Senses in Sheri S. Tepper

Finding patterns in Sheri S. Tepper
Finding patterns in Sheri S. Tepper

Sheri S. Tepper has a new book slated for release in August 2010, The Waters Rising, a sequel to 1993’s A Plague of Angels. I decided to look back on Tepper’s books because I had thought, it turns out wrongly, that her books were divided into series. Surely, I thought when I learned of the new book, Plague was related to Beauty and Sideshow—archetypal worlds with areas set apart into discrete spaces—even though I knew that Sideshow was actually part of her Marjorie Westriding series, which includes Grass and Raising the Stones. Yet there is no Westriding series: Wikipedia says that this series is known as the Arbai series. Whatever the series is called, the books all take place in the same universe. Westriding appears as a character in all of them, sometimes obliquely.

I discovered that the series I’d mentally divided Tepper’s books into were all in my head: I see commonalities of theme and structure, and somehow I organize them into series. Quick Internet research reveals that apart from the Westriding/Arbai series and books published overtly as series (True Game, Marianne, and Awakeners, all fantasy and not SF), all her other SF/F books are considered stand-alone novels. It could just be that Tepper revisits her main concerns repeatedly throughout her books: ecofeminism, animal rights, woman’s rights, sentience, fractured worlds and fractured selves, sacrifice, patterns.

Still, let me describe some patterns in Tepper’s work. Here I propose two more series: the Senses series, and the Today series. They are linked through theme and structure and not through shared universe. Of course, one might propose different groupings, depending on your criteria: the Haraldson sequence, for example: both Six Moon Dance and The Family Tree mention this paragon. Or the Animal series, with The Companions and The Family Tree leaping immediately to mind. But until you can match the theme to three volumes or more, I say, it’s just a thematic link. Warning: read on at your own risk! Plot spoilers!

Senses series

The books in the Senses series have plots that importantly revolve around one of the five senses. I could only identify four of the five; the missing element is touch. At issue is the quality of the alien and how that alien is perceived by humans.

Hearing: After Long Silence (1987)

This early Tepper novel revolves around beautiful singing crystal Presences. To navigate the treacherous world of Jubal, singers must accompany travelers and sing to the Presences, to appease them and permit safe passage among the giant crystals. The key to communicating with the Presences, and proving their sentience, lies in sound and singing. The Presences must be made to sing—to speak—in words that humans can understand, to avoid the destruction of this alien life. Similarly, singing is used as a way to work toward an understanding some kind of important, elemental truth.

Sight: Six Moon Dance (1998)

The alien Timmys in this novel are invisible. Of course they are not—not really—but everyone pretends that they are, and thus they really do become invisible, with the metaphorical invisibility sliding into literal invisibility. The ability to perceive them and interact with them is used in the novel as a marker of an enlightened person, one who wishes to acknowledge fellow sentience.

Taste: Shadow’s End (1994)

On the planet Dinadh, humans perceive the evil Ularians by a hideous taste, which is described as filthy and awful. Humans who encounter them salivate; one character props her own mouth open with a wad of leaves so the saliva can flow out, a strong image that I remembered long after I’d read the book.

Smell: The Companions (2003)

The mysterious aliens on the planet Moss communicate by smell; it takes humans a while to figure out that the aliens are attempting to talk to them. A sentient dog shows the protagonist, Jewel, the way. (Another book, Six Moon Dance, also uses smell, in this case a bad smell to mark two awful characters. But they are human, if changed.)

Today series

The three volumes that comprise this series are Gibbon’s Decline and Fall (1996), The Family Tree (1997), and The Fresco (2000). I’m calling this the Today series because the novels take place in what is basically the present day (Gibbon’s was published in 1996 but is set in the year 2000), in a recognizable United States.

In these novels, ordinary women—respectively, a lawyer, a cop, and a bookstore manager—are thrown into extraordinary circumstances, and they save the day through their insight, which is informed by their gender. These novels, more overtly than many of her others (and that’s saying something), critique the direction of American politics and how they affect women and the environment. The most dramatic and hilarious example of this is in The Fresco, where male right-wing politicians are impregnated by aliens, who think that the ideological right-to-life stance will ensure the safety of their offspring.

One criticism I have of Tepper’s work is that she tends to the deus ex machina ending: rational, compassionate aliens come down and save the day! But my recent review of her novels leads me to recast this in a kinder way. In the books in the Today series in particular, the alien-reconstructed world is a metaphor for hope. Aliens view humans as outsiders, of course, which is why the alien intelligences require native guides. The aliens’ distance and their humane rationality float above humanity’s inward-looking gross incompetence in managing its own affairs.

We need to become like the aliens, Tepper suggests. We need to step back, view ourselves dispassionately, identify suffering, separate social constructions from truth, and attach moral meaning to things like gender roles by placing sentience above its embodiment, be it woman or dog or crystal or alien. We may then construct a story, a worldview, of humanity as we would like it to be. Tepper would have us treat sentience, in whatever form it takes, with reverence. Next we weave, or sing, or dance, or write that utopian desire into being.

Tepper’s books are a good start to that project.

This text and the image, which I created, are copyrighted under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. This post was originally written on June 18, 2010. It may be freely copied anywhere. If you copy this post, please also copy the image and host it yourself. If you read this document at a site other than its original, I may not see any comments you might append, and I’d love to hear from you. Please comment at the original blog post if you wish me to see your remarks.

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