A World Between Themes
A blurb on the 1986 paperback edition describes the book: "The war between the sexes has just come to paradise." This expresses the novel's primary theme, that there is a way for the two sexes to live together happily.
Compared to the extremes represented by the invaders (and also in much feminist science fiction of the era), it is a moderate, sensible way. However, Pacifica, the planetary society which exemplifies it, may not be quite what any segment of the "gender wars" had in mind. It is formally egalitarian, but women slightly predominate in public life, while men remain masters in the bedroom. Pacifica also has a frontier region where the inhabitants are all male and homosexual. Some of this may have been set up for dramatic effect, in posing the "Pacifican way" against the radical Femocrats and the male-dominant Transcendental Scientists. But it does work within the book, building a culture with which many readers can identify.
Even more timely, perhaps, is the novel's theme of electronic democracy. Pacifica is a "wired" world somewhat like ours may be in the future. Parliamentary votes of confidence, if they fail, are referred to a planet-wide vote. Even in their home on an isolated island, the two main characters have netshops, which enable them to keep in touch with their responsibilities as government leaders. Moreover, Pacifica's main export to other, faraway planets is information.
Free media access for all is one of Pacifica's sacred principles. This provides any person or group with the whole planet as a potential audience. In one way this Pacifican principle is a metaphor for our own First Amendment rights. From another view, in an electronic — or even a print — age, it is the only way to insure "equal access" for all, regardless of wealth. There are commercial channels too, and they carry a range of programming, some of it quite explicit and some of it "hate talk." But despite the free-wheeling electronic environment, open access allows elections to be conducted largely on the issues rather than swayed by big money interests. This theme of electronic democracy and universal access is even more timely now than when the book was written.
A third theme, more submerged, is the promises and assumptions of science. The Femocrats who come to Pacifica are a crude version of radical feminists. Instead of setting up a group of macho "good old boys" to oppose them, Spinrad brings on the Transcendental Scientists. This cult is sexist only indirectly. Few women attain high positions among them or graduate from their institutes. But that is because of women's "essential nature," not because they are barred from trying. Or so the cult's leaders believe. Transcendentalists are logical, sober, and unemotional. With this approach they have gained mastery over physical laws and limitations far beyond that of ordinary science. Theirs is a much more difficult lure to resist.
In contrasting them with the Pacificans, the author gives at least a nod to the feminist critique of science. As their name implies, this group aims to transcend nature, not to live as part of it. Their ships, the arkologies, are artificial habitats designed for function, with little thought for beauty or comfort. Their express goal is to take humanity beyond its evolutionary limits, controlling the universe in the process. While Pacifica's people are far from primitive, they live in harmony with the natural beauty which surrounds them. Their information nets thrive on openness and chaos.
The basic theme behind this conflict is the question: how much to sacrifice for control of our environment? Can humanity be part of nature and at the same time transcend it? Simple answers to these questions cannot be given. The author and his Pacificans recognize this. Their solution is to build an institute for similar research, but without the Transcendental Scientists, their secrecy, or their hubris.