book reviews by Althea

The Fresco – Sheri Tepper *

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I’ve read quite a few of Sheri Tepper’s books. I usually consider them a guaranteed entertaining read; regardless of the author’s tendency to preach her spiritual/ecological agenda, and her tendency toward overwrought denouements. I can take that in stride, when balanced out by vivid worldbuilding, unique and interesting settings and social extrapolation, and dramatic events that ofter veer toward the horrific. Lots of Tepper’s books have lots of that good stuff.

This one features none of Tepper’s strengths, and practically works as a showcase for all of her weaknesses. I think most of the problem here is that it’s set in present-day Earth, rather than a fantasy world. Usually Tepper is forced by her sci-fi settings to use metaphor to get her agenda across. Without that barrier, every single page of this book beats the reader over the head with Tepper’s political opinions. It also made me less than impressed with those opinions. When filtered through a fantastic allegory, I’ve usually felt that I agree with her (even if I don’t agree with the didacticism). I still don’t totally disagree, but the opinions in this book, applied directly to our own world, made her politics come across as overly simplistic and somewhat condescending.

Our heroine, Benita (that means “good” – get it!) is a minority woman escaping an abusive relationship. (Men! Bad!) Luckily, although disadvantaged in many ways, Benita works at a bookstore and has been able to self-educate herself (Education! Good!). Her employers are nice to her (Gay men! Good!). She has a son who’s a jerk and a daughter who’s nice. (Men BAD! Women GOOD!) Benita’s life really turns around, though, when she happens to meet a couple of aliens, members of the Pistach race, who ask her to be their representative to Our Leaders.

These aliens seem to just want to help Earth and help end our wars and ecological depredations, (Peace and Ecology GOOD!), and help us join a Galactic Federation. Unfortunately, they’re just one member of a complicated society out there in space, and some other alien species would rather use Earth as a hunting reserve. (Humans tasty!) Some self-centered right-wing politicians make a deal with other aliens that would give away our legal rights. (Right-wing BAD!) In order to defend Human Rights (to not be hunted as game), Earth will need the help of our new allies. Unfortunately, at a critical juncture, the Pistach have a social crisis of their own regarding religious and historical revelations. If it’s not resolved, they might descend into chaos and leave us to our fate. (Snacks!)

The way the crisis is resolved is absolutely INFURIATING (not to mention unrealistic, unbelievable, and dumb). Without creating any spoilers, I think I can say that Tepper comes out firmly on the side that believes that both truth and history should take a back seat to a political agenda, and that knowingly re-writing the past as lies is just fine and dandy if it serves her perceived ‘greater good.’ She dismisses the destruction of ancient historical artifacts with a blithe ‘they weren’t very well-crafted anyway.’ Myself, I believe in learning from history – even the most unpleasant aspects of it. I don’t believe in whitewashing the past or intentionally twisting facts. So I really did find this book quite personally offensive.

I also felt that it failed as far as what Tepper was trying to do. I couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be humorous or not. There certainly are many bits that seem to be intended as funny (the anti-abortionists being injected with alien fetuses; the middle-eastern women having an illusion of ugliness cast over them) but then it veers into over-earnestness. The tone wasn’t consistent or effective. Overall, it just wasn’t very good. At all. Disappointing.


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