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Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West
Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West
by Cormac McCarthy
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.01
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The story of how, once upon a time, everyone simply forgot how to be nice to each other, August 26, 2014
I will give McCarthy credit for taking the time to warn readers about what kind of novel they're in for via the title. "All the Pretty Horses" doesn't give you any kind of clue that it should have been titled, "You'll Never Get Anything You Want, Cowboy" but "Blood Meridian" pretty much tells you that nothing adorable is going to happen here. Unless you find casual, brutal violence adorable, in which case, please don't even find out where I live.

This one tends to get tagged as McCarthy's "masterpiece" even though you could probably say it's just another book of his where unpleasant things happen to people who sometimes ride horses. But it sets itself apart in a couple different ways. One is the tone, which comes across as "apocalyptically ominous" on nearly every page, and the more or less unrelenting brutal violence, told with a clear-eyed and rather dispassionate view. It's probably safe to say that you won't read any other McCarthy book like it, although it isn't for everyone, that's for sure.

Here, we follow the adventures of a nameless "kid" as he ventures through the West in the 1850s. Having a proclivity for violence much like every single other person in the book, he has several misadventures that often result in death and/or destruction before hooking up with John Joel Glanton and his gang, whose sole purpose in life seems to be to gather as many Apache scalps as they can get their hands on. Presumably it's for the money (the state has set up a bounty, probably not their finest moment) although it soon becomes clear that they really just enjoy killing things, wandering through the landscape more or less murdering every man, woman and child they come into contact with, not seeming to worry about the consequences or even asking, "Is this really a good idea?" But then, as pretty much everyone else is okay with murder all the time, maybe they're just trying to fit right in.

To make matters worse, coming along for the ride is the abominable Judge Holden, a massive hairless man with all the morals of someone who doesn't have any morals, who kills children as easily as you or I crack open eggs for breakfast, and might be a personification of pure violence, albeit one that likes to dance naked. But who doesn't?

If this succeeds at all, it's pretty much because of the strength of the atmosphere that McCarthy sets up and his commitment to depicting utter depravity in all its forms. His prose had a loose eloquence to it earlier (the run on sentences that set apart "All the Pretty Horses") but here he's definitely sharpened his game and from the very beginning the prose sets a mood of Biblical doom that doesn't let up. Spare in all its detail and odd in its sentence construction at times, on some level it's like another main character, pulling you along and immersing you in a landscape that should be a nightmare, except the blood splatters shouldn't stain quite this much in a dream. He captures the charred open spaces and the smaller places where men become so close the violence they do to each other is a strange form of intimacy, brought on by promises and whispers.

Into that the judge and Glanton fit into the landscape more than the kid ever does, and it's probably not surprising that as the novel winds on the two of them take center stage by sheer force of personality, Glanton acting as the steady center of the chaos that can't hold forever, and the judge doing something abhorrently riveting pretty much every time he appears. They act as the rotted beating heart of this whole enterprise, unshakeable in how pure they are in their devotion to Doing Bad Things.

And it's the Bad Things that will probably scare off some readers. For one, there's barely anyone to admire in this book. The judge and Glanton and mostly everyone else in the gang are human monsters and while the kid is slightly better, it's like saying that an amputation is better than a disemboweling. These are not pleasant people and the landscape they inhabit mirrors them. There's very little nobility here, very few redeeming qualities in anyone or anything. The Indians are no better than the Americans and in that sense the book mostly erases all racial lines, leaving two groups of people: those doing the violence and those having the violence done to them. And it's very easy to cross from one to the other. As they ride through the land they cause or encounter one act of violence after another until it becomes nearly numbing. By the fourth time you see a corpse hanging from a tree it stops being shocking and starts becoming wallpaper, and for those people who manage to withstand the first few times they may wonder if the book is just a litany of awful things that can happen when everyone abandons morality like we abandon heavy coats in the summer.

It all combines to exert a kind of drawing power, probably due to the combination of prose and characters, probably due to its commitment to singlemindedly depicting the worst in humanity. McCarthy leaves much open to interpretation (including the ultimate fates of some characters, which people might find frustrating although if you're not used to ambiguity in a McCarthy novel then you must be new around here) giving an elusive air to any attempt to search for true meaning in all this, as much as that rewards rereading. It's too simplistic to say that it's merely concerned with showing various degrees of violence, that it spends three hundred some odd pages telling us that deep down inside, we're all bad, awful people with a boundless capacity for slaughter. There's very little light at the end of the tunnel here and no attempt to turn it back toward the reader as aggressive revelation, taunting then with "This is what we're like. You think you're better than this?" You're going to have to find that notion within yourself, ultimately. There's no uplift here, no descent even, just a burned and bitter landscape that seems to extend forever, forward and behind and sideways, far out of view and beyond, suggesting that there's room for all of us inside. And if you've escaped past the borders touched by the elongated dancing shadows, and gone elsewhere, then it's quite possible you've pulled off the hardest trick of all.

Omensetter's Luck (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin)
Omensetter's Luck (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin)
by William H. Gass
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.21
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Luck! Huh! What is it good for? A dialectical analysis of the human condition concerning good and evil! Say it again!, August 19, 2014
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There's probably a segment of people who wonder why attempting to tell a fairly straightforward story in the most complicated way possible is in any way beneficial to actually getting people to read your book or achieve some kind of clarity in what you're attempting to do. There will always be people who will read intentionally "difficult" books for the pure challenge of it, or just to say that they were able to finish it but if you start treating books like a decathlon, some feat of endurance meant to be conquered, that's not quite what reading is about, is it?

The important question I suppose to ask is whether you could have told a particular story in a different and still be able to capture all the nuances and resonances, or if someone is just being arty for the sake of being arty. There's something to be said for ambition, but if you're just dressing up fragile bones in opulent clothing, that's not exactly high praise, is it now?

Suffice to say, I don't know how else Gass could have told this story. He hasn't written many novels and none of them seem very easy to digest ("The Tunnel" is apparently even more difficult and I suspect I'll be getting to it sooner than I think). This one, oddly enough, seems the most straightforward. Set in a Ohio town circa the 1890s, it tells about the arrival of the Omensetter family, the head of which seems to have amazing luck that pretty much keeps him from worrying about anything ever. So he doesn't. The family lives in town and seems to be doing okay, but his presence is a constant source of friction against the good Christian values of the local preacher, Reverend Furber, who starts to wonder if he can do something about all of this.

It's a novel both direct and elusive, told in impressionistic layers and winding streams of shifting text. The first two sections barely have anything to do with the main plot of the novel, featuring different points of the story told during and after the fact from the point of view of two other townspeople, both of which seem steeped in a kind of inevitable sadness, both for what did happen and what was about to happen. Gass captures the scenes in flittering streams of consciousness, concerned not with what we say to each other but with what we say to ourselves, or what we want to say to other people when we can't express the words. Concerned with the mundane rhythms of the texture of the life of the times, it focuses on the inner dissolutions as people seem content to unravel, aware that they're falling apart but unable to do anything but fall apart (Henry Pimber's final sections have an unrelenting ache about them, like being told you're going to die instead of someone else purely because of a coin toss and there's nothing you can do about it).

But if the novel consisted of only those sections it might be remembered as an interesting experiment with some rather startling prose. As it turns out, those sections are merely warmups for Reverend Furber's sequence. Taking up the last chunk of the novel and longer than both previous sections combined, it takes us directly into the mind of the good preacher, probably closer than any of us would like. Taking its influences from the Joycean school of stream of consciousness (in which we have every thought we're ever going to have all at the same time) and pushing it toward stuttering extremes, we get the story of Furber without ever having been told anything directly, as his thoughts flutter and strut and wallow and wail, trying to hold the thoughts of God and the decadence of his desires together simultaneously, and at times failing to do either. He sings dirty songs, curses out his fellow man, has grandiose plans for what kind of preacher he could be and as the sequence goes on it becomes quite clear that the presence of Omensetter and his amazing luck is slowly causing him to lose his mind. He gives sermons (or thinks about sermons) that sound increasingly unhinged, even as they inadvertently dive into passages of great beauty (the section where mundane activities are listed with a repeated chorus of "For this?" are scathing in their sarcasm and howling dismay, a sequence that Gass seems justly proud of). He tries to turn the whole town against Omensetter, as if engaging in a contest that nobody asked for, with consequences nobody can predict.

Yet if the novel was just about Preacher Looney McCrazy and his journey into everyone figuring out that he's nutty it would just be a stylistic exercise in figuring out how many ways to express dirty thoughts. Or if it turned into a standard confrontation between two opposing poles of faith it would be dramatic for all the wrong reasons. Instead Gass focuses on why we do things, and how it fits into the world around us, and how both can affect each other in ways they don't expect. Using the homeostasis of a somewhat isolated village and the introduction of an unexpected element, he puts it in a bottle where good and evil can percolate and be examined more easily, where each piece becomes central to the whole. While Furber's section casts a long shadow, without the light thrown off by the first two sequences, it wouldn't make any kind of impression at all. We need the slide as a buffer instead of the direct plunge. And yet despite the inclination toward the downward slide, the seeming rush toward a degraded bottom, ultimately Gass becomes more interested in redemption. Someone dies, yes, but someone always dies. He could have ended the story in a flailing of glorious crazy but opts for the quieter and more difficult ending instead, the one where nothing really gets resolved but the ones who remain make the decision to become better, not simply because being a better person means more people like you but because you become aware that nobody is in this alone and what we do affects not just ourselves but the world we live in, a village or a country or a planet. The shells of our bodies hide the chaos colliding in our brains but we're able to express in ways that can change how others feel, and they in turn. The fact that we're able to do that is a kind of luck in itself, although whether it's good or bad ultimately remains to be seen. I think in the long run, it skews toward the former, but that's just me.

The Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses, the Crossing, Cities of the Plain (Everyman's Library)
The Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses, the Crossing, Cities of the Plain (Everyman's Library)
by Cormac McCarthy
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $25.82
83 used & new from $14.39

5.0 out of 5 stars In which Mexico is shown to be a great place to live, as long as you don't want to visit there, August 13, 2014
Cowboy quest stories leavened with a heaping slice of existential despair embodied by the seeping knowledge that the way of life as you know it is disintegrating as you live it? Sign me up for the drive!

I don't get the sense that McCarthy wanted to write a cowboy story (or stories) as much as write a long dissertation on why there's no way to write a cowboy story anymore. Or at least why he's not going to write one. A lot of the elements are present, men in hats, guns, the windswept scenery, bandits and wolves and horses but it's like someone put them together in the wrong order, resulting in something horribly downbeat, a series of ingredients left out for far too long and already starting to show signs of decay. It can make for immersive reading and at times even gripping reading, but it's not exactly feel-good stuff.

This compact hardcover brings together three of his more famous novels, one of which was turned into a movie. There aren't so much a trilogy as connected thematically, with the main characters of the first two books joining forces in the third book to finally see the idea of the Wild West as we know it to the great dirt nap, or at least helping it come to the realization that it's been crippled and needs to be put down for its own good.

With that cheery introduction, let's get to the good times:

"All the Pretty Horses": This was the one I've heard of, mostly because they made it into an apparently not that great movie that I've never seen. This on some level is probably the most accessible of the bunch even though the prose style doesn't quite lend itself toward that at first glance. John Grady Cole, faced with the prospect of his ranch being sold, heads into Mexico with his best friend to find work wrangling things, presumably cattle. Among other things, they meet a potentially psychotic teenager, John falls in love and they get a tour of the Mexican prison system in a way that doesn't require paying admission. None of it, other than a stab at a tragic love story, could be considered pleasant or even life-affirming.

Except. The prose in this novel struck me the most out of the three, even though the style isn't that much different. It may be the shock of the new, or it may be that McCarthy has a tighter control over his looseness, if that makes any sense. His sentences come across as layered fever dreams, knotted and running into each other before suddenly untangling into glorious descriptions of the scenery. The lacking of punctuation elevates what could be a story of routine melodrama into something a bit more epic and mythological, three young men touring the crumbling ruins of an old way of life, trying to find their way inside of it even as it attempts to chew them up. It's brutal in parts, and unsparing in that way that cluster bombs are. McCarthy depicts all the degradations that the boys go through in prison with a jaundiced eye but the summary execution of someone is handled off-screen with a minimum of fuss, as if the book was too concerned with other matters to even bother with someone being snuffed out.

None of it would work at all if John Grady wasn't drawn so rigidly, defined in opposition to a system that keeps changing shape to smother him. Absolutely no one is on his side and he basically survives by being unyielding, implacably refusing to bend no matter how much of a good idea it seems. He has poor judgement in women but an unswerving moral bend and his conviction to not only do the right thing but see the right thing be done drives the core of the novel and in that sense he seems to be attempting to maintain the spirit of the plains and the old West through sheer will and gravitational pull alone.

But if there's some small hint of romance in "All the Pretty Horses", "The Crossing" dispenses with all that entirely to go frolicking with wolves. Actual wolves, as opposed to metaphorical wolves. The description of the plot for the novel leads one to believe that the entire novel could be titled "A Boy and His Muzzled Wolf" when in reality it takes up a very small part of it. Instead it features a series of jaunts into Mexico by first young Billy Parham solo and later joined by his brother Boyd. The first part of it involves a wolf, the second part involves a journey for revenge and the remainder deals with the aftermath of that revenge and an attempt to get some closure where the wound has been already cauterized. Nothing makes sense, and all he can do is cope. But even the act of coping could change him utterly.

It's a harder book to get into. For one, the prose here seems scaled back into something resembling normal and while the descriptions are still vivid, the rhythm lacks the headrush fire of the first novel. Where it does succeed is turning Mexico into a kind of alien fairyland, a place that is heaped in mystery and mythology, an aura that can be felt every time Billy and (later) Boyd make the crossing into that other territory. It's not quite as simple as going to a place where people speak a different language but a place where all the rules are different, with an internal logic that has to be deciphered before any progress can be made. Since the book tends to focus more on Billy becoming a man (or "not a boy") the plot is a bit more rambling than the first novel, with the story lurching from point to point like a series of short stories featuring the same people. In portions it speeds up to attain a kind of power, an attack by bandits, a family revelation, a harrowing search but it never builds momentum for very long, leading the less patient to probably wonder "where is he going with this?" The fact that large amounts of the dialogue is in Spanish doesn't help . . . it highlights the Otherness of Mexico since (at least for me, being monolingual) having great swaths of the book rendered incomprehensible except via context (which is possible) makes you feel as if you've stumbled into a place where you really don't belong.

But it's necessary as a bridge to get us to "Cities of the Plain", where all the themes come together just in time to come joyfully crashing down. John Grady and Billy are working on the same ranch where things seem to be winding down due to a drought. The spectre of the US Army hovers nearby, never seen but existing in sideways dialogue, ready to take over the lands at any moment. But everything seems to be going well, with John Grady furthering his skill at breaking horses ("All the Pretty Horses" revealed him to be a master horse whisperer, which probably looks better on your resume than "failed romantic" although "survived Mexican prison with only minor stab wounds" could be a useful life skill) and Billy rarely mentioning that he used to have a brother and a wolf, neither of which are necessary for anyone to know but might be nice conversation starters for those long nights out on the range.

Of course, a book about everyone having a good time on a ranch wouldn't be as much fun for the rest of us and fortunately while John Grady has learned many life lessons, making good choices in the world of romance clearly wasn't one of them as he falls in love with not just a prostitute, but one with a seizure disorder. And not just an epileptic lady of the streets, but one whose pimp might have fallen in love with her. Oh, and did I mention the pimp has a nasty violent streak? All the ingredients for a tragic ending are present and this elevates the book considerably over the one before it, making the entire trilogy's tendency to suddenly tangent into philosophical digressions easier to take when the aura of doom hovers over everything. The presence of John Grady helps as well, his steady intractability and sureness contrasting with the "live and let crumble" attitude of everyone else on the ranch. Once a plan takes hold for him to marry the young lady and get her away from the life she leads, we lurch into a plodding escalation that verges on the Biblical, everyone fairly certain that none of this will end well but unable to stop themselves from ensuring it ends even worse.

The literary quirks that color McCarthy's work, the elevation of the mundane into the mythical, discussions of dreams that practically scream "This is fraught with meaning", the desperate circling of the characters in such a fashion that reminds you of nothing more than a drain set over a garbage disposal, all of that comes into play here but with the entire book focused on the notion of "This is the end of a way of life" it means that every stray line of dialogue becomes twisted toward that end, regardless of whether it wants to or not, adding weight to all these circumstances that can't be entirely ignored. It turns a story from a cautionary tale of why bringing a knife to a knife fight is more useful than you'd think into a mediation on what happens when no one bothers with knife fights anymore. Nobody ends up happy but, as the song says, even if things had worked out they probably wouldn't have been happy anyway because the life that feeds that happiness is disappearing.

That disintegration is heightened in the epilogue, picking up with one of the characters years later, in a world that he has no place in but may still have a place for him. "Elegiac" seems too easy a word to describe it, but after reading a good chunk of three novels that seem to be funerals for a body that hasn't died yet it's considerably more optimistic than anything that came before it. The people who can't adapt are better off staying behind, it seems to be suggesting, because the new contours of the world would have left them no room to breathe anyway. The ones that survive are the people that allow their bones to be broken so they can fit inside and keep on living. It's a trade-off perhaps, and if the price of life is the sawing pain of the sharp edges of the shattered splinters inside that never quite goes away, well, they'll take that as a last reminder of the world they once had and consider it a trade made fair.

by Gregory Benford
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $7.99
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars When the cravings hit, sometimes only the sweet crunch of a world covered in nitrogen-rich atmosphere and oceans will suffice, July 25, 2014
This review is from: Eater (Mass Market Paperback)
Having read enough books where the science is more magical realism masquerading as science or it takes place so far in the future that the author isn't necessarily required to prove anything with charts, it's nice to read fiction that has a kernel of theoretical plausibility about it. Note that I didn't say that the scenario was plausible but at least the underlying science has some degree of believability about it.

That said, it's about an intelligent black hole that wants to devour the earth. Let's just get that out of the way right from the start.

So if you were under any impression that this was the biography of one of those people who keep winning the hot dog eating contests, rest assured that this is probably far more palatable to read. Basically, a small team of scientists discover that a entity that looks not unlike a black hole is heading into the solar system and appears to be deliberately changing its trajectory to steer itself toward Earth. This is weird enough, but at least sort of within the bounds of something they might expect, even if it sounds like one of those things scientists dare each other with during late night conversations when someone has to come up with the most unlikely provable thing ever.

But then the black hole starts conversing with them, and all heck breaks loose.

Benford has been doing this long enough that he can take something that probably isn't really explainable within a high level degree in a field I can barely pronounce and have the characters explain it to each other without sounding like they're dumbing it down for the slow members of the audience, and manage to write a coherent plot about it. His characters feel real in their foibles and likes and petty disagreements and even if he tends to take shortcuts in terms of development sometimes (two people get together pretty much because the book decides they should be together but the actual relationship, once established, feels honest). His mistake, then, isn't so much in the scenario itself but in how he handles it. Presenting himself with a situation where humanity comes in contact with something that is truly alien, he decides to convert the story into a hard science version of "Armageddon", where the characters must bring all their science tools to bear in order to beat back the crazy black hole that keeps calmly attacking them. He's good at a lot of things, but pulse pounding tension isn't quite his forte, and while I was invested in the characters to some extent, it's not enough that I cared if the entire planet was devoured in a manner not unlike leaving me inside a marble glazed doughnut factory.

His story more or less centers around four scientists (although one stays absent for long portions of the narrative to the point where I thought he forgot about her). Benjamin and Channing are husband and wife, and along with sort of friend/rival Kingsley (as others have pointed out, he and Benjamim are positioned in the beginning as polite but bitter rivals but the story seems to forget about that) they do most of the theoretical legwork in figuring out what the Eater is and what exactly it wants. Channing is unfortunately suffering from terminal cancer, which means Benford telegraphs a sacrifice that needs to be made later right in the beginning but the scenes of her struggling with the disease that is overtaking her body faster and faster pretty much adds the only spark to the beginning sense, which mostly consist of people politely and enthusiastically debating scientific points. He has a natural and easy way with conversation, and is able to convince you that these people have known each other for a long time but in the best Asimov tradition, large chunks of the book consist of urbane conversation. Anything with Kingsley winds up having a little bit of spark and by default he winds up becoming the main character as Channing's involvement with the narrative becomes more limited and Benjamin turns out to be not that interesting anyway.

Otherwise the book mostly involves dealing with Eater, your world consuming black hole pal. He's able to talk to planet Earth and for me the book falls flat around here as even though we're told that Eater is something utterly alien, he communicates in English quite well, alternating between pithy observations of human nature and what sound like just random statements that don't make a huge amount of sense. Given the opportunity to have the characters confront something truly frightening and beyond understanding, it just becomes another obstacle to overcome, pitched somewhere between "Rendezvous with Rama" without the thrill and mystery of discovery and Unicron from the Transformer movie without the complete awesomeness of being a robot planet in disguise. Beyond one of the characters getting a nicely played if ignoble death, the remainder of the novel feels matter of fact and I never get the sense that the scientists have their backs to the wall or that the outcome is ever in doubt. Even the ending, meant to be a transcendent revelation, comes across as rather flat and honestly I half expected something along those lines anyway. You're left with the impression that Benford's first inclination was to have the book consist of debates amongst and with the crazy black hole and he was told at some point to jazz it up slightly with some planet threatening peril. And while the results are still pleasant the temperature never rises over a lukewarm pitch and if there's one thing you don't want to a book about scientists fighting a potentially insane intelligent black hole with an appetite for our deliciously juicy world to be, it's mild-mannered.

The Family Tree
The Family Tree
by Sheri S. Tepper
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
87 used & new from $0.01

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars When all the trees think it best for people to make like trees, and leave, July 23, 2014
Another day, another novel where a plague wiping out a good portion of humanity is presented as a good thing, to the point where a guest appearance by Batman villain Ra's Al Ghul wouldn't feel completely out of place.

This one is the usual mix of Tepper Topics, this time for whatever reason leaving out the swipes at organized religion (don't be too disappointed, the usual nature centered religious types appear and come across as fairly decent if eccentric types, although you may not like them too much by the end) but focusing more on her views of nature and what we're doing to the planet and what might happen if nature decided to strike back. Our viewpoint lady for this venture is Dora Henry, who starts off as an utter doormat to the point where you have to wonder if Tepper is even trying at this point or it's just a feint. Turns out, it is a feint, which I was thankful for, as the early scenes with Dora and her husband Jared where she "yes dear"'s someone who has no desire to interact with her beyond cooking and cleaning even as her friends openly wonder why she married the big lug. Dora just smiles and shrugs, meek and passive. Oh, did I mention she's a police officer? She is, although we never really see her arrest anyone. What she does do is spend most of her time (when she isn't cooking dinner just the way her husband's mother does) investigating a rash of slayings of scientists, all stabbed in the back. With no leads and no one seeming to think it might be a serial killer, there's plenty of extra time to wonder about how the weed in Dora's yard has now grown to the point where its seeds are starting to take over the town. Which is fine because she can talk to it and it seems to listen, especially if you say "please".

If you've ever read the Alan Moore written issue of "Swamp Thing" where his girlfriend gets arrested in Gotham City and Swampy gets his revenge by basically turning the whole place into a jungle, you have some idea of what this is like. People who are mean to the plants get the receiving end of a sharp stick and people who are kind and gentle to our friends the foliage finds that it works with them. Meanwhile, there's a whole other plot!

Yes, in what appears to be the far future a bunch of characters gather together to go on a vague quest. At some points the quest is adorably meta and while it's not entirely unpleasant it's difficult to see at first how this connects with the main plot, although by this point the main plot mostly consists of Dora chatting with plants and enjoying life away from her husband (with a new love interest to boot! girl works fast). There's some domestic pleasantness to these sections, as Dora comes across as a genuinely nice person, although her penchant for suddenly spouting very sharply defined views of how to treat the planet pretty much out of nowhere begins to come to the fore. These parts often feel out of place and more a vehicle for Tepper to spout her own views, Heinlein style . . . although given that Dora gives the plants more or less a pass for stealing babies because the parents clearly didn't know when to stop having kids, it starts to verge a little bit on the unsettling after a while.

In the interim, the future plot does connect with Dora in a way that actually infuses the book with some new energy but also feels like a cheat . . . we're treated to a revelation about those characters without having been given any hints as to their true nature and as they don't really act like you imagine they would, the reveal doesn't feel quite earned. But it kicks the plot more into gear, leading to various amusing situations as Dora and company try to stop an evil from the end of time (although the identity of who it is winds up being so obvious you're screaming at the characters to figure it out fifty pages before they actually do), Dora and new manfriend Abby make their tentative way through romance (like every good man in a Tepper novel he's utterly sensitive and charming and there are points where the novel starts to veer towards a very chaste romance novel), and maybe some sense of harmony will be reached. But not before the psuedo-druids show up.

This is one of those novels where it feels like she came up with the message and decided the plot merely existed to hang her feelings about what we're doing to the planet onto it. Compared to the complexity of something like "Grass" (I had some problems with "Grass" but it's a multi-leveled masterpiece compared to this) it comes across as utterly simple and one-dimensional. The revelations are telegraphed or simply told to us, the logic of the plot mechanics feels a bit rusty sometimes (I know the geneticist was a genius and old but to get the results he had would have required way more generations of breeding than his lifetime could hold, you're not talking about working with animals that live for three days) and everyone is so nice it's hard to get worked up about anything. Dora is nice but a bit of a wet towel, and those goes for almost everyone. They have about one layer and even if the layer isn't unpleasant it doesn't make for super-compelling reading at times, even if you're a hundred percent behind Tepper in her views. All the twists don't feel like something we could have figured out from clues which means we're reading because everyone is just so darn likeable.

Part of the problem is that the tone is so light and charming that when Tepper attempts to interject seriousness through mouthpiece Dora, it's the same effect as blindly swinging a hammer at the glass store, sure you get results but it's not like you're being careful with your targets. Getting away from her husband leaves Dora free to espouse all kinds of views that border on the crazy at times (the aforementioned "Take all the babies, super-trees, you know better") or oddly specific (her stab at politicians and Congress isn't unwelcome but she hasn't given us any hint prior to this that it's really something that's bothering her all along) and by the time you reach the ending you have Dora basically saying that a plague that murders half of humanity is okay because frankly we all deserve it, and there's not one dissenting argument to contest her. Which gives the book the impression that it's in a self-satisified monologue with itself, and the noise from the echo chamber is often so loud you can't hear the quieter parts that are actually worth your attention. She's good enough at her craft to make this readable but I think she wanted it to have more of an impact than it does and instead it comes across as a trifle. It's a sad clown gone paper-thin, it may put a gentle and bemused smile on your face but it never gives you a reason to delve into the reason that no one else on stage seems to be laughing. You just figure they don't have a sense of humor.

Grass (Bantam Spectra Book)
Grass (Bantam Spectra Book)
by Sheri S. Tepper
Edition: Paperback
Price: $20.70
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5.0 out of 5 stars The grass is greener only when it takes you to the other side, July 22, 2014
Having read a handful of her books now, it becomes pretty clear that a number of elements pop up in one form or another from book to book. Tepper Tropes, as it were. Generally a plague is threatening or has already taken out part of humanity. There's a culture that lives in harmony with the land and both genders that is shown to be better than everyone else. Men with manly traits are worse than men with more feminine traits. Organized religion veers toward the crazypants, mostly because its male dominated. I'm sure you can think of others. There's nothing inherently wrong with going to the same basic well of ideas time and again, she clearly has a distinctive point of view that she wants to get across. It's when those tropes start to overwhelm the plot and it's all you can see that the book becomes less a book and more a list of things the author doesn't like and would like you not to like either.

This, surprisingly, is not one of those books. I say surprisingly because it hits pretty much all of her cliches and yet shows how much a little focus and sharpening can do for the story itself despite the fact that there's maybe three actual characters in the whole story.

Tepper's latest attempt to show us the error of our ways takes us back into the realms of SF and to the world of Grass in the distant enough future. They live in the style of the English manor-born, with the ruling families often going on "hunts" with "horses" and "hounds" to eventually track down and kill a "fox". Which sounds pretty lordly until you realize that the people who aren't in the hunts think the hunts are terrifying and the rate of people being injured in the hunts is quite severe. But it's something to do, I suppose. Things get stranger when you realize that except for the people riding the mounts, everything in the hunt is alien and native to the world. There's no chance that any of this could be an example of things about to go awry.

Meanwhile, outside the world of Grass is the rest of humanity, many of whom are suffering the effects of a deadly plague that the local dominating religion, Sanctity, are actively denying. Sanctity, like every religion in every Tepper book, is totally guy-dominated and completely crazy, copying people's genetic codes so they can be brought back someday after a presumed Rapture, but otherwise press-ganging people into service and making them generally miserable. When word gets out that the world of Grass is not only utterly untouched by plague but plague-ridden people who have been there seem to have been cured, Sanctity wants to send some folks there to investigate how to cure a plague that none of them are capable of admitting exist. To this comes Marjorie Westriding and her husband and family. Being her husband is a nephew of a high church official and their horse-riding hobby should in theory make them fit right into a culture that loves riding, it seems like a no-brainer to sneak them in under diplomatic auspices (the only way in since the ruling class pretty much hates everyone who isn't themselves). Easy, right? The problem should be solved just in time for everyone to take a victory lap around the veranda.

But it's not that simple, as the Westriding family quickly discovers. The ruling class bons are super-unfriendly as anyone who doesn't Hunt isn't really a man. The beasts they ride are far from horses and are intelligent animals called Hippae. The Hunt itself is creepy as all heck and to top things off, all the cast-offs of Sanctity are stuck at an archeological dig for a vanished race that used to be prevalent throughout the galaxy and might have died off due to a plague as well, a plague that might have started on Grass.

From the start it seems that Tepper is well in control of both the plot and the message here. Previous books of hers I read tended to meander while she walked us through the scenario before the story actually got started, here there's a welcome sense of menace pervading the scene from the start. You know things are wrong on Grass, it's just a matter of waiting to find out how wrong. By the time it becomes clear the "horses" are stealing young women, Marjorie and her family are trapped in a slow motion horror movie where no one is even trying to reassure them that things are all right. Because they aren't. The only way to get out is to play along and playing along means dying. Is it too late for a return ticket?

She constructs the world and culture of Grass in such a way that it feels believable in a way her worlds sometimes don't. The Commoners feel grounded in a fashion that belays the condescending obviousness of them being far more worldly than their supposed lords and masters, and the interactions between them and the Westridings has an easy charm to it, offset by the encroaching sense of danger and urgency as her family is slowly ensnared further into a world that means them no good at all. Having the Hippae as the enigmatic villains of the piece, remote and clearly malevolent in a way that no one is capable of explaining properly, pitches things higher and even when they're not in a scene their presence lingers in the background as a bad dream that won't go away, whispering promises that are both deadly and irresistible. She deftly manages to juggle a plot that should be far flung, with the head members of Sanctity balancing off the isolation of the archeological dig balancing nicely with the headache-inducing stubbornness of the bons, along with Marjorie's rising sense that everyone is starting to willingly march toward their own doom.

Marjorie remains one of Tepper's greatest characters thus far, a woman captured in all of her facets, rounded and fiery, focused on her family and a wish to do good, informed by her faith but not overtaken by it. She acts as the moral center of the book and is strong enough that she pretty much carries the book in her wake, as very few characters can even stand up to her level. But she makes them better simply be being around them, turning her husband Rico, who is a Man in the finest Tepper tradition, consumed with himself and his pleasures and seeing women as a convenience and a means to an end, into something more complex than he has any right to be. Most everyone else falls into the usual categories of "men traits" and "lady traits" something Tepper only makes more obvious by having Marjorie's son Tony more like his mother and thus blatantly sympathetic, while daughter Stella is explicitly compared several times to her father and comes across as a shrill teenage harpy, improving absolutely nothing.

But what really surprised me here was her treatment of religion. Sanctity is a bunch of lunatics and nobody seems to really believe in it as much as are forced to be in it (and its eventual head a typically frothing "women are my playthings"), but the Westridings are Old Catholics and with them come two priests, leading to several theological discussions that come across as nuanced and well-thought out. She's still on the side of any religion but this one but having intelligent characters able to argue for their own faith is a big step in the right direction and keeps the book from being a polemic. The trading back and forth of ideas against the backdrop of "what the heck is going on here" drives the book quite nicely, giving us the sense of how people screw things up without beating us in the face with it. The details here win the day, whether she's delving into the ecology of the planet (it's no Dune but it makes as much sense as anything else) or the mysteries of the vanished race, or even the notion of whether human emotions can even apply to aliens.

It's all working so well that it hardly matters she can't wrap it up properly. The battle scenes are the best she's ever done, equally shot through with brutality and momentum and all the more exciting for how visceral they are. The novel loses some of its luster once we realize the Hippae aren't on our side, but since we never get to really know them they wind up devolving into psychotic horses, a unique category for one but probably a concept that needed a little more meat on it. Her explanations for things could use a little work as well, the ultimate source of the plague and how it was spread comes across as nonsensical if you stop to think about it for more than thirty seconds, which isn't bad unless you consider how the whole book hinges on it. It feels like she wrote the book up until that point, then looked at it to see how she could fit it together, and it doesn't quite work. She also doesn't bother explaining why the crazy horses were taking young ladies and doing what they do to them (unless I missed it) . . . I get that not every mystery has to be explained but there's not even an attempt to put it into some kind of context, it's just dropped, unless you want to accept "psychopathic ponies" as your reason and simply stop there (and it does seem a little weird that one girl actually improves as a person in the aftermath, as if it were an excuse to shave off all the annoying parts).

With that all said, this is probably the first Tepper book I didn't have to cringe at certain parts or roll my eyes, all the parts fit together nicely and she definitely seemed inspired here. Whether it's because she had a bad experience with horses at some point in her life I'll leave to her biographer to uncover (and if any of her characters have to return in a later book, I'm quite okay with it being Marjorie) but for a while she made me believe this was possible, which is something her books not set on far off worlds had some difficulty accomplishing.

A Plague of Angels
A Plague of Angels
by Sheri S. Tepper
Edition: Paperback
Price: $6.26
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5.0 out of 5 stars An exciting mixture of genres, especially the genre where you and civilization never do anything right ever, July 21, 2014
This review is from: A Plague of Angels (Paperback)
Whoa hey, what's this? A world in crisis? If there only was a way for the book to painstakingly link it as a blatant metaphor for the ills in our current civilization and proceed to show us how the world should be run. You know, in harmony. Seems easy. But first, let's cue ourselves up some trolls!

Tepper's novel is somewhat positioned as a fantasy tale at first, with its "farmboy destined for greater things" trappings and hints of blackclad enforcers stalking the landscape looking for a certain child orphan. But all that goes out the window when trucks start appearing and before long it becomes clear that we're in a future version of our world, presumably after some disaster leveled the playing field somewhat (it's not a Tepper novel if civilization isn't reeling from a plague in its past or bracing themselves for one to come), and all of this is before the villain starts to plan how to get to an old space station. So it's the future but all the cool people left. Got it.

Our story centers around Abasio, a farmboy who lusts for adventure like my classmates in middle-school lusted after the swimsuit edition of the latest sports magazine, and goes off to seek it. But there's little adventure to be found around here, so instead he does the logical thing and joins a gang, a bunch of purple people, who teach him that life is more than stabbing people and sleeping with their women, but being open to stabbing those people, too. Meanwhile we have an Orphan growing up in an archetypical village that is literally inhabited by archetypes, a Hero and a Burning Man and a Seeress and so on. As the story goes on it becomes fairly clear that she's the young lady in question that the more nefarious elements are looking for, embodied in the form of the Witch, who keeps a small group of families in line by basically being entirely crazy and unpredictable. She's looking to get up to that space station, you see, and the only thing they're missing is someone with the right genetic code to plug into the navigator seat. A genetic code that is not unlike the poor dear Orphan's.

If what I'm describing sounds like the ingredients for a mess, part of the fault lies with me for not being able to describe it correctly, but there's a very real chance at several points for this to go completely off the rails and it's basically only because Tepper's a veteran at this that it doesn't. The setting has echoes of several better novels, unfortunately, with the idea of archetypes hanging out in the wake of all the cool toys that the majority of mankind left behind when they got the heck out of Dodge bringing to mind both Delany's "Einstein Intersection" (an alien race evokes Jungian archetypes on an Earth abandoned my mankind) and Crowley's "Engine Summer", both of which had ideas and style to spare. That isn't quite the case here, although she tries very hard.

Part of the problem is that it's very hard to immerse yourself in this world as any sort of real construct. Half the trick of creating a fantasy world, or any fictional world really, is to make the reader invest not only in the characters but the landscape they inhabit. And the landscape that we get here is such a hodgepodge that half of it seems to be a deadly serious didactic examination of the trends of the current world we live in and the rest is a winkingly meta version of a fantasy world convinced that it's not at all like other fantasy worlds. Which is true, it isn't. But it isn't like any other world I recognize, either. We get all the pieces here but it's hard to imagine them fitting in any coherent way and the far future setting allows her to throw in elements without having to explain them at all. Why are there archetypical villages at all, with some of the lesser inhabitants only existing as robots? Why is the world flush with monsters of old stories? What is the Edge like that everyone keeps referring to? I can get behind inserting mysteries in your novel without having any intention to explain them, it adds a little allure and color to the proceedings. But if the world doesn't feel fully realized to begin with then we're going to need all the details we can get.

Fortunately the characters do save it. Tepper has a good grasp of social dynamics and even if I rarely agree with her conclusions that those dynamics inevitably lead to, she can make the interactions compelling enough that it hardly matters in the short run. From the clumsy machinations of the gangs to the burgeoning romance between Abasio and Orphan, to the political maneuvering of the remaining families around the increasing nuttiness of the witch (the mystery shrouded sections of the novel are deployed best here and watching everyone trying to enact desperate plans before the crazy woman notices and unleashes hordes of killer androids upon them is probably the most exciting part of the book), there's plenty of material here to keep the book moving even when the plot seems to be meandering out of reach.

Which is just fine because when Tepper's usual stylistic tics appear, it starts to put the story in fairly standard territory. The Witch remains another in a long line of irrationally frothing Tepper antagonists, though I will give her credit for making the villain a woman this time and upending expectations, not crazy enough to be excitingly unpredictable but so nuts that you know she has no chance of succeeding because she's way too over the top. We take a detour into a land that seems inhabited by the descendents of Native Americans so she can have the characters give us a lecture on yet another variation of her Perfect Civilization that lives in harmony with the land, where men and woman are completely equal and candy is available for all. Still, the battles that take up the back chunks of the novel are exciting (but not as visceral as "Grass", which probably remains the high point for her entry into the SF Action Hall of Fame) and watching all the plans come together is glorious in itself, even if the land they live in still doesn't make much sense.

If you're reading any of this and thinking, "Wow, I can't see she can pull together a satisfying ending out of that", you are apparently thinking along the lines of the author, who upon finding that it would be difficult to tie it all together . . . didn't. In what is a daring use of both anti-climax and deus ex machina, the ending pretty much gets handed to the characters and by "handed" I mean nobody at all gets what they want. But Tepper gets to indulge in yet another plague so that itch is scratched. We're treated to yet another discourse about men and women and her somewhat disturbing tendency to have her characters insist that there's too many people in the world so its perfectly okay for nature to knock off a bunch of them. I'm no stranger to ambiguous or downbeat endings but here it feels more like she couldn't think of an organic way to do it so she let the plot shove itself sideways in an attempt to elicit some kind of ending. Needless to say after five hundred pages it doesn't make for the most satisfying reading experience, bordering on the frustrating. Yet there's enough moments lingering inside to make you wonder what she could do with a concept like this if she wasn't constantly indulging her need to the plot be dragged toward her standard topics, like a magnet trapped inside its own field and assuming that's what attraction really is.

Six Moon Dance
Six Moon Dance
by Sheri S. Tepper
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
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5.0 out of 5 stars When everything in the world is hidden in plain sight you should probably watch where you walk, July 2, 2014
There's probably a case to be made that Tepper could get herself a nice career creating fictional worlds for other writers. I've only read three books by her and two of those showcase someone with a more than decent imagination giving her characters rich worlds to romp around in, with some thought given to intricate construction and a nod toward how the various moving parts would actually fit in together. Not all of it adheres to the strict principles of logic ("Beauty" sometimes resorted to the all-purpose get out of jail free clause of "It's magic!") but the true test if any fictional world is worth its salt is whether the reader can immerse themselves in that world and buy into it for however many pages. It may fall apart under closer inspection later, but if you can convince someone in the moment that "this not-real place is totally real!" then for most writers that's half the job right there.

Which is good, because when it comes to the actual plotting sometimes, she seems to let that slide slightly.

Here Tepper gives us the world of Newholme, which is having its second go-round as a settled colony after the first colony (settled by manly men, but we'll get to that later) decided to go pull a Roanoke and vanish entirely. The second attempt seems to have gone much better . . . except for the virus that keeps killing half the girl babies. But the colony winds up functioning quite well, with society stratified in a sort of odd homeostasis, with Hags and Men of Business jointly calling the shots (or the Hags letting them believe they're calling the shots) and pretty, pretty boys that they call Hunks trained as male concubines for when wives want a bit of recreation, or at least someone who knows how to talk about art. Things are going fairly well with all this and then two bad things happen at once: first the planet seems to be slowly shaking itself apart, and the Council of Worlds has decided to send the Questioner on an auditing mission to see how well the colony is following the council laws. The answer: not very well, but they're hoping that with all the cracks opening in the ground she might not notice.

For the most part the story follows the training of Hunk-in-progress Mouche, from his sale to the local House for Hunkifying to his involvement with the Questioner as she arrives to start making everyone really nervous. Along the way we get hints of an indigent population that everyone has pretty much agreed doesn't exist (which is reminding me of another story I read recently that I can't for the life of me remember right at this very second) and hints that the original vanished colony hasn't quite actually vanished, but they aren't actually keen on living in harmony with the land either.

It's all very fascinating and Tepper's method of taking us through this society in both a grand sweep and up-close view is riveting in its own way, especially in seeing how she's worked out all the sociological implications of it. Which is good, because it quickly becomes apparent that the main plot is going to be a slow train coming, especially when it takes almost a third of the book for the Questioner to even arrive. Meanwhile we dally in smaller stories, like a girl passing as a man, the confusions of two dancers recruited to assist the Questioner, Mouche's repeated encounters with two mean boys. It's all very nice and reads well but the narrative thrust seems to be "We'll get there when we get there."

The presence of the Questioner livens things up quite a bit. Possessed of the ability to make a entire colony miserable (i.e. dead) if they tick her off enough, she has a dry sense of humor and a self-assuredness that is a fun contrast to everyone else's obvious nervousness around her, as they smile and insist that nope, nothing is wrong here. Most of the other characters don't make as strong of an impression despite a sometimes intense focus on them and most of them exist more as plot devices than anything else (the dancers are nice but strangely convenient when the time comes, and I'm not even sure what purpose Ornery even serves).

The problems sort of hit when the actual mechanisms of the plot start to kick in and she has to fuse all these elements and themes into the narrative. Anyone reading Tepper for even a short time picks up that writing about gender relations is a focus for her and those issues tend to skew slightly toward "aggressive men screw everything up." And while the colony itself is an example of a mostly functioning woman dominated affair, when she starts to drag in mutated members of the first colony (known charmingly as "Thor") and basically collectively sounding like the cigar-chomping old men in the local lodge talking about how the world would be better if the womenfolk went back to what they were best at, namely making pies and babies (not necessarily in that order), you get the impression that someone has opened the window and let subtlety escape. Coupled with the plot beginning to meander when everyone goes underground (characters disappear for large chunks of the book at a shot) and you're basically reading to see what snarky thing the Questioner will say next. Which is every page she's on, and its great.

Unfortunately as the book drives closer to the end it starts to become more mystical, with gods inside planets and Gaia-type organisms. I feel like Gene Wolfe could have elevated all this to exquisite if baffling metaphor but it starts to come across as near gibberish after a while as everyone starts dancing and jumping in pools . . . by the time she unleashes her climax off-screen and then has one of the characters comment that it's just like in a story and better for not knowing the whole thing in detail, you're not sure if she's being clever or just lacks confidence in her own resolution. It never quite feels as alien as it should and instead of giving the sensation that everyone involved is out of their depth and forced to make it up as they go along, there's a sense of casual inevitability as our heroes are merely guided to their ending. Even the bad men are more or less disposed of so rapidly and without fuss that you wonder why they were even introduced in the first place.

Still, it goes down without too much choking and there's nothing horribly off-putting. For me what stuck the most was how she seemed incapable of society run by women as capable of doing terrible thing in an effort to keep the peace . . . her own revelation about the nature of the virus suggests for a second she's willing to go there but then she pulls back for a more feel-good stance that makes little logical sense in the universe the book inhabits except as a way of more sharply delineating the divide she sees between men and women. Even so, the world she gives us a glimpse into is worth the tour despite the plot at times having all the weight of a very puffy cloud, and I enjoyed the view of the countryside even if the people I met along the way didn't make as much of an impression as she probably would have liked. That said, however, I will give her this: I did not see that last page coming under any circumstances. I don't know if I liked it but in terms of not giving me what I expected, well played, I must say. Well played.

Beauty (Spectra Special Editions)
Beauty (Spectra Special Editions)
by Sheri S. Tepper
Edition: Paperback
Price: $7.99
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5.0 out of 5 stars It's like going to a party where everyone talks about how much they don't like the party and can't remember being invited, June 25, 2014
There's something to be said for revisiting old fairy tales. A lot of us of a certain age were most exposed to them via cartoons from the company run by the guy in the mouse ears and while they didn't completely shy away from the inherent darkness that inhabits such tales, they certainly threw a bit of a gloss over it, if only because it was easier to sell related merchandise that way. In our slightly more cynical latter part of the century and for so far most of the new one, there's been a trend to revive those old fairy tales but in a way that stays true to their original roots and highlights how kind of messed up they were in the first place.

The problem remains that if everyone starts doing that then it becomes a cliche in itself and you find yourself expecting the same literary devices and themes every time you start to read a book and realize that they've once again returned "Snow White" to its roots as dark metaphor for the unconscious fear of stunted underground mine people saving you from your own terrifying reflection (if that was even a concern) . . . there's only so many ways you can bring on the darkness before the darkness starts to wear predictable shoes, especially if you've read more than one attempt at blowing your mind with a fairy tale the way you've never seen it before.

So, in this case, I give Tepper credit. She didn't blow my mind, but she managed to throw a curve ball in the proceedings that I have to admit I never saw coming, and while the book doesn't entirely surpass that one "what the heck" moment, it manages to keep itself at pretty close to the same level for the remainder of it. Here, she has the story narrated by Beauty, a young lady in the fourteenth century with a marginally absent father, a mother who is presumed dead and maybe part-fairy and the vague concept of a curse hanging over her head where if she gets her finger pricked by a spindle on her sixteenth birthday, she'll drop dead. Or fall asleep (which is probably just as bad as the physicians back then probably couldn't tell the difference between death and a coma and would just bury you anyway, although maybe you'd get dissected in the name of incorrect science), as her weird aunt may have heard her other weird aunt wrong.

But as Beauty's birthday approaches and it seems like we know where this is going (i.e. a modern retelling of "Sleeping Beauty"), Tepper goes and pulls the rug out from under us with a left field development. Beauty manages to dodge her fate to some extent, but its not clear if the napping people in the castle or her got the better end of the deal. What happens from there is a journey across time and space and fiction, as Beauty does her best Billy Pilgrim impression and becomes unstuck in both time and genre, reeling back and forth, spending time guest-starring in a Robert Silverberg novel with a friendly transvestite, hanging out with new friends in a work of fiction so awesomely perfect its dull, and learning along the way that you can't go home again, but you can go home for a third or fourth time as long as no one recognizes you.

It's the constant shifting back and forth of both genre and setting that gives the book its momentum, as Tepper never allows us to get too comfortable before revealing that Beauty has dropped herself into a messed up version of "Cinderella", as she both begats and enables famous fairy tales. In the process it gives Tepper a chance for some commentary on the nature of art, as she comes to realize that art and beauty is draining from the world as time goes on and that there's very little she can do to stop it. Selfishness and greed and pettiness seek to take the general wonder that permeates the world and leave it nothing more than a pale and gasping version of itself before fading away entirely. It's not so much a race against time as racing against a race against time, a battle already lost as soon as time began, but with the vague hope that someone will recognize what might be lost before it vanishes forever.

In that spirit she has very little nice to say about the modern world or the genre of horror and sometimes the novel seems to take a back seat as Tepper wedges her views into the narrative as best she can. It can make her come across as a bit of a crank at times, to be honest, but there's little doubting her sincerity. But the best portions of the book more than make up for it, with Beauty subtly shifting from a too talkative young lady (with slightly annoying meta-commentary from her aunt) to an old lady that has only lived for a few years and gained a sort of wisdom in the process, while the world goes even greyer than her hair around her. For me, the scenes with the fairies worked the best as she manages to recreate that timeless, crystalline feeling that fairyland held in something like Lord Dunsany's "King of Elfland's Daughter", as a country that is just like ours, but better, and then takes that feeling and slows it down even further into something glacial and stifling and dark, a place where the languid pace becomes cellophane wrapped around the nose and mouth, smothering even as it leaves the beauty all too clear. It's a haunting portrayal, almost the flipside of something like Crowley's "Little, Big". In that novel, the land of Fairie was a place that normal people weren't able to visit, a dream that existed just long enough to let you know it wasn't a dream. Here, waking up doesn't even help and you realize that the reason that nobody is complaining anymore about waiting for dinner to arrive is that dinner has arrived and it looks like you.

Despite a decently sized section seemingly devoted to telling people who write horror fiction what terrible people they are, Tepper manages to ease the book into a elegiac and graceful place, guiding us into the understanding that if beauty is hidden its because we let it hide, or covered it over with brasher, louder facades that are as thin as paper can be. She could be accused of meandering slightly in the course of the journey and at times the plot seems less that Beauty makes things happen as things happen to Beauty that she has to react to but even as we're waded through the grimness that is our stacked and degraded centuries, she still finds a sort of contentment to finally rest, suggesting that even as the book itself rarely seems hopeful, hope can exist where the pockets abide, and if bodies can be buried and consigned to eternity then so can seeds, and from there lies the chance to spring forth a different kind of eternity and in such a way survive us all.

Gibbon's Decline and Fall
Gibbon's Decline and Fall
by Sheri S. Tepper
Edition: Paperback
Price: $7.99
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5.0 out of 5 stars If the outcome is the world will smell more like a locker room than it already does, count me out, June 18, 2014
There's something to be said for reaching for a hammer when perhaps a more delicate instrument might do the job nicely.

I never read anything by Sheri Tepper before and as a woman writing SF I didn't want to automatically paint her with the "feminist" brush and assume that because she's a woman everything she writes is cloaked in metaphors about the dichotomy between men and women, just set on other planets or in the far future. Fortunately for me, she didn't bother with the metaphors and went straight into just spelling it out.

This can probably be classified as science-fiction only because its set in the future from when the book is written (the turn of the current century, which now that we're fourteen years past it really makes me wonder where all the flying cars we were promised went) or even "speculative fiction" if you want to be like Margaret Atwood and not go near any of that yucky SF stuff, as if people aren't able to tell the difference between stuff like this and "War of the Worlds".

The Atwood comparison doesn't entirely come out of left field. Much like her, Tepper has gone and written a novel that serves as sort of a thematic prequel to "The Handmaid's Tale" as both have to do with the idea of a fundamentalist conservative hierarchy of men taking over the country and turning women into walking Pez dispensers of infants. In Atwood's tale, we got a life during wartime type of view where the nightmare came true and we got to see just how unpleasant it would be. Here, we get to be on the cusp of it, where men collectively start to think that all the world's problems would be solved if women just spent more time in the kitchen making pies and sandwiches.

If that sounds like I'm trying to be funny, it unfortunately is about the level of subtlety we get here. Our tale follows the world through the eyes of six women who meet in college and decide to band together as friends despite the fact that most of them seem to exist more as checkboxes on the scale of archetypes (the radical lesbian, the religious one, the one with the eating disorder, etc). One of them, nicknamed Sophy, appears to be more special than most , something that becomes more pronounced when the narrative jumps ahead about forty years to the end of the twentieth century and we catch up with the ladies in their various states of success and failure. They've all kept in touch except for Sophy, who seems to have disappeared at some point even though some of the women still hear her voice or see her occasionally. In the interim the world has become more man-oriented, with a wave of conservatism growing that threatens to relegate women to third class citizen status after cats and dogs, promising a new world order that won't be pleasant depending on which restroom door you go through.

Part of the enjoyment of this book is going to depend on how on-board you are for Tepper's gender politics here, as a good chunk of the plot exists to deliver them and conveniently show how a women-oriented world would be better. While I'm not completely behind her on the notion that everything is men's fault, I'm not unsympathetic either (certainly aspects of the last few years of political debate has proven, whatever your personal politics, it's still a valid issue for discussion), but the book seems blatantly designed to prove that she's right in a fashion that borders on the ham-fisted. The gap between the beginning and where the plot picks up doesn't help, as we don't get to see the insidious chipping away of women's rights, the slippery slope of compromise over the decades that puts people in a position that they didn't quite intend. Instead, we're given multiple scenarios with the various women that basically boil down to "men stink, and they're ruining everything."

Which isn't surprising given that the book features more or less two kinds of men, ones that are sensitive and compassionate and caring (and thus are helping our heroines, if they aren't already married to them), or complete jerks who feel that women are worthless and should only exist to bear children. One of the lead men of this ilk, a lawyer named Jagger, is almost a teeth-gnashing parody of manliness, flailing about with a hatred of women that would only border on the irrational if it hadn't already annexed everything around it. He's part of a group called the Alliance, a shadowy organization that in the spirit of every shadowy organization ever, is working with the government and religious leaders (look, fundamentalist Christians and Muslims actually agreeing on something!) to undo every right women ever had and make it a man's man's man's man's world, baby.

The problem that all of this is over the top that its hard to buy into the scenario. When every man they come into contact with is spouting the same "get thee to a kitchen, babydoll" nonsense and the Alliance is bwah-ha-haing about the World To Come in the background, it starts to become so much static as the plot appears to go in circles. Look, Helen is afraid of her husband. Look, Agnes is questioning her faith. Look, Carolyn is defending a Symbolic Person. And golly, everyone keeps hearing Sophy. There's very little nuance to be found anywhere, and if you're at all religious you are going to find this book making you very unhappy at some points. I'm far from the most religious person in the world but even I had to wince when Agnes the nun of the group isn't able to coherently articulate a counter-argument to anything anyone else says, and then gets slapped down by the head male priest anyway because he hates women too like everyone else. Having everyone wearing a priest's habit either be bigoted or deluded (in Agnes' case, clearly its because she's denying part of herself) sort of stacks the deck for the book, especially when Sophy's stories of a women-centered goddess are meant to be taken as entirely reasonable. The book would have been far more electric as a debate if Tepper had been able to a conceive of a rational argument for religion that the characters could argue against, instead of making everyone religious seem like idiots and making it clear where the book's sympathies lie.

Even if any of that was manageable, she sort of shoots herself in the foot by allowing the book to descend into vague magical realism and mysticism, undercutting the ultimate point of the book that the sickness comes from man himself. Instead, the book comes across as unfocused, with the Alliance conspiring hitting against Carolyn's defense of a young girl hitting against religious arguments hitting against a plague that seems to suddenly make men less macho out of nowhere hitting against the dueling faceless armies of old women and men with torches. She's trying for a global cross-section but it never gathers the momentum would give it the horrifying drumbeat of inevitability. By the time we reach Sophy's secret and the origin of the sinister old man Webster who heads the Alliance, it's lost almost all sense of the real, giving mankind a way out by suggesting all these bad, bad men have just come under the sway of a force beyond space and time, making it into another facet of the timeless battle between Good and Evil, where the messier truth would have hit harder, that we are responsible for our own actions ultimately, both as individuals and as a society, and that we must constantly be on guard to ensure that the rights of others are not trampled upon or diminished, as they so easily can be. In that light, the SF element comes across as more awkward than anything else, spacesuit people blundering into your finely wrought drama and wrecking the whole tone. With well-drawn characters and a focused scenario it would have been off-putting. In this case it's more white noise stacked on incoherence.

It's telling that the sharpest and most coherent section of the novel is the trial segment, where Tepper through Carolyn argues that society has to take some responsibility for the way a person is, not by abandoning them and then passing judgement when they don't know how to act. The debates here, while still somewhat one-sided, gain a passion and drama that the rest of the novel is lacking and while the later inclusion of the SF element spices things up slightly, it's still too little too late. We needed to see the world as it could be, not as it almost was, and its a shame that she wasn't able to make a world that I recognize, especially when I can open the newspaper and see these same arguments played out across the world, in shouts and knives, in bombs and laws. While most fiction can function as escapism, I don't think this one was intended as such, and yet with this world and that one facing each other, I'd almost want to escape to hers. At least there, despite the window-dressing touches of grey, I can have some assurance that things will ultimately turn out to be okay, while here we remain a work in progress.

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