Tuesday 25 June 2019

Books: Be careful what you wish for...

About Sisterland, Martina Devlin, Ward River Press €16.99

Sister's act: Devlin's novel gives women back their power
Sister's act: Devlin's novel gives women back their power
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

Would the world be a better place if it was run by women? I would hazard a guess there would be fewer wars. Mothers are not inclined willingly to send their sons to battlefield as cannon fodder.

The concept of a harmonious all-female society was explored in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's novel of 1915, Herland, a utopian tale where women are strong, caring and reproduce by parthenogenesis. In her latest novel, Martina Devlin develops this fantasy. 

It is 2035 and World War III has destroyed Earth. A male-dominated political structure has been responsible for wiping out most of civilization. A group of surviving women establish a colony, with a hierarchy of power and control to maintain stability. In the city of Harmony, flowers are synthetically scented and birdsong is recorded. Women wear transparent masks to protect their skin from the damaged environment. Instead of computers they have a comtel - a screen embedded in their wrist. With names like Goodwill, Devotion, Modesty and Benevolence, the colony  should be a model of contentment. Crucially, emotions ('moes') are suppressed and some have been de-selected, such as anger. Emotions are considered to have been the downfall of women in PS (pre-Sisterland). Now they have to be purchased and rationed, an E (empathy) is especially savoured. Inevitably, equality cannot be sustained. Some sisters are favoured over others.

The central character, Constance 500, a trainee thought-shaper and memory exchanger, is chosen to babyfuse (become pregnant), and it is her first contact with a man (meet) at 'mating place' which shifts the action and tension. In a wide departure from Devlin's other fiction, this is a sci-fi fantasy of Orwellian themes, only this time Big Sister is watching and 'mind mapping' you. The detailed structure of Devlin's Sisterland is so inventive that it is redolent of Huxley's Brave New World.

In science fiction terms, unlike Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, men are relegated to menial tasks and pro-creation. Their essential role in 'mating place' is for 'himtime' in a lavish, theatrical tower where selected sisters are chosen to 'babyfuse'. Boy babies, however, are taken from their 'sources' and sent away to 'boyplace' to learn how to serve. It is only girls who are prized. Inevitably, the idealised community is challenged after one sister 'Silence' discontinues her babyfusion. Ultimately, the bigger question posed is whether men and women can ever live in harmony. Given the earth we have inherited, a balance of power would be no harm in 2015. Gender difference in politics is not the problem, hunger for power and control remains a barrier to good governance. About Sisterland is a reminder there is no easy solution and it is well worth immersing yourself in this fascinating tale.

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