liv: Bookshelf labelled: Caution. Hungry bookworm (bookies)
[personal profile] liv
Recently read: The Fresco by Sheri S Tepper. I liked some aspects of this book a lot, partly cos I'm a sucker for almost any kind of alien contact stories. I liked Tepper's aliens, the Pistach whom we see most of especially. They're not convincing in a hard-SF sense, they're biologically fairly standard giant space insects, and technologically capable of plot-serving magic, and socially very human-like with a few made-up customs. But I just enjoyed them; they feel as much in the tradition of fantasy or its pre-modern memetic ancestor, imaginary travelogues, as trying to be plausible based on the best contemporary science. I was interested to read more about their society and the slightly wrong interpretations they make when trying to study humans, and I grew fond of Chiddy, the main viewpoint character.

[livejournal.com profile] siderea remarked that Tepper's SF is very much in the horror vein, and the predator species worked rather well as monsters, successfully terrifying in various ways, especially in the prologue and the scene where one of the human characters almost gets eaten. I don't like horror either but for me this was a small enough element of the book that I didn't mind it.

I found the plot exciting, with the political intrigue and the personal story of the protag escaping an abusive relationship and finding herself, and how that intermeshes with the interplanetary conflict. There was always a good level of tension regarding whether the basically diplomatic Pistach would bring Earth into the Confederation, or whether the monstrous predator races would use Earth as a hunting ground. And I liked the plot arc about the tension in Pistach society, though I thought the protagonists' scheme for resolving this was extremely deceitful and not actually anything like the good idea the narrative seemed to regard it as.

What I didn't like about the book was that it just felt too preachy. Pointing out that the story is overwhelmed by Message is a potentially explosive remark in the aftermath of the Puppy attacks on the Hugo awards, but it really did feel like the whole alien contact story was carefully constructed to advance Tepper's political agenda. I mean, I agree with Tepper about many things, I'm happy to nod along with ideas like: too much corporate influence on government is a problem; racism is bad; the legal system is inadequate for dealing with gendered violence; protecting the environment and habitats from ecological disaster is really important and should be prioritized above political and national differences.

But I was dissatisfied with much of the plot because it was just too convenient that these highly advanced spacefaring aliens agreed so precisely with late twentieth century American Liberal values and that everybody who adopted such values lived happily ever after, just by authorial fiat rather than because of any internal logic within the story. And as I complained last week, the whole book felt too parochial for a really great alien contact story, it's very focused on specifically US political debates (eg I found it hard to suspend disbelief that alien colonists would care for three seconds about Bill Clinton's impeachment). Also, it was published jusssst before September 11th 2001, and American politics from before that disconnect is as weird now as Cold War settings.

I'm probably more sensitive to the didacticism of the book because of elements where I disagree with Tepper's politics, particularly her feminism. The worst was the abortion debate stuff; there's a whole arc about pro-life male politicians being non-consensually impregnated by aliens, which I know is a standard pro-choice trope (if male legislators could get pregnant we'd have more liberal abortion laws hahaha), but in The Fresco this is presented as a wholly positive thing. I suppose it's kind of revenge fantasy, the idea that politicians who pass laws promoting forced birth should have to go through an uncomfortable, career-destroying, potentially medically dangerous and deliberately portrayed as horrific quasi-rape and pregnancy, but it's one I found really upsetting. It's bad enough that misogynists think that pregnancy is a just punishment for politics they disagree with, without getting the same from a supposedly feminist viewpoint. Likewise doing away with due process for men accused of rape or domestic violence is IMO the wrong solution to the problem that the criminal justice system is currently somewhat misogynistic. And no, state-mandated castration (!) is not an obvious common-sense response to rape...

The "ugly plague" of making women offensively ugly to punish men for religiously mandated segregation also did not seem very just to me, if nothing else because it would do far more harm to perfectly innocent women than to sexist men. And of course it's Muslim men, specifically in Afghanistan, who are selected for this magical alien solution to sexism, because white American feminists love to make a bogeyman of foreign Muslim men and justify American militaristic colonialism in the name of "liberating" those poor primitive women from religious headcoverings. I particularly disliked this part of the plot because Afghanistan is the only non-US country that gets any attention at all beyond throwaway lines about "India and China" and "the rest of the world". Well, apart from Israel, where another magical alien technology involves removing Jerusalem into an alternate dimension because Jews and Muslims are "too violent", not at all like those nice secular post-Christian white Americans who absolutely never engage in any kind of unjustified military violence. At least Tepper doesn't propose literally nuking Jerusalem, only metaphorically so, and is at pains to explain that the magical alien ray made sure nobody was physically hurt.

So, basically, good story, nicely written and original, but too political even when I agreed with it.

Currently reading I haven't really started any other books since finishing The Fresco, which is unusual for me, but I've had [personal profile] jack visiting and have been doing very little reading. I sort of skimmed Playing Beattie Bow by Ruth Parks to check for the suck fairy before lending it to [livejournal.com profile] ghoti, who was enthusing about another Ruth Parks book. It's as atmospheric as I remember it, but I'd completely forgotten the subplot about the delinquent father. When I was a kid I used to basically ignore the adult characters in books like this, but now I notice Abigail's mother is exactly my age, and I suppose I plausibly could have a 14-year-old daughter and a decade-long marriage in my past. Good stuff, I might well reread properly after I get it back.

Up next Still not sure. I found a book of Keri Hulme short stories along with Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks on a shelf with an honesty box in a random village in Derbyshire at the weekend, so maybe one of those. Or maybe I'll be in the right mood for the recently laureate Three-body problem by Cixin Liu, which is on my e-reader anyway.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-08-26 09:30 pm (UTC)
wild_irises: (Joanna Russ)
From: [personal profile] wild_irises
Tepper has pretty much always been willing to let Message overwhelm Story, long before the Puppies were more than gleams in older dogs' eyes. So I'm sure I would agree with you.

Unrelatedly, I am very glad of this review because otherwise I wouldn't have known I need to look at this book for a nonfiction project I am contemplating ....

(no subject)

Date: 2015-08-26 10:45 pm (UTC)
nicki: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nicki
White American feminists are rather less obsessed over Muslims than White American Male Republicans (or the French, which is weird). Yes, there is discussion over the hijab and the importance of personal choice, etc, but the conversation tends to be relatively nuanced. Mostly it tends to be a topic when brought up by MRAs who want to derail a discussion about things actually happening in the US. :P

(sounds like Tepper needs to work a bit on her internalized racism and was a little too impressed with the Lilith Fair)

(no subject)

Date: 2015-08-26 11:55 pm (UTC)
ursula: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ursula
This sounds remarkably non-WTF. Based on my past experience with Tepper, I would've expected the moral to be something closer to "We should all become insectoid aliens".

(no subject)

Date: 2015-08-27 01:47 am (UTC)
crystalpyramid: crystal pyramid suspended in dimensional abnormality (Default)
From: [personal profile] crystalpyramid
I like those ones better!

(no subject)

Date: 2015-08-27 02:17 am (UTC)
siderea: (Default)
From: [personal profile] siderea
Which ones are those? I didn't think I wanted to read any more Tepper, but I would be mighty tempted to read a book that actually went to the mat for the principle of We Should All Become Insectoid Aliens.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-08-27 09:41 am (UTC)
crystalpyramid: crystal pyramid suspended in dimensional abnormality (Default)
From: [personal profile] crystalpyramid

I don't know about insectoid aliens in particular, but my favorite Tepper books are definitely the strangest ones — Six Moon Dance, Grass, Raising the Stones, and Sideshow. Not that the usual feminist themes aren't present, but they feel a lot less preachy when there's more other stuff going on.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-08-28 05:39 am (UTC)
siderea: (Default)
From: [personal profile] siderea
Aw, I am disappoint on the insectoid aliens.

I've read Grass and Sideshow (in reverse order). I did not like Grass (too horror for my tastes, and then IMHO it jumped the shark in the middle), and while I found Sideshow tough going, I have to give mad props to a 20th cen American liberal who writes a ~400pp novel to the political point of being against tolerance. That's what I was thinking about when I said that I felt her work was improving for me to have read.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-08-27 10:51 am (UTC)
kaberett: Overlaid Mars & Venus symbols, with Swiss Army knife tools at other positions around the central circle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kaberett
Tepper is an unapologetic eugenecist (spot the money quote) who thinks disabled people should be rounded up and put in camps; some of these themes do show up in other books, so you're aware. (I think that first link links on enough; I don't particularly feel like digging further for specifics.)

(no subject)

Date: 2015-08-28 05:45 am (UTC)
siderea: (Default)
From: [personal profile] siderea
Huh. Good to know. Thanks.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-08-27 05:21 pm (UTC)
cjwatson: (Default)
From: [personal profile] cjwatson
Hm, I feel quite bad about recommending this now, because while I'd noticed some of the problematic content I'd enjoyed the alien contact plot a bit too much to pay attention to it. (In particular I remember thinking that Tepper had an unquestioned assumption that Muslim women don't have their own reasons for wanting to wear hijab; there's a whole white-saviour thing going on.) I did not know about her eugenicism, which is probably my fault.

I'm trying to think of better alien contact stories I could recommend that don't suffer from similar problems. The ones that are coming to mind right now are I think better but still not perfect: Harry Turtledove's Worldwar series (I enjoyed what I read, but (a) it's WWII alt-hist so obvious content notes apply, (b) he generally treats just about everything in sufficient detail that it avoids being a caricature, but I thought his Muslim characters were rather two-dimensional, (c) it's VERY LONG and has a zillion different plot threads) and Julian May's Galactic Milieu series (I really really love the giant plot arc of these and the psychic development stuff, sort of like the X-Men with added aliens and spirituality, but this review and its comments go into some of the problems with another part of the series and there's some dubious race-essentialism in there). Any better suggestions?
Edited Date: 2015-08-27 05:21 pm (UTC)

My favorite alien-contact novel

Date: 2015-08-29 04:38 pm (UTC)
jesse_the_k: Hands open print book with right side hollowed out to hole iPod (Alt format reader)
From: [personal profile] jesse_the_k
Amy Thompson's The Color of Distance is from 1999, but it's definitely worth digging up.

One human survives a first-contact mission on a planet where life is so alien it takes her months to realize it is populated. Then there's the linguistic problems! She surmounts those and involves herself deeply in the community. There's no "action" sequences at all, but it's gripping anyway.

I eagerly awaited the sequel (Through Alien Eyes) but she didn't capture lightning twice. Once is enough!

Soundbite

Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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