I can’t begin to say how angry I am at the blurbing of this book. It doesn’t even begin to hint at how awesome and wide-ranging and epic it is. Without prior knowledge that Tepper is amazing (which I knew from reading Beauty), I would have had zero reason to expect this to be at all something I would like.
The blurb tells you that humans have arrived at Moss to see if there’s intelligent life – which is true; that Jewel is accompanying her half-brother “to help Paul decipher the strange language of the Mossen” is not true, since she’s no linguist, and that “she has a secret mission too” is only half-true, since it’s not exactly an official thing that she’s doing. “A new law on Earth means the imminent massacre of all beasts great and small” is strictly speaking true, but it suggests that there are still many such creatures on Earth which is simply not what we are shown – almost all non-human creatures have long since been got rid of. And that “the Planet Moss, itself a living entity, is not sure it cares for any of the species currently living on its surface” is I guess kind of true but doesn’t give any indication of the complexity of what’s going on. And I certainly couldn’t write the blurb, but I’m not paid to do so.
So what should it have said? Well, clearly humanity have space travel, but personally I think it would have been good to include the fact that humanity is part of a vast interplanetary network involving dozens of different species, and in fact there’s a hugely important narrative thread that involves several different species manoeuvring around one another for dominance in ways that are depressingly familiar. That puts quite a different spin on the narrative than simply “humans are exploring new planets!!”
As well, like in Beauty, Tepper includes a significant and fairly blunt environmental message. Earth is basically nothing but enormous and depressing tower blocks; people get around wearing veils and robes so they don’t get in the faces of all the strangers they have to share very little space with; the oceans are nothing but algae farms, sewers, and oxygen farms. This is clearly shown to be a less than ideal way of living, and at least some of the aliens are shown to be disapproving of humans because of the way they treat their planet and other creatures.
Tepper is also making other political, philosophical statements. One character says, upon revelation that they have a faster-than-expected communication method and why haven’t they always used it:
Because time spent is part of living … Slowness, ripening; slowness, dancing; happiness spent in doing, smelling, understanding. If everything is all the time instantaneous, prompt and sudden, then no one is having any time to enjoy! Life becomes a plethora, a glut, a surfeit of instantaneous amusements barely leavening the job, the task, the thing to get through somehow that life becomes. Who would live a do this, do that, right now, hurry up, finish, all the time finish? Such life no peace! It is a disease. (434)
Take that, modern life.
And while the politics are important and not exactly subtle, this is also not only a polemic but a deeply riveting story about Jewel – who has had one deeply unpleasant childhood and whose relationship with her half-brother is nowhere near as congenial as the blurb suggests, and found meaning in caring for the few remaining dogs on the planet, who must now be found alternative places to live. We get flashbacks to her childhood and therefore have a deeper understanding than might otherwise be possible; I really like that she is the narrator, and that she’s reflecting on her own views and development. I love that Tepper gets around the awkward fact that she wants to include information from places that Jewel has zero contact with by saying, as Jewel, “oh yes, I found out about this later…” – it’s transparent but it’s also entirely gleeful and it works.
I loved this book and I love Tepper. I loved the gradual revelations about people and species and history, I loved that there was still some mystery at the end, I loved the politics and that it wasn’t all entirely easy.