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Tuesday, March 01, 2005  

Reading: Sherri S. Tepper and a mean old world

Some writers have a natural knack for getting the telling aspects of human behavior right. I believe part of the reason they can do it is that they look at people's actions unblinkingly. The rationalization and accommodation that is common to most of us is foreign to them. I often associate such honesty with classic writers such as Thomas Hardy, Honore Balzac and Emile Zola, or writers of domestic realism such as Cynthia Ozick, Charles Baxter and Edward Jones. But, there are writers of speculative fiction who get people right, too. I've been reading book after book by Sherri S. Tepper during the last year and I am still impressed. Blues singer T-Bone Walker said "It's a mean old world." Tepper knows there are reasons the world is mean and that those reasons can be traced directly to human behavior, if not human nature. Sometimes her plumbing of the things people do leads to unpleasant conclusions. For example, in The Visitor, a god solves the dilemma of chronic human misbehavior by having a meteor destroy nine-tenths of Earth's population. Tepper's depiction of the malevolence that is often the dominant characteristic of people, especially leaders, convinces the reader that the god's resolution is a reasonable one.

In Six Moon Dance, "human" has been redefined to mean beings capable of treating others with a modicum of fairness. Some members of homo sapiens qualify as human, some don't. Members of other species who meet the requirement are considered human. The Questioner, a supercomputer android, sifts the wheat from the chaff. If a planetary civilization is found to have engaged in genocide, the entire planet is destroyed. Lesser remedies are applied for other egregious violations of human rights. The novel is set on the planet Newholme. There, women are privileged because of a shortage of the gender. Most boys are considered supernumerary and funnelled into service occupations as children. Girls are treasured and bring dowries that can make a family upper-class. A clique of women rulers, the priestesses of the Hagion, dominate the society.

Meanwhile, both genders engage in an act of denial so ridiculous that one would laugh but for its resemblance to treatment of 'inferior' populations right here on Earth. The Timmys, the indigenous people of the planet, perform most of the menial labor on Newholme. But once they are seven years old, humans are forbidden to acknowledge the existence of Timmys. So, youngsters are cared for by persons not there. Laundry, housekeeping and gardening are done by figments of the imagination. Those figures in brown robes loading ships, hauling rubbish and painting houses are "invisible people," not to be mentioned at risk of being made an outcast.

Only the intervention of the Questioner ends the oppressions the humans of Newholme have taken for granted.

A Plague of Angels has that same underpinning of realism, despite being speculative fiction. After centuries of upheaval, most humans in the Americas have returned to farm life. Others live in protected enclaves with some technology called Edges. Some people are rebuilding towns, but not cities, for cities seem to be the root of much of what ails humans. The few remaining cities are ruled by gangs. Arms dealers and drug sellers fulfill an seemingly endemic desire for weapons and drugs. As a result of hunger, disease and war, the population has been greatly reduced. Few city dwellers live past their forties. But, myth has it that people did not perish. Instead, millions are said to have built space craft and immigrated to the stars.

Among those who believe mankind dispersed is the Witch, Quince Ellel, the most powerful person at the Place of Power. The Place is built on a natural source of fusion energy and ruled by four families. Originally, the quartet was dedicated to rediscovering high technology. But, as time passed, only one of the families has retained that goal. The Witch derives her power largely from control of the Walkers, bionic killing machines. Ellel, a megalomaniac, reactivated the devices after they were buried centuries ago because of their lethalness. She is set on retrieving additional weaponry from a space station built before much of mankind supposedly left Earth for other planets. Central to Ellel's plan is locating the natural navigation system she believes can guide the space shuttle she has her minions completing. The 'navigation system,' is the youngest of the Gaddis. They are a mysterious family that occupied a towering mansion at the Place of Power before the four families arrived. Much of the narrative focuses on the Witch's efforts to find the Orphan, the Gaddi youngster hidden away, apparently to thwart her plans for planetary rule.

Eventually, the Witch captures the Orphan. Only then does the nature of the true struggle become clear. When we think of angels, our minds tend to reflect the gloss of Sunday school stories and Hallmark. It is easy to forget that the angels in the Bible are powers, godlets, if you will. (Indeed, Satan is a fallen angel.) The title of the book, A Plague of Angels, doesn't resonate until the denouement. Saccharine television shows and religion as pabulum have contributed to the image of angels as sappy do-gooders whose ideas about doing good match those of humans. So, there's divine intervention to help teams win football games or students pass exams, too many folks believe. In Plague, Tepper returns to a rigorous definition of angels -- forces sent forth to help bring about justice. Not to fulfill the often shallow desires of humans, but to fight for the overall good. Earth has been plagued by angels for some time in this book, That plague reaches it climax when Ellel and her closest followers leave on their planned trip to the space station. After taking hostages, the Witch leaves the Walkers programmed to kill anyone who attempts to leave or enter the Place of Power. That results in the battle that will cleanse the Earth of the evils that remain and allow the angels to become quiescent once more. Again, Tepper reveals a profound understanding of human nature.

It is difficult to imagine anyone communicating the kinds of truths Sherri Tepper does in her books in real life. They are decisively not "nice." Truths seldom are. And, that is what makes them worth knowing.

What's the art?

A cover from A Plague of Angels.

Reasonably related

• A biography of Sherri S. Tepper.

• The Tepper oeuvre at Bookfinder U.S.

A note from the editor

Between computer problems and completing a book manuscript (after the supposed deadline, unfortunately), I have not kept Mac-a-ro-nies as up to date as I like to. However, I hope to return to doing so. Persons wishing to help with the computer replacement plan can do so by contributing to my PayPal account.

6:10 PM