I’ve heard of Tepper as one of the early-ish feminist SF authors who got quite a lot of attention. This came out in 1988, so not early at all, but nonetheless it’s one whose name seems to kinda float around in the ether as an example of feminist writing. It’s been sitting on my shelf for ages, so I figured I should give it a go.
Set some time in the future, on Earth, this is largely an exploration of a society through one character’s life. There are a few significant events, but most of them are daily-life-level, rather than world or even community-level: it’s intentionally small scale, I think, to explore the issues on Tepper’s mind rather than to present an epic narrative.
This is a very complicated book to think about. Firstly, although it’s only mentioned in passing this is a deeply homophobic book. I don’t think there’s any mention of female same-sex relationships, and male homosexuality is regarded as an illness that needs to be cured; men who want to sleep with other men are deeply suspect.
Secondly, it’s an example of that sub-genre where women and men live largely segregated lives. The women are mostly in towns, while many of the men live outside the town walls in a garrison. There are exceptions: the men who return to the towns, through ‘the gate to women’s country’, and why they choose this and how the other men regard them is one of the key aspects that’s explored through the story – eventually, anyway. I don’t think Tepper is advocating for this segregation as a real way to live, but it’s an interesting thought experiment.
Thirdly, the narrative structure isn’t linear. It largely follows Stavia, and her experiences both as a child and as woman; a large part of this is about how childhood experiences influence her as an adult (the child is the mother of the woman, etc etc). This isn’t too complicated, but it is occasionally confusing, since there’s no textual indication at the start of the chapter or whatever to indicate which time the chapter is in. It does become evident pretty quickly, but it’s still something to be aware of.
Fourthly, there’s the Iphigenia at Ilium aspect. This is probably the strangest bit. The book is set some centuries after some sort of disaster has killed a massive proportion of the population and devastated the environment. Lots has been lost, but somehow a variation of The Trojan Women has survived, and become so important that it’s staged every year. I can see some of the thematic similarities that Tepper is trying to convey – Achilles’ ghost is basically laughed at, and it seems to try and remind the women that there are problems with warriors and senseless violence, or something like that? Perhaps I missed something deeper, because overall it just didn’t make sense to me.
Lastly, one of the big revelations towards the end is a major spoiler, so if you don’t want that, look away now…
A lot of people write stories with disparate threads – multiple narratives – that then end up all coming together somehow.
If you want to know how to do it really well, you need to read this book.
It’s set on the eponymous planet, where ‘the bons’ – noble families who left Earth generations ago, probably because people weren’t giving them the forelock-tugging they thought they deserved – have set up extended-family estancia, and their lives basically revolve around the Hunt. Right from the start you get the inkling that something isn’t quite right here, but it’s not clear why.
Meanwhile, in the rest of the galaxy, Sanctity is having a red-hot go at trying to control everyone’s lives. They’re doing a pretty good job on Earth, and having varying success on other planets. Sanctity is, I think, meant to hark back to age-of-exploration Christianity and the way Christian ideas and Christian leaders were used to excuse and, sadly, encourage European colonisation and exploitation. I also suspect it’s meant to be a far-future evolution of Mormonism: there are enormous heraldic angels in the architecture, as well as some other bits and pieces that sound like it.
And there’s a plague. It’s popping up all over the place, no one has any idea why, no one has any idea how to stop it… except that it doesn’t seem to have occurred on Grass. Guess we better send someone to investigate… but Grass people don’t want Sanctity on the planet… those bons are all about the Hunt… so hey, send non-Sanctity horsey people!
Enter Marjorie Westriding Yrarier: Old Catholic, doing charitable works, rocky marriage, painful children, Olympic equestrian. You know, all-round interesting person and key to the narrative.
There are many things to love about this novel. The way that Tepper brings together such different people and their problems and achievements into one magnificent cohesive whole. The planet Grass itself, with almost no trees and an enormous variety of grasses and what that might be like as an ecology and for humans. Complicated families and the difficulties of living with them. The existence of religion and that, while the institution of Sanctity is clearly problematic, the religion itself (and Catholicism) are not. Aliens. The beautiful and evocative prose that’s just so easy to read, so enchanting, and conveys emotion brilliantly.
I love Sheri S Tepper.
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!!” Continue reading →
Sheri Tepper looked at a map showing the boundaries of different genres and, taking a fine black marker, drew her own shape instead.
Fantasy: there’s magic and faeries and they’re a real part of the world.
Science fiction: time travel and a dystopian future are integral to the plot.
Fairy tale retelling: the titular character is meant to be Sleeping Beauty (… and that phrase should be understood in a couple of different ways).
Horror: a couple of sections, for my tastes anyway.
Christian allegory: tied in with the Faery aspects, they work quite nicely.
Bildungsroman: the novel covers pretty much the entirety of Beauty’s life.
Environmental cry for help: the future is a horrible place unless we get on with changing things NOW.
Family drama: oh yes. Oh my yes.
I know there are other authors who do similar things, but it’s rare to find such a magnificent combination of elements that are traditionally ‘fantasy’ (faery, fairy tales, etc) with those that are science fiction (time travel in particular). I can absolutely see why Tepper is being honoured with the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award, and this is the first of her books I’ve read (… I’m pretty sure…). There is just no question for her that of course a dystopia can coexist with the concept of magic, that fairy tales can be reworked together with time travel.
14th-century Beauty lives with maiden aunts and her father, when he’s not off crusading. Her mother died in childbirth, or so she’s been told, but when her father intends to marry again, she discovers that maybe things are weirder than expected. And then things get really weird when she encounters people from the future and she is whisked away with them, to a decidedly brutal and unpleasant future of billions of people, little room to move and less food. She doesn’t stay there, but ends up travelling… elsewhere…
Look, I can’t say too much else about this book because finding all the amazing twists and turns is an absolute joy. Tepper writes beautifully, at times grimly; she constructs a complex character in Beauty and surrounds her with genuinely varied friends and foes and family. SO MUCH happens in fewer than 500 pages. It’s magnificent.