Warning: While I usually try to keep my reviews spoiler free because spoilers suck, this does contain some opinions on the ending. You have been warned!
The Shore of Women is set in a dystopian future where war has destroyed the world and women have taken control, living within high-tech enclaves and casting men out to live as hunter/gatherers (again, I mention Sheri S. Tepper’s Gate to Women’s Country, these two novels are very similar in initial concept). The men worship the Goddess and visit shrines/holy places to don a circlet and “speak” to the Goddess, who is actually a woman inside an enclave. Men are called through use of the circlet to come to the walls of an enclave where their sperm is then harvested without their knowledge in order to make children. Female children grow up within the enclaves but boy children are sent out after they reach a certain age. The story starts with the trial and expulsion of a mother and daughter, Birana, this being the hardest sentence handed down by the women – being forced out of the enclaves essentially means death.
What to say about this book… while overall I enjoyed it, I encountered some problems. One: The high-tech enclaves were underdeveloped. I found myself wanting to know more about the technology they employed, descriptions of their ships, how they used science to continue the race, etc. These things are mentioned, but life within the enclaves is glazed over. In the first section of the book we are given two narratives; Laissa lives within the enclave and struggles with her rebellious mother not wanting to send out Button, her son, despite his expulsion being well overdue by the women’s standards. Arvil is her twin brother who lives outside the enclaves with a band of men roaming the countryside and worshiping the Goddess. I liked the balance of the futuristic city along with the hunter/gatherer/hyper-religious outside world. For the entire centre section of the book, however, the POV changes from Laissa to Birana in the outside world, and therefore the feel of the majority of the book is more fantasy than science fiction. It loses it’s balance. This also eliminates any further development of the enclaves and the lives of the women, which is what I wanted to read about most. Laissa is brought back at the end but it’s almost too little too late. I don’t see why she could not have been included throughout the book so we could witness her journey alongside the journey of Arvil and Birana on the outside. I think that would have tied things together in a more effective way. Two: Button, who drove a fair portion of the plot in the first quarter of the book, completely falls off the radar for the rest of the book which felt like a serious loose end. Three: The fantasy-esque middle section of the book really dragged for me. Sargent seemed to be flip-flopping between writing an insightful feminist science-fiction story and a raunchy heterosexual romance set in the woods, which brings me to the biggest issue: hetero relationships vs same sex relationships.
Because men and women (this world is very binary) are completely separated from each other, the default for the genders is same-sex relationships. Women seem to be perfectly content having relationships with each other within the enclaves as they don’t require conventional sex with men in order to birth children, but the men are described as “seeking comfort” with each other in what comes across as a purely “physical release” type of way, not a true love way. In my mind this – the men only coupling with each other out of necessity and not for love – made a big statement about the validity of same sex relationships. The men, in general, are essentially described as stupid cattle shuffling around in fear of the Goddess but not really having any life objective other than to be “called”, the reward for which is a hallucination of sex with women. Literally, these men are just wandering around thinking with their penises, which is actually pretty ridiculous. But I digress… The plot then begins to revolve heavily around a budding heterosexual romance in the hunter/gatherer world. Arvil is not like these bumbling, violent men; he is intelligent, suspicious of the Goddess, and wants equal treatment for the women he encounters, particularly Birana. I don’t have a huge problem with the hetero romance itself, like some other reviewers; in fact I could probably argue that because men and women are segregated by gender and engaging in same-sex relationships is considered the norm, the discovery of heterosexual relationships in this world would be an inverse of normativity and thusly be considered taboo. In fact the tabooness is pretty heavily emphasized throughout this section. Birana and Arvil know what they are doing is “impossible and disgusting”, yet they proceed at the mercy of their feelings. I can appreciate that they buck the norm in finding love with each other. Towards the end, however, it is implied that heterosexual relationships are “natural” and more fulfilling, which left a sour taste in my mouth.
In general I’m not sure what the message was that Sargent was trying to get across. She has painted a world where women are in control and men blindly roam the world looking for things to put their penis in and other men to fight. Men and women living together always results in a patriarchal society with women on the bottom, so the women keep the men out and enjoy their lives with each other. The women in the enclaves need the men for their sperm but don’t need them for love. This is all fairly typical for a feminist science fiction novel, but then she throws this weird wrench in at the end when a man and a woman fall in love with each other and produce a natural child and suddenly everyone seems to think, Hey, that’s swell! It’s a bit of a banal note to end on. This book is dated, but I did find it very thought-provoking. The character development was good, though as I mentioned I wish there was more inclusion of Laissa and the inner-workings of the enclave. I also could have done without the graphic depictions of sex between Arvil and Birana, but hey, some people really like that kind of smut hahaha.