Three thousand years before the story starts, Lysos, founder of the human colony on the isolated planet of Stratos, led an effort to reengineer human life into a happier, more pastoral life.
Briefly, she developed a strain of human beings that conceive clones in winter, and normal children in summer. All clones are female, because males do not bear. Further, males and females have opposed seasons of sexual receptivity. Men are sexually receptive in summer, and women in winter. This scheme is said to be stable over evolutionary time because women gain an evolutionary advantage from self-cloning, while men only reproduce themselves in summer. Finally, men have been adjusted so that they are far less aggressive during the times that they are less sexually receptive.
The social result is that the vast majority of the population of Stratos consists of financially successful groups of female clones. Over centuries of normal self-interested business and political arrangements, these groups dominate the society. The society is also extremely stable, because, it is said, most violence is initiated as competition between males.
Stratos is portrayed as a practical feminist society, literally dominated by numerous strains of identical, financially successful women. Men are confined to relatively few professions (such as sailors), and characterized as helpless.
However, Stratos is not static. Variations still exist. People conceived in summer are normal mixtures of male and female genes. This provides a continuing source of sexual variation, letting the society perform biological adaptation. A small fraction of each generation of variant women becomes financially successful against the intense competition, and founds a hive of clones.
However, men and most variant women remain despised "vars", financially unsuccessful hewers of wood and drawers of water.
Maia and Leie are twins, non-clone var daughters of the "hive" of "Lamatia," a group of female clones that specialize in commercial import/export banking. Lamatia is a typical hive, one of many on the planet of Stratos. Like most such hives, when its children reach late adolescence, it retains its clones, and ejects its male and female variant children.
Maia and Leie conceive a plan to team up and pass themselves off as two members of a much larger hive. They hope to work as sailors to explore Stratos, find their niche, and found a successful hive. Unbeknownst to them (they have a practical, not a classical education), they are named after characters in a classic novel in which twins attempt to do just that, so that their plan is doomed by their very names.
Almost immediately, the ships' masters (men) separate the twins to different ships, so as not to cause friction with the var sailors. Maia meets Naroin, a female bosun's mate. Later, a group of legally sanctioned pirates sink Leie's ship in a naval battle that also involves Maia's ship. Leie is lost at sea. Maia, injured and heart-broken, recuperates. She finds a job on a railroad.
On the railroad Maia discovers a courier running illegal drugs. The drugs are sexual stimulants to rearrange men's period of receptivity. They are part of a plot by the "Perkinites" (Named after Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of Herland), to eliminate men from an isolated valley, and perhaps later all of Stratos.
Maia notifies the "Planetary Equilibrium Authority" and is kidnapped and imprisoned by the Perkinites. In prison, she discovers another prisoner who is electrically telegraphing messages. She talks with Renna, and she and Renna develop a friendship via telegraph.
After a long period of imprisonment, Maia engineers an escape during a period of upset, and discovers that her fellow prisoner is actually the "Visitor," a male interstellar visitor from an unengineered branch of humanity.
During the escape, Maia becomes involved with political radicals, and a platonic friendship develops between Renna and her. A faction of the radicals steal Renna to an island base, fighting another legal faction. Naroin reappears as a mate among the larger group of legal radicals.
Maia follows the illegal radicals, to rescue Renna. In the island base, Renna somehow disappears.
Maia solves many problems. Maia recruits a crew of helpers from some prisoners, including some virtuous male sailors. She discovers that Naroin is a member of a clan of detectives. She also finds that her sister is alive, but on the other side of the conflict!
Ultimately. Maia finds the mythical "Jellicoe Former" an advanced manufacturing facility (possibly based on molecular manufacturing) that can produce any device. In the pastoral, low-technology society of Stratos, the Jellicoe Former is the beginning of a social earthquake. Unfortunately, Renna is killed trying to escape in a spaceship he completed with the help of the Jellicoe Former.
Maia is then severely injured at the end of the climactic battle. By opening a defense facility and helping Naroin to escape, she and Naroin had summoned numerous groups of police, who overcame the political radicals, and freed the vars and helpless male sailors.
Afterward, while recuperating, Maia is dragged into politics, because she has become a symbol. She tells her story to a group of prominent men, heads of male societies. For her actions, they offer her "clan" an alliance (i.e. the right to invite them to "spark" winter clone-daughters), with the sole exception of one man, who reveals himself as her long-lost father.
At the end, Maia escapes her keepers, and decides that Stratos' current society is evil because its pastoral culture impoverishes people, causing famine, poor health and poor education. She resolves to fix things and be her own woman.
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