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This one forms a loose trilogy with "Grass" and "Raising the Stones" and although the link to "Grass" won't be apparent until pretty late in the book, it pretty much continues the general story that was started in "Raising the Stones" . . . that is, the spread of the Hobbs Land gods from planet to planet, bringing a sense of peace and love and togetherness everywhere it touches, much like the release of a new romantic comedy.
But interestingly, and perhaps realizing that a book where everything is going swell may not be the most exciting plot ever hoisted on an audience, Tepper takes a different tactic and shifts the perspective to a system centered around the planet Elsewhere. Aware of how the Hobbs gods are making everyone the same with their good time vibes, they perceive that as a stifling conformity and do their best to keep it at bay while allowing the worlds in their systems to maintain their own individual belief systems. Which is great, except that a good number of those belief systems believe in things that not only Tepper finds disagreeable but most reasonable people in general would (let's go down the list: child sacrifice, slavery, women as third class citzens, etc), but thanks to the magic of "let's respect everyone's beliefs" it all goes on, with Enforcers making sure things don't get too out of hand and deviate from the normal horrible practices, because it's best to maintain oppression on an even keel.
This is an interesting issue to explore, even if she didn't do it in her usual blunt mallet fashion and make it fairly easy for the reader to figure out which side he or she is on, because while the Hobbs gods are making everything swinging and groovy there's something to be said for wanting to be your own person. To that end, she gives us a bunch of characters who are trying to be their own people, with not one but two orphans (although for different reasons), a retired Enforcer and a set of conjoined twins of different genders from the present day who wind up getting catapulted into the future. If that sounds to you like something that would require quite a bit of exposition, it does, and after a number of pages detailing the religious beliefs of the twins' parents (mostly the father) when it's clearly not something we're supposed to admire, it would be a safe question to ask exactly where she was going with all this. The twins themselves are interesting enough and while she positions them as something shocking in their habits, most of the "shocking" things happen early on and are treated matter of factly. Just when it seems that they're going to become Heinleinian style mouthpieces for her views, they pull a Marty McFly and wind up being just as out of their depth as we are. Or maybe more than us, at least we've read SF novels.
Once the actual plot kicks in it's still not clear what the point of all this is as the characters travel about seemingly randomly from world to world, picking up two really old people (Jory and Asner) in the process. It's these characters that link us to the other novels, with the former soon enough revealing herself in mannerisms as someone we've met before (a sign of how Tepper wrote that character, it was a shame we didn't see more stuff in between then and here). The latter doesn't seem to act at all like his first appearance, at least not in recognizable fashion but everyone is soon too caught up in plot digressions for it to matter much. We bounce from world to world, while occasionally taking a glance back as computer generated old people act like maniacs and promise terrible things. And while in other hands this might seem like a mess, here it winds up being a beautiful thing because Tepper is so insistent on showing us all these different places and keeping track of all the various interpersonal threads that she has no time to indulge in her usual tendencies of explaining to us how everything is the fault of men or people who don't like trees. And stripped of that inclination to preach and lecture, it becomes something that few of her novels ever are: a fairly normal SF novel. Which means it can be enjoyed without feeling as if the author personally dislikes you if you disagree with her.
The funny thing is, this focus on plot, scattershot as it is, doesn't take away from any of her usual gifts with prose. There seems to be a little less flair this time out, but it's dependable as always and it makes it easier to enjoy her skill at pure writing. There are some passages that stand out as some of her better ones (the reaction of two people turned into robot constructs conveys just the right amount of body horror and a later decapitation falls just on the right side away from "incoherent"). All of the main characters can more or less stand together for once, whether male or female, with some like Zasper or Jory standing out even further (Jory edges toward the lecturing style we've come to know and love but fortunately the book is nearly over by that point and earlier instances are few and far between).
Where it falls short is, and I can't believe I'm even saying this, it lacks the fire that characterizes her other works. Misplaced as it might seem to be sometimes, there's a singular focus that drives her other novels whereas here she seems to be merely coasting on her considerable skills as a writer. It means that despite a lot of things going on, it never seems to cohere with any kind of urgency and coupled with characters that sometimes come across as colorless that makes for a fairly even reading experience (it's telling that even with major deaths being handled offhandedly, I really didn't feel anything other than "Wow, she really went there, eh?"). What's worse, and this isn't unique to this novel, the nominal villains have no real edge or menace, they talk like B-level monsters so that it's hard to take them seriously. Not that we're insisting for strict realism here but acting like generic lunatics isn't how you catapult yourself into the ranks of the big boys. Indeed, it makes it all feel sort of weightless, like it's all happening for reasons that have very little to do with anything the characters do.
It probably says more about me than it does about the author that by the time the deus ex machina rolls around to magically bring the story to its conclusion I wasn't even that surprised. It's not unexpected by this point but it thankfully appears just as the story threatens to lose coherence entirely, striving toward attaining some kind of poetry while mostly striving to get to the finish line intact.
Yet it ends on a slightly poetic note regardless, an untethered look forward that doesn't forget the past. It doesn't quite attain the emotional resonance she's hoping for but gets at least within the city limits and even if it never quite becomes the pressure cooker of issues it would desperately like to be (in light of this, the publisher's insistence that it's "her most controversial novel yet" clearly didn't anticipate the one where it's okay for trees to steal children from parents who don't know how to use birth control) but it does show what kind of work we could expect from her if the book weren't completely strapped to one particular issue with an insistence of riding that horse straight to the bottom of the nearest ocean. It's not enough to say she should abandon that approach entirely (as they say, she's gotta be her) but it does show that a moderation of that approach could work and that a balance is possible perhaps under the right circumstances. Even if she's not successful here, the fact that it even exists is a kind of minor success, and if any celebration of that is minor as well, that's just fine.