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Bewildering Stories

Sheri S. Tepper, The Fresco

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

The Fresco
Author: Sheri S. Tepper
Publisher: EOS, 2000
Hardcover: $24.00 US
Length: 406 pages
ISBN: 0-380-97879-2
Sheri S. Tepper’s book The Fresco reminds of one of those poisonous family arguments. You know the kind I’m talking about. Let’s say it’s a holiday, and the extended family has gathered from all around the country. There’s old Granny by the fire repeating all those really awful old church jokes that make you wince. Voices are booming and the level in the punch bowl is sinking fast. Ah, there’s Uncle Roscoe, your second youngest uncle, the one you’ve been arguing with about this or that since you were a little kid. Let’s see, last year you had this heated discussion on the nature of civilization. The faults of the incumbent made for another lively discussion. You’re looking forward to your next great round with Uncle Roscoe.

Only it isn’t going so well this time. Hey, we must have hit a hot button! Uncle Roscoe’s face is turning red and he’s about to snap his wine stem. And while you’re thinking to yourself, everyone has a right to his or her opinion, it’s just a philosophical difference, for some reason you’re clutching your fork very tightly, and you have this almost irresistible impulse to jab it right into his fat, bigoted, redneck moon face. Why, oh why, were we both so unwise as to let it all hang out this time. Christmas dinner bodes never to be the same.

Sheri S. Tepper lets all her opinions hang out in her book, and personally, I suspect a lot of readers may react the way Uncle Roscoe and I did to each other. Did you ever play a certain game when you were — well, any age? The one entitled “How I Could Improve The World If Only I Were God.” It’s a nearly irresistible game, if you let yourself start thinking about it in earnest. Even Shakespeare played it (remember the famous “First, let’s kill all the lawyers” line?) Gilbert and Sullivan did it too, tongue-in-cheek, in Koko’s little patter death-song, “They’ll None Of Them Be Missed.” Then we have our serious practitioners. Mao’s Little Red Book. Mayor B.’s new rules, you know, Smoking Is Verboten Everywhere, Don’t Sit On Milk Crates, Pregnant Women Fined for Resting On Steps, Support NYC Through Petty Fines. Everyone’s spent a few secret moments reforming our political system and removing that neighbor who lets his dog poop on the lawn into the realm of Outer Darkness. The funny thing is, if one really lets go and imagines the world just as one wants it, one always ends up with a vision that would almost certainly mortally offend even one’s closest family and friends. Maybe it’s best we all keep our collective mouths pursed.

EOS doesn’t agree with me, obviously. Under the thin guise of a First Contact story, Sheri S. Tepper expounds her vision of the New World. Benita Alverez-Shipton is a too-young Hispanic mother from New Mexico with an abusive, drunken, pot-smoking, permanently unemployed husband and a son cut in the same mould. She has a nice daughter who’s trying hard to make a go of her life. (Quick: guess how males in general fare in this story?) One afternoon two insectoid aliens meet Benita on her mushroom-gathering expedition. They strike a deal. Benita will be their representative to the world. She gets a lot of money and a message cube. She even gets more than that. The aliens, noting just how messed up years of abuse, her lack of even a high school education, etc. has made her, kindly help her out. A little adjustment is in order. Wow! Benita the Beaten is now the Enlightened One. Suddenly she can talk in complex sentences just like Aaron the Articulate. She can look generals and senators and presidents and all-powerful aliens in the eye on equal terms and straighten them out in no uncertain terms. Why, she’s — well, that for-real Hispanic woman we met so briefly — is just gone. She’s become Sheri S. Tepper’s mouthpiece.

It’s a good thing Benita can talk so lucidly, because she’s given a lot to say. The author, I mean the aliens, have big plans for Earth. Never mind that their vision is so Orwellian that G. O. would start looking frantically for Big Brother to hide him if he heard. The aliens (the Pistech and their wasp-like pals, the Inkleozese) are admirably feminist in their views. Those misguided male public figures that espouse pro-life sentiments get mass impregnated by the Inkleozese to teach them a lesson. Thirteen painful months lie ahead, while the implanted spawn get larger and, well, hungrier. Then comes the great chew-out, no anesthetics allowed for fear of endangering the dear little waspy babies. The poor men, those that survive such a trauma sane, go home to a lifetime of taunts. I was raped! one victim screams. Well, you must have asked for it, retorts the wife. Sheri, dear... don’t you think you were just a little hard on those fellows? For just those philosophical differences?

And then she addresses those men who lock up their women in long black sacks and windowless upper floors. You know, the entire Islamic world. Besides instantly solving the Palestinian issue, the feminista aliens have a plan for those chauvinistic Muslims, too. All of a sudden the women in all the Islamic countries are transformed into hideous trolls. Supposedly they are now so ugly their men can’t endure the sight of them. Lack of sex incites the sex-crazed males to finally doubt Allah’s will. Oh dear, they say, let’s reform! (Aristophanes did the same theme a lot better, Sheri, a few thousand years ago). And oh dear, Sheri, it’s sure not so simple. I recommend a little book to you, a great and very human story entitled Guests of the Sheikh, which might provide you with a hint of insight into the hundreds of years of social, cultural, and religious forces at work in the Islamic world. Certainly not all of those forces are bad. Besides, do you think those women are going to thank you for turning them into hideous trolls with knobby noses, baggy boobs, and plenteous warts? Go back to the blackboard and work on this one please, Sheri!

I could go on with more examples of the same I-Am-God (God clearly being a She here) reformism run rampant. For example, Benita the Mouthpiece gives religion in general a short shrift. Apparently we humans formed our ideas of God early in our bloody and unenlightened childhood and just outgrew those ideas. Who needs the Old Testament (or the Koran) any more? Though interestingly enough, in this story, the Pistech grant every human a colored mark in his or her hand, which sounds strangely like — well — that Beastly Mark; only here’s it supposed to be a good thing. The fresco referred to in the title, in turn, relates to an incident of nakedly cynical religious manipulation, complete with staged miraculous figures. If a title is a metaphor for a story, this title is an unfortunate choice.

I’ve shorted this review on its plot description because the plot is really subordinate to the New World Imperative Tepper puts forth. There’s another set of aliens in the story, a batch of predators (ahem, mostly male) who want to make Earth their private hunting grounds. They have names like Odiferous Tentacles and lots of highly predictable teeth, tentacles, and stinky smells, and they don’t do much but provide unintentional comic relief. The Pistech, however, the good guys with the Plan for Earth, are drawn in more depth. What a marvel of organization and harmony their society is. Everyone has a pre-determined niche, determined by years of genetic selection and careful testing, and if they happen to want to be or do something else, no problem. They’re sterilized and exiled to a pretty paradise world called Quirk where they’re free to express themselves. When one of those exiles (male, of course) rebels in spite of his cushioned prison and leads an abortive insurrection, order and status quo soon prevail. The poor misguided male gets regressed back to childhood innocence and gently retrained. Mama knows best, son!

I thought long and hard about this book when I finished it. I wish Ms. Tepper had been writing this tongue-in-cheek. But no, her jaw-dropping happy ending appears to be dead serious. The Pistech Plan reforms the World, whether it wants it or not. Benita’s newly adjusted, formerly slacker son Carlos starts spouting his eagerness to work. Drugs, those unfashionable veils, outgrown religions, population explosions, and pro-lifers are all evils of the past. Benita the Heroine remarries happily — to one of the insectoid Pistech. (I wonder about those “fluttering mouthparts”, really, not something I’d want to kiss, but well, each to her own, and thank goodness there is no interspecies sex described). Walk into the rosy sunset, humanity! Or whatever we should call you now that you’ve been reformed by the helpful Pistech.

I do give the author credit for a thought-provoking book and the courage to speak her mind in a ferociously feminist vision. I give EOS credit for having the guts, or, excuse me, whatever you prefer to call it, to publish it. Myself, as an editor I might have hesitated to touch it. When folks really let it all hang out on How They’d Reform the World, someone always gets offended. Even Shakespeare managed to offend a portion of the population in just one line (sorry, lawyers, you can’t sue a dead man). So, does Tepper’s 406-page vision offend me? I am afraid it does. I’d like to say: please, Pistech: just go away. Humanity doesn’t need any imposed miracle solutions!

Still, I must say I would just love to include Ms. Tepper among my holiday dinner guests... right across from red-faced, hot-tempered, good-old-boy Uncle Roscoe. Wow! What a show it would be! It’s too bad Uncle Roscoe and I disowned each other forever by the time I was sixteen. Ye who would Reform the World, take heed.

Copyright © 2005 by Danielle L. Parker

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