Although we will briefly review some of the first feminist science fiction novels and will mention some current ones, we will focus on two works by Sheri S. Tepper (1929–2016). Her science fiction novels have a strong feminist slant (she preferred the terms “eco-feminist” or “eco-humanist”) for which she was both praised and attacked. The devices of science fiction allowed her to expand the boundaries of her themes, often in invented settings, while portraying real issues and concerns.
The two novels we will read use the devices of science fiction but are set within recognizable or frighteningly possible worlds. The first novel, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall
(1996), is set in Washington, DC in the year 2000 in a time increasingly threatened by misogyny and extremism. Although the novel flashes back to the college friendships of the women who are the heart of the novel, most of the action takes places 40 years later. The story follows the central character, a lawyer, as she agrees to act for the defense in a controversial case, and follows the friends as they go on a journey and struggle with the ethics of the case as well as with often-violent forces allied against them. The life experiences of the women reflect aspects of male-female relationships. Although differing external forces both intensify the malevolence of their enemies and provide a positive deus ex machina, the issues and anger that surface in the novel are very real and present.
The second novel is The Gate to Women’s Country
(1988), one of Sheri S. Tepper’s best-known works. The novel is set on earth 300 years after a cataclysm “the burning.” In this time, the women live in walled city-states and perform a Greek tragedy resembling The Trojan Women during their festivals. Outside the gates are camps of armed men, who defend the city and enter only for other festivals. This novel explores the nature of war and violence and how they are linked to gender. Although this novel also has a journey and quest, nothing is quite what it seems and solutions found by the women raise their own questions.
The portrayals of male-female relationships in the novels echo some of the continuing concerns of feminist writers. The discussion of violence and war is powerful as well. The ethical questions and ambiguities in the books provide material for discussion and debate. Whatever our conclusions about the novels, their focus and arguments are relevant and useful. Class Limit: 14
Instructor Ann Nesslage
is a graduate of Vassar with a masters in British literature from Bryn Mawr. Ann retired from Choate Rosemary Hall, where she taught different levels of literature including British Studies and world literature. She also created electives in fantasy literature, satire, Early Irish and Welsh literature, and other topics. Ann lives in Bremen, where she enjoys reading and gardening and serves on the Bremen Conservation Commission and the library board. She is also a member of the CSC board and the Curriculum Committee.