As the reader goes deeper into this book and gets to know the kind of world Sheri S. Tepper proposes he might start to realize something does not fit too well. There seems to be too much unnecessary suffering in segregating men and women in such a forceful way. Too many misunderstandings between both sexes due to having been educated in such diverse ways, too many painful sacrifices, too hard their effort to prepare the militia for a war lacking any real meaning or use. Hidden reasons arise, however, in the last chapters, giving the story a surprising and suggestive plot twist. Be aware, spoilers.
(Read the first part of this article here)
The secret eugenics in “women’s country”
Only women who are part of the council and returnees, or “servants”, know the horrible secret that all the warriors outside the walls and even most of the female citizens ignore: The real reason for erecting those walls and separating so rigidly men from women it is not protection against external enemies, but against internal, this is, against the men of the city themselves.
It turns out that every city-state governed by matriarchy has spent decades, if not centuries, implementing some kind of self-induced eugenics, this is a controlled breeding system to gradually get rid of those self-destructive tendencies present in the genes of many males.
As the end of the novel reveals, after the nuclear disaster several communities were re-built following the teachings of a legendary and mysterious woman named “Eve”, who claimed that those politicians, thinkers and militaries responsible for the disaster were mostly men. To avoid similar catastrophes in the future, women became warriors and learned to take care of their own affairs, gradually relegating much of the men in their own communities to the supposedly relevant task of defending the cities from external enemies while they, walls inside, took care of everything else.
Such task, however, turns out to be completely useless. First, because every city ruled by women maintains good diplomatic relations with the others and always agree to keep the status quo. Second, because women and “servants” have secretly maintained and developed a highly advanced military technology that makes garrisons’ task completely unnecessary. Soldiers are kept in the dark, learning out-dated combat tactics and using ineffective weapons following their ironclad code of honour while, walls inside, women and their allies can, if required, deploy a much more lethal arsenal. The fact that this very same code despises any discipline beyond war certifies that soldiers will never be able to access the knowledge they would need to improve their own weapons by themselves.
The real reason for the existence of walls is therefore that of keeping dangerous and violent men outside communities and make them focus on a task that is as self-destructive as innocuous. Wars between various cities are actually meticulously arranged and planned between different women councils to simply cause casualties among their own soldiers in order to prevent any detachment from becoming too powerful or too numerous. When soldiers themselves, or at least a certain group of them, began to conspire against their own women’s council, which happens quite often, or when they begin to show deviant or suspicious behaviour, they all are sent to a previously arranged battle that is impossible to win, decimating or annihilating their ranks, or a selected group of women accompanied by “servants” assassin the ringleaders with a quick stroke and prepare some kind of elaborate charade to divert any suspicion.
The real parents of the city
Of course, letting most aggressive men die in stupid battles is part of that eugenics, but more important is to avoid those unwanted genes to be inherited from generation to generation. Thus, it happens that, contrary to what they themselves think, those visiting soldiers during festivals are not the true parents of most of the children born within the city walls. Applying secret contraceptive methods and artificial insemination techniques of which warriors are obviously not aware of, nor (for security purposes) are many of the women also, the matriarchal council ensures that few or none of the conceived children are the result of the bi-annual soldiers “visits”, but of their own conception and parenting program.
Who are the real parents then? Well, neither more nor less than the “servants”, as these men, those who renounce the non-sense violence of the garrisons and gather the necessary courage to face dishonour and cross the “gate to women’s country” are considered to be the most desirable ones and the only ones ready to live in community and beget children. They, of course, become aware of the entire conspiracy as soon as they cross that door, automatically becoming guardians of the secret and devoted allies of the matriarchal council, since in exchange for keeping a low profile and make both soldiers and most of the other women believe they are insignificant, sexless and neutral beings, they can live in peace within the city walls, have access to good education and establish hidden but constant and lasting relationships with those women they love and who are participants in the plan, besides being able to take care of their own children. What is more, by secretly applying those insemination technologies on the rest of the women the council makes sure they are seed from these same men, although the need to carry out all this in the shadows makes it impossible to be one-hundred-per-cent fulfilled.
The difficult path of truth for city councillor Stavia
Stavia is a smart and pretty girl living in the matriarchal city of Marthatown. Her mother is Morgot, a city councillor, and they share their home along with her younger sister Myra and a “server” called Joshua. She also has three male brothers called Habby, Byram and Jerby, who have already started their service in the city garrison.
The book, which begins in extreme res, and which is based on a succession of flashbacks, tells Stavia’s story through childhood, adolescence and maturity as well as her education and training as a doctor, the beginning of a friendship hat turns into a stormy romance with a boy from the garrison called Chernon, and the loss of her sister who, being in love with another soldier who ends up dying in battle, flees the city unable to bear neither her pain nor the rigid social rules.
Something Stavia does not know, however, is that Chernon, like the deceased lover of her sister, is actually following orders from Michael, a cunning and intriguing officer who, along with some other minions, has managed to take control of the garrison by corruption, conspiracies and deaths. Not happy with this, Michael and his friends are planning a coup to monopolize power in Marthatown both inside and outside the walls, but they are aware that women hide some secrets, and fear those may be related to some kind of lethal weapon. Being, or so he thinks, lover of Morgot during the “carnivals” and father of her children, and being aware that, despite everything, he has never managed to get that much information from her, he decides to send two young men to pry information from who he thinks are his own daughters.
So, for years, Chernon works on his relationship with Stavia, managing to secretly get some books from her, which is strictly forbidden to soldiers. The ensuing scandal forces Stavia to go away to another city for several years, a time she uses to improve her own career in medicine. When she finally comes back, Chernon manages to rebuild their friendship, and with some doses of emotional blackmail and seduction, convinces her with the idea of escaping together for a while to live some adventures and be lovers.
By the time the girl, now a young woman in her early twenties, is sent to explore a deserted area south of the city, Chernon, always following orders from Michael, leaves the garrison and joins her. When they finally meet Chernon physically forces her, which becomes the first major disappointment for Stavia, and soon after that they are captured by a band of “Holy Landers”, a community of religious fundamentalist, brutally misogynistic, polygamous and patriarchal people where women are treated almost as breeding animals or slaves. During her stay Stavia suffers greatly, besides realizing she is pregnant of Chernon. Two “servants” from Marthatown, one of them Joshua, finally recue her and bring her back to the city, a moment in which her mother decides to make her a council member revealing her the whole truth, also the fact that Joshua is her real father.
The story ends in a tragic but necessary way: Chernon, who also manages to escape, is back to the garrison and starts telling everyone suggestive stories about “Holy Landers” and how their men dominate and subjugate women at will. Aware of this, and also aware of the attempted uprising planned by some officials, Marthatown’s council and some “servants” concocts an ambush and slay the ringleaders, including Michael, while contrives to send their entire garrison, increasingly contaminated by conspiracies and by Chernon dangerous ideas, to an unequal battle against troops from many neighbouring towns, from which not a single soldier survives. Then neighbouring cities sent small detachments from their own troops then to help replace the missing soldiers and, after a short time, situation is back to normal. The book actually begins with Stavia, already an adult, receiving the devastating news from the lips of his own eldest son that he has decided to remain in the new garrison the rest of his days.
Does the end justify the means?
The price to be paid for such a tough system is not only high for most men, deceived and slaughtered in sterile struggles so that both time and genetic selection exerted by matriarchy delete their undesired genes. There is also a price to be paid by women. For most, that is, for those who do not know what is really happening, they lose constantly sons and lovers. But for the minority, for those who do know the secret, it is even harder, considering that they have to keep up appearances at all times and are thus forced, like any other, to deliver their children to the militia and accept their decision if they, by the time, decide to stay forever outside the walls, even being aware of the absurdity this represents, as in fact happens to the main character herself, Stavia, and as it also happened to her mother, Morgot. They also have to keep up appearances with those “servants” with whom they have relationships, and always hide their romance in the eyes of others. Even “servants” pay a price for crossing the door, since they cannot disclose both their relationships and their paternity.
The goal, as Morgot tells her daughter Stavia when she returns from the “Holy Landers” is a world without wars where women, elders and children do not have to pay anymore for the violent nature of men. The price to pay, however, is high, which is why every year Euripides’ play Iphigenia in Aulis is represented, and why every year, both women who know the secret and “servants” cry, sincerely touched by all those who now have to die so that nobody will needlessly die in that future they are secretly building.
(Iphigenia in Aulis)
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