knowledge that when you interact with a woman you interact with an organism that is essentially just a rather sophisticated child suffering from delusions of grandeur” (p 110)

The true aliens in Native Tongue are the men. There is a disconnect between what we are told the male characters believe women to be – ie, sophisticated children – and how they actually interact with them. Though they denigrate Langlish, and protest at women’s inability to think, in many situations in the book their behaviour towards their wives is no different to how it is to each other. Yes, they are patronising, and arrogant, and in a number of scenes talk as though they had been lifted direct from a Robert Heinlein novel… And yet the paternalism suggested by the above quote never really manifests in their behaviour.

Which is, I suppose, part of the point of Native Tongue. Turning up the chauvinism to eleven, so to speak, renders the male characters less than human, which in turn highlights the plight of the female characters, and so demonstrates the importance of Láadan. In part, this might also explain the thinness of the background. The world of 2179 is assumed to be little different to that of North America, which itself seems mostly unchanged from the USA of 1984. Though colonies on other worlds are mentioned, no explanation for their existence, or indeed how they are reached, is given. Technology does not appear to be much advanced from the mid-1980s.

As Native Tongue builds towards its reveal of Láadan, it remains adamant that the language will improve the lives of women, but never quite says how it will do so. Certainly there is room for improvement – and not simply from a legal standpoint (something, of course, which Láadan cannot affect). Elgin paints a picture of a society in which the treatment of women is criminal, and hints at a solution without actually revealing it. But then Native Tongue is only the first book of a trilogy – it was followed in 1987 by The Judas Rose, and Earthsong in 1993.

There are many things to like Native Tongue. Michaela Landry is a very likable character, despite being a serial killer. The society of Chornyak Barren House is portrayed well (not all of its inhabitants are sympathetic or admirable). The linguistics around which the story is based provides a number of fascinating ideas. And yet… The story all feels a little one-sided, a little too much like an attack against an uncharacteristically token defence. It feels unbalanced thematically and in its world-building. Native Tongue is a book, I think, that needs rereading, and then its sequels need to be read.

Note: Elgin did actually create Láadan – see here.