Monday, February 15, 2010

Book Review: 'In the Mother's Land' by Elisabeth Vonarburg


2 / 5 Stars

‘In the Mother’s Land’, by Elisabeth Vonarburg (Bantam Spectra, 1992, 487 pp.), features a cover illustration by Oscar Chichoni. The book’s English translation (from the original in French) was done by Jane Brierley.
‘Mother’s Land’ takes place in a future earth nearly a thousand years after combined nuclear war and Eco-catastrophe have destroyed civilization. Small city-states have arisen within the territory of Maerlande; outside its boundaries lie the Badlands, areas still too hazardous from contaminating toxins and radiation to be inhabited long-term. Technology is limited to steam power and the modest use of electricity; most long-distance travel uses livestock, and the economy is primarily agrarian.
One result of the wars and ecological  collapse of the previous millennium is that much of the population is sterile, and the rate of infant and child mortality is high. Only a small percentage of the female population (the ‘Reds’) are permitted to mate and become pregnant. The percentage of males in the overall population is under 5 %, and thus, men have little political or social power within Maerlande; some of the restrictions under which they labor are imposed as cautionary measures in light of the prominent role of men in the downfall of the old world.  Maerlande is very much a ‘Gyn/Ecology’, where woman exclusively serve as rulers and defenders of their civilization. Maerlande society adheres to a belief in a female Deity, termed ‘Elli’, and a female Christ-equivalent, ‘Garde’, who died and was ‘resurrected’ centuries previously.
The narrative follows the life of a young woman named Lisbei, who is born into a high-ranking family in the city-state of Bethely. As Lisbei matures and travels around the city-states of Maerlande she comes to question the religious and historical legends that underpin its civilization.  Her explorations into buried pre-Decline sites soon bring her considerable notoriety as an iconoclast and rebel, and ultimately lead her to question the logic behind the social order and its implications for the future of Maerlande.
‘Mother’s Land’ is a lengthy, deliberately-paced novel and best read by those who seek SF with a decidedly ‘soft science’ bent. The plot relies on prolonged explorations of social and psychological conflicts and conundrums to generate drama and tension. People have emotion-laden conversations with one another, and muse on the significance of various Relationships. They do yoga (the ‘taitche’). Some have mild ESP abilities that manifest as an awareness of an aura radiating from other sensitives.
There are no Radscorpions, Raiders, Feral Ghouls or Deathclaws coming out of the Badlands to commit various acts of mayhem. Nobody unearths a Gatling Laser from a long-buried fallout shelter and decides to take over the world with violent gusto. No subjugated race of deformed mutants instigates a bloody revolt to gain their place in the Sun.
‘Mother’s Land’ is not by any means a feminist polemic; the narrative does not preoccupy itself with feminist ‘issues’, being more of a commentary on how the most structured of societies may rest on a cultural and religious foundation derived from apocryphal sources.
The  last chapter in the book is a disappointment. The author tries to introduce some major revelations about a number of major characters; unfortunately, this is done in a very confusing and obtuse manner. To make things worse, a contrived plot mechanism is used to underpin the revelations; so contrived, in fact, as to make me think that the book would have been better off with the last chapter excised.
In summary, ‘Mother’s Land’ will primarily appeal to those readers willing to embrace a contemplative, slow-moving narrative centered on defining and expanding interactions among the characters, rather a novel centered on action and adventure.

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