Set in the twenty-second century after the repeal of the Nineteenth Amendment, the novel reveals a world where women are once again property, denied civil rights, and banned from public life. In this world, Earth's wealth relies on interplanetary commerce, for which the population depends on linguists, a small, clannish group of families whose women breed and become perfect translators of all the galaxies' languages. The linguists wield power, but live in isolated compounds, hated by the population, and in fear of class warfare. But a group of women is destined to challenge the power of men and linguists.
Nazareth, the most talented linguist of her family, is exhausted by her constant work translating for the government, supervising the children's language education in the Alien-in-Residence interface chambers, running the compound, and caring for the elderly men. She longs to retire to the Barren House, where women past childbearing age knit, chat, and wait to die. What Nazareth does not yet know is that a clandestine revolution is going on in the Barren Houses: there, word by word, women are creating a language of their own to free them of men's domination. Their secret must, above all, be kept until the language is ready for use. The women's language, Láadan, is only one of the brilliant creations found in this stunningly original novel, which combines a page-turning plot with challenging meditations on the tensions between freedom and control, individuals and communities, thought and action.
This reissue of Elgin's 1984 classic, a call to arms about the power of language in an oppressive society, is a welcome reminder of the feminist legacies of science fiction. In the 22nd century, following the repeal of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, a new society has formed in which women must be supervised by male citizens. Women's only value now lies in their abilities to breed and to translate the many languages used in the intergalactic economy. Nazareth Adiness, the most talented linguist of her family, has spent her life translating and supervising children's language education. At last she is allowed to move to the Barren House, where women past childbearing years go to die. Upon her arrival, Nazareth learns that the women have been using Nazareth's own ideas to build a women's language called L adan that will lay the foundations of a revolution. Elgin (1936 2015) held a doctorate in linguistics and published a L adan grammar and dictionary alongside her novel and its sequels; the depth of her knowledge is evident, but never gets in the way of the story. She explores the power of speech, agency, and subversion in a work that is as gripping, troubling, and meaningful today as it has ever been.