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What Geeky Women Want

Strong female characters with equally strong themes can be hard to find in S.F.

by Adrienne Martini

Sheri S. Tepper writes the sort of books that science fiction fans deeply believe they should enjoy in order to prove that they are more enlightened and open-minded than mainstream fiction-buying folk. Her work, which now numbers a dozen or so novels, almost universally seeks to subvert traditional gender roles, a device that almost always makes SF-ers feel all warm, fussy, and down-right superior to the mundanes who pick up a Harlequin or King.

Beauty is arguably her best-known book and the one that has received the most critical acclaim; it tosses fairy tale formulas on their heads, proving that women still get screwed after they find their prince. The Gate To Women's Country dusted off the old trope about a walled, female-only enclave that still does despicable things, despite years of oppression from big, bad men. Her more recent books, like The Family Tree and Gibbon's Decline and Fall, still rely on the woman-as-victim theme but also weave in a woman-as-mother-earth thread that is probably as old as, well, the earth.

Despite Tepper's reliance on these shopworn themes—which were exhaustively explored in the science fiction field about the same time as the women's movement—her work is still compulsively readable. Tepper has a knack for knocking the serial numbers off of the whole "women = good; men = bad" theme, twisting around some of the particulars, and turning phrases with the skill of a master craftsperson. And her most recent paperback release, Singer From the Sea (EOS/$6.99), runs true to Tepper form.

Singer takes us to Haven, a planet somewhere way out in the reaches of space (we're never really told where). Old white men rule the roost in Haven and will go to any lengths to keep young, nubile girls under their collective thumb, mostly because said girls help keep the old men young by...well, you have to read the book for the explanation since it is the central mystery around which Tepper drapes her sub-plots, which involve a girl's school, some warriors, and, I kid you not, dolphins and the "spirit of the earth." Her reliance on these feel-good aphorisms make you wonder when she'll trot out some rainbows and unicorns, just so that the reader will know how good and virtuous her character's quests are.

As annoying as her new agey symbols can be, her way with the language is still truly admirable. Descriptions like "Wigham was a long armed and stringy fellow who leapt through life with a jerky lack of conviction, like a marionette handled by an unpracticed puppeteer" can't help but suck you in. And her storylines, while predictable in characterization and tone, don't quite go where you would expect them to, which is a pleasant surprise most of the time. Those surprises and her crystalline writing should be the cause for praise, not her reliance on pre-fab feminism that doesn't explore the real boundaries of sex and power.

Sharon Shinn, however, appears content to manipulate modern women by presenting old clichés about sex and power thinly disguised in a work that is a hybrid of two genres. Contrary to the saying, you can judge Shinn's Heart of Gold (Ace/$14.95) by its cover. On it, a women with oddly geometric hair wears a very romantic gown/wedding dress while she leans against a fireplace mantle that is held up with two phallic pillars. The semiotics are simply dazzling. The cover—oversized paperback size—and the paper quality would lead you to believe that this is a romance novel that was mis-shelved in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section. But then you take another look at the heroine's hair-do and the publisher's imprint and realize that this might be a hybrid of the two genres. Twenty pages in, you're convinced of it.

Problem is, Heart doesn't do either genre any justice. The romance doesn't kick in until two-thirds of the way through the story, almost as if Shinn realized that she needed some hook to make the book sell a few more copies. And the SF/F elements lack grounding; Shinn has created a world in which three different races—one blue, one gold, and one albino—are simplistically rendered and never explained. You know her point, that prejudice is bad, simply after reading the blurb on the back of the book and the theme never progresses beyond that. Questions that her world raises (first and foremost being "Why are these people blue, for goodness sake?") are too numerous to mention.

Shinn does her workmanlike best with the thin threads she has but, ultimately, the 350-plus pages appeal to both genres but work in neither and leave the reader wondering if this kind of pap is truly what most women want to read.

June 15, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 24
© 2000 Metro Pulse