Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Review: Sheri Tepper, The Waters Rising

Talking horse. Talking horse. Talking freaking horse. TALKING FREAKING IN A YOGHURT POT TALKING HORSE! In serious science fiction? NO! NO! NO!

I paraphrase. Maybe even exaggerate slightly. But this is more or less how Grand Old Man of British SF Christopher Priest reacted to the inclusion of The Waters Rising on the shortlist for this year's Arthur C Clarke award.

And he's right. It does have a talking horse. And I'd like a whole menagerie of speechifying chipmunks, otters, octopi, dogs and dolphins to be taken into consideration as well.

Yet this shouldn't make Sheri Tepper shortlista non grata. The Waters Rising is SF with a heavy twist of magic realism, which is a looooong way from the disciplined, almost self-parodically English approach of Priest and probably goes some way to explaining his dismissal of it. 

Now, I love The Prestige, but I carry a major literary torch for Sheri Tepper. I confess, this is partly due to fond memories of The True Game and a D&D adventure a friend ran in our teenage years based on the setting. Mainly, though, it's that extraordinary run of form she hit around the turn of the nineties turning out beautiful far future fables like Grass, A Plague of Angels and Raising The Stones. Not just great books in their own right, they didn't shy away from addressing issues like animal rights, ecology, patriarchal religion and - above all - gender roles and sexual equality. 

Tepper is - or at least should be - a major touchstone for progressive writers in SF.

Nothing she's written since then has quite hit the same heights for me, but The Waters Rising - a sequel of sorts to the post-apocalyptic fairy tale A Plague of Angels - comes closer than a lot of her work since then. Despite its title, it's not a novel about climate change, the rising sea levels being caused by another McGuffin. It is however most emphatically a story about man's relationship with technology and the natural world.

There are a lot of convenient coincidences, sudden developments of psychic powers and hand-waving techno-fixes in The Waters Rising which make sense only if the book is regarded as a fable. Or if Tepper has decided that she's reached a stage in her career where she can do what she likes and the editor can go hang. Neither possibility is of course mutually exclusive... and the occasional detours into soapbox-ing (not so much author tracts as author parables) suggest that the latter is true at least some of the time.

Tepper also indulges her fondness for the twee, there is limited (but bad) poetry, and there are characters called The Great Bear of Zol. This is the author unrestrained. But the fantasy elements of the book are not just window-dressing - they allow her to present the moral conflict  of the book (to master the world or to change with it) in a suitably epic way. This is also the author knowing exactly what she's doing.

This is a genuinely odd, frequently unique and occasionally very good book. I defy anyone to find another book as engaging as this in which humans metamorphose into squid.

Yep, I said it. Squid.

I also can't think of another SF work which has made me think so profoundly about ecological debt. The idea that our actions as a species are accumulating such a moral debt that it would take a radical act of forgiveness to erase it has stuck with me. The Waters Rising being as much a myth as a work of SF, its resolution allows this debt to be both met and erased in an unexpected way.

Fairy tale logic, people!

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