Friday, 26 March 2010

The Wanderground - Sally Miller Gearhart

This is a well-written novel that explores important questions. Yet it left me deeply unsatisfied. The novel posits a future in which the Earth has rebelled against the domination of men. They are confined to ‘the city’, the only place where technology (and male sexual potency) still functions. Whilst there are women in the city, some have moved to the hill country and created communities. There they have also developed telepathy, telekinesis, and the power of flight.

As a scenario, it is science fantasy rather than science fiction; wishful thinking rather than a genuine exploration of how the earth has been ravaged and what the consequences might be. But as, in part, a utopian novel, the important aspect of the book is the exploration of ideas about how a particular community works.

We are treated to a number of chapters that display the powers the hill women have developed, that tell us how wonderfully loving and ecologically conscious they all are. By half way I was beginning to tire of the sugary and highly sexist assumptions that underpinned this ‘utopian’ society.

The book is lauded for its questioning of the nature of violence and whether this is gendered based. Apart from a token argument toward the end that tries to shoehorn a bit of balance into the question, the book seems to start with and expound the idea that men are responsible for all violence and ills in the world, that all women and homosexuals are victims.

This seriously undermines what would otherwise have been a truly interesting work. Had this stark, black and white image been given shade and colour; had the storyline (such as it is) been better developed (so that the feeling of threat came across as more than the annoyance one might experience at a shoe lace breaking) and resolved with a bit more than, ‘Oh we’d better think about doing something about that,’ before getting straight back to life as normal; it would have been lifted into a different league altogether.

I do realise that these may actually have been some of the points that the author was trying to make – that utopia is all well and good, but it is boring, suffocating, shored up by the prejudices of those for whom it is utopia (and a hell for everyone else), as well as being extremely vulnerable to alternative visions of the world. Unfortunately, judging by the praise heaped on the book, these particular observations were either unintended by the author, or missed by the many who read it.

For all that, it is well worth reading, not least for the fact it is fantasy book that makes an attempt to tackle some of the most serious questions facing humanity. This can be done whilst still producing a well-written work. Such books exist. Sadly they are few and far between. We should treasure the ones we do have.