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Monthly Archives: August 2017

You’ll believe a woman can fly…The Wanderground by Sally Miller Gearhart (1985)

The Wanderground  was published in Britain  in 1985  in the  Women’s  Press science  fiction series. 

Sally Miller Gearheart was born in 1931 in the Appalachians in Virginia, where she was raised by her grandmother, who owned a cinema.  She received an MA in Theatre and Rhetoric in 1953 and a Ph.D in theatre in 1956. Sally  taught in various colleges in Texas before establishing a women’s studies programme at San Francisco State University, one of the first in the USA.  She was very active in lesbian rights campaigns in the 1970s,  and in the successful  campaign to defeat Proposition 6 which, if passed,  would have barred lesbians  and gay men from teaching in schools.   The Wanderground was originally published by Persephone Press in 1979 in the USA.

The Wanderground is  not a single  narrative,  but a series of overlapping stories, mostly set in the  hills (the Wanderground) which lie at  some distance from an unnamed  city.  The stories introduce us to  a range of different women:  some women  appear in several  stories. The Wanderground is where women fled to several generations ago to escape the violence  and oppression of  men in the city. In the chapter “Pelagine Stretches”  we learn from  an older woman’s reflections on her past  history  that  women in the city who had asserted themselves  were suffering   a male backlash.  In a flashback Vivian tells her friend  Kate  about the stories she is hearing

‘Kate, they’re true. The stories are true. About how  thye’re hunting women, Swear to god. Sue and Sandy  saw them pick them one up. Put her in the wagon. And her doing nothing. Not a hooker. Doing nothing  I hear another story every day and oh, I got to tell you this Kate, I got to to tell you.’..’The men.  All of them was laughing about it yesterday. You know that singer, Gwen Aquarius, the libber? Well you know they took her down to the Hall. They booked her for defacing public property. Because of that midnight mural, on the H.E.W. building.And with attempted murder because she shot the policeman. Well, they could have locked her up for life but they let her go the guy was saying.  And this is true now, because she’s trying to sue the state: they let her go Kate but they cut out her tongue. They said that ought to be plenty punishment because they found out she was a lesbian  They got such laugh out of that. Them and their smut. I  couldn’t laugh Kate. I said  some things I shouldn’t have.!

Kate and other women flee  into the hills,   although they are hunted as they do so, one woman being snatched up in a net by a helicopter.  In The Remember Rooms more stories emerge  of the past, of how women  were labelled as witches, of how polygamy was reintroduced in some  states,  and  curfews and  dress codes  were imposed on women.

Women   became more and more divided.  All the freaky -looking ones were rounded up  – you know, those who wouldn’t wear  even long hippie-type  dresses, or those who didn’t comb their hair, the kind that would rather be with women than men, or the kind who gave their husbands any kind of hard time. God, it wa snightmare. Only the ones who looked and behaved like ladies had a chance…then the misfit women  began leaving the cities, heading off to  the hills, going towards rumours of  country women who lived off the land, isolated  and self-sufficient. Some found these women.  Others probably didn’t. All of them had to get away from police and state militias. All of them had to hide.

This dystopian vision of the  future  predates  Margaret Attwood’s better  known   novel, The Handmaid’s Tale  by some years. Both were  perhaps inspired  by observing the violent  reaction of some men to the assertivemess of the Women’s  Liberation Movement, and also perhaps by observing what happened in Iran after the Revolution when a narrow religious conservative orthodoxy was imposed on women who had previously behaved much as women  in the West had.  This is a video of protest by women in 1979 against the compulsory wearing of headscarfs.

Once in the hills the women change.  They are able to comunicate with each by thought alone,  which is known as “stretching”, they can also communicate with plants and animals.  The women seek live in harmony with nature,  embracing the notion of the earth as a mother.  A number of women  are developing more advanced powers, able to fly even. How this came about is not explained. There is a strong emphasis on woman-centred rituals, with poems and songs and stories at the centre of their lives. In the final chaper they sing:

To work as if the earth, the mother, can be saved.
To work as if our healing care were not too late.
Work to stay the slayer’s hand,
Helping him to change
Or helping him to die.
Work as if the earth, the mother, can be saved.

Reviews

The hill women have escaped from a nightmare vision of a modern city to build an alternative all women  community. Having abandoned techology, the women are so in touch with with nature that animals and even trees talk to them, but the spare simplicity of Gearhart’s prose ensures that this never becomes mawkish.

The women have created a rich culture with songs, ritual and their own language. Gearhart makes subtle use of existing mythology in a feminist interpretation of the Persephone stoty, and, wittily, has the women wordlessly  communicate Poe’s The Raven to their attendant crows.

Femininity is seen as culturally determined. Urban women  wear make-up and high-heels, but the Hill Women wear simple, functional clothes and pass as men when they infiltrate  the city. Yet in meetings with  “gentles” (men who conscioulsy repudiate sexism)  there are indications that it is the intrinsic maleness of men, rather than the socialised attributes of masculinity,  which prevent men and women living together. “Somehow men – even Gentles – found it difficult or impossible to really share power.” Nevertheles Gearhart avoids the simplistic equation: women=gentleness, men= aggression. The women  experience extremely violent feelings: “They were having visions of man-slaying,  of man-mangling.” But by opening themselves individually and collectively to negative as well as  positive emotions they achieve full humanity.

Fantasy  is an important means of prefiguring versions of a feminist future. If, like me, you find the books implicit assumption that all evil emaates  from men’s colonisation of women historically inadequate and have doubts about its blanket dismissal of technology, you may find compensation in this optimistic vision of women working, living and loving harmoniously together.

Pam Johnson, Spare Rib, August 1979.

Sally Miller Gearhart’s website can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Encounters of the seventh kind; “Queen of the States” by Josephine Saxton (1986)

Queen of the States  was published by the Women’s  Press in their science fiction series. Josephine was born in Halifax in 1935, and left school at the age of 15.  She began writing science fiction in the mid 1960s. Her early novels include The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith (1969), Vector for Seven: The Weltanschaung of Mrs Amelia Mortimer and Friends  (1970) and Group Feast (1971).

This novel resembles  an origami paper  flexahedron that constantly changes in your hands. Just when you think you have got the hang of it, it changes shape again. Few  science  fiction novels begin with a quote from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, which gives you  a strong hint  that this novel is not going to be space opera. It begins with a road, a car and a driver…

Magdalen Hayward drove the car along a narrow road at a steady forty-five miles an hour. The way became more difficult as she went higher, towards the moors. To her left there were some remarkable rock formations standing out against the evening sky and she decided to explore them. She enjoyed scrambling over rocks. She gained a sense of freedom from being high up in barren country, alone. It was marvellous not to have people restricting, telling her what to do or not…but she would not even think of that.

Magdalen’s moorland excursion doesn’t end in a tea shop, though,  but by  being kidnapped  by aliens. Nice aliens, though, who  are curious  about humans  – as this is their first encounter with our odd species –  and are happy to provide  Magdalen with fine wines and dining.  But then she wakes up in  Twelve Trees, a hospital  for people for mental health problems where she insists she is the Queen of America. Returning to her cosy room  in the alien  craft (they have provided marching carpets and wallpaper), the insect-sized aliens tell Magdalen  that her experiences are objectively true:

You have seven concentric selves, all interlocking, making forty-nine states of being, each with seven level of intensity and each in contact  with the forty-nine states plus contact with the origianl seven at all times and places, and a central consciousness which cas freely move about to any point in this network at any one time.

For the rest of the novel  we follow Magdalen  as she tumbles  from one state to another:  the alien craft; the hospital; the Royal Train crossing Dakota;  herself  as a child in a cot ; a souk in Morocco, a bar  in New York, a party with an attractive lover  provided by the aliens…

We also encounter her accident-prone husband, Clive, attempting to be unfaithful with bi-sexual Moira; nasty Nurse Gerhard, who steals hats from her patients ; Mrs Thornton, conjured up by the aliens to take tea with Magdalen; Dr Abel Murgatroyd, who sees a flying saucer and experiences ecstatic conversion to anti-psychiatry.

And then we meet violet-haired Miriam Goldsmith, married to unfaithful Clive,   who goes to see a psychiatrist  about the dreams she is having, “super-real” dreams in which she is another person called Magdalen:

She thinks things like”There must be a better state of being than this.” and then she sort of floats off into a different if not better  sate of being…She goes elsewhere. Not escaping , just like trying on new clothes. She’s very strong , she’s very good, centrally, I  mean, very. Full of love, but quite often gets herself  ripped off , gets things tolen from her – not objects: acts, feelings, energy… She’s quite crazy at times, believes weird things. Like being Queen of America…

At the end of the novels the aliens  send Magdalen back to Earth,  and she sets off a journey away from her past and into tbe future…

So there we are, a kaleidoscope of a novel that seems to be influenced by R D Laing‘s anti-psychaiatric thinking. Although   aliens pop  up, they are just a MacGuffiin,  this is a novel about inner space,   not outer space. I am not  even sure that is really science fiction, but Magdalen (or possibly Miriam) is a likeable companion  for the length of the novel and I would be happy to read more of Jospehine’s work.

By the way, did I mention  Rupert Bear makes some cameo appearances?