Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Sheri S. Tepper, The Margarets (2008)


Heart: Tepper’s strength as a writer is her charm. I don’t mean that she is delightful or superficially appealing (although she is, often, delightful); I mean charming in a more profound sense. There is magic in her best books; each a grimoire. The Marjorie Westriding trilogy is a crucial column in my personal SF temple. Something Westriding herself says is one of the three wisest things I know (‘no matter how well intentioned they may be, don't let anybody mess with your head’ … a forceful principle, that, that takes much of its force precisely from the canny, witty way Tepper parses it through the deadening religious literalism of the High Baidee who are the first to hear it). Tepper’s charm is woven of wisdom, and clarity, and it takes its power, like an atom being split, from a potent aesthetic bifurcation: most of her best work takes place in the space she opens up between science fiction and fantasy. She is better than any writer I can think of at superposing the sense of sf wonder with the transforming enchantment of fairy tale and fantasy. If she is sometimes pegged as an ‘ecological’ or ‘environmental’ writer that’s only, actually, because she is always articulating the intimacy that exists between magic and the land. Her writing is warm and fluent, and most of her characters, usually even the flawed characters, are sympathetic; and this is because there is really only one sin (using the word loosely) that Tepper sees as deadly: Pride. From Pride grow obstinacy, selfishness, the inability to empathise or learn, the blinkers of much modern life.

The Margarets is something of a culmination of Tepper’s larger project as a writer: in both content and form it recapitulates this fertile pulse of bifurcation and reunion, this teasing out and weaving together of SF and Fantasy, The novel is simultaneously a SF interplanetary romance and a Fantasy about wise women (and one man), about the rule of seven (and of three), talking (and dancing) cats, cursed necklaces and the spell that will save the world. What is really notable here is the way Tepper embodies her many-layered narrative formally as a series of bifurcations—young Margaret, growing up on Phobos alone in a post-environmental-meltdown future, invents alternate versions of herself: a healer, a warrior, a spy and so on. The premise of the novel is that these alternate versions branch off from her life as actual entities, and that the narrative follows them.

Humanity is under the thumb of an alien federation (the Interstellar Trade Organisation) who are very cross with us for mucking up our environment. Since the cause of this disaster is overpopulation, depopulation is the answer: breeding protocols to limit birth, or more drastically the shipping away of millions of surplus humans to work on other planets, often as slaves of very unpleasant alien species. The ITO closes down the scientific base that is Margaret’s family’s home, and ships them back to Earth; and the narrative spreads itself into a fan of threads, because Margaret’s imaginary versions of herself become, somehow, separate and autonomous (though unaware, each, of the others), making plain the different consequences of key choices in Margaret's life. Some of these Margarets becomes queens, some slaves; some have pleasant lives, some very unpleasant. That they are all part of a larger weave is intimated early, but only becomes fully plain towards the end of this rich, lengthy tale.

Head: I can understand you saying all of this, but none of it stops The Margarets from being a broken book, much more a failure than a success. It is too long, and it lacks the structural or stylistic deftness to orchestrate its crowded, friable plot across its length. The different Margarets are insufficiently differentiated for the architectonic needs of the book: which is to say they're presented at different ages, and in one case as of a different gender, but stylistically and formally they are all the same thing. The writing and plotting is diffuse; I found it a sticky, onerous process making my way through. Tonally the sections are too much of a muchness; there’s not enough local variety to tell them apart, so the reader is forced back upon the elaborate lists of characters and planets at the beginning. There’s a distinct lack of overall tension, for I never doubted for a minute that the novel would follow its own Fairy Tale logic to a happy ending. Well, I say happy …

Heart: You didn’t find the ending happy? I did. It gladdened me.

Head: It left me feeling metaphorically itchy. This goes to the root of The Margarets' problem for me: essentialism. There are many different sorts of alien, but every ‘race’ (Tepper insists on calling species ‘races’) is ‘either ethical or vile’ with the sole exception of humanity which is mostly vile but which has the capacity to be ethical.

Heart: But Good versus Evil is part of the architecture of fairy tales. You don’t think it works? You didn’t root for Ongamar, enslaved by the cruel K’Famir on Cantardene? You didn’t feel the rightness and magic of the Gardener on Chottem?

Head: There are moments of authentic magic—even I, in my heady way, accept that. But by and large the book is ethically clumsy; and since it's basically an ethical fable that’s debilitating. The environmental message (environmentalism is taken, here, as an ethical rather than a practical matter) is delivered in too sledgehammer a way. In this novel environmental disaster is not a bad thing because it will degrade the quality of life of the earth’s inhabitants; it is a bad thing in its own terms, without respect to humanity. Indeed, it is not only needful but creditable to sacrifice the earth’s inhabitants to the environment’s needs. The book proposes a sort of unreconstructed vulgar Malthusianism—the problem is over-population, the only solution is cutting back population—selling people en masse into slavery, neutering 90% of the population, even culling people: all these are unfortunate but acceptable strategies to allow the forests to regrow. But forests can’t think, feel, love and create as human beings can. It’s morally obtuse to prioritise forests over human beings.

Heart: ‘Vulgar Malthusianism’ is a cheap shot, surely.

Head: I think the novel is wrong on quite a basic level; and because this is core to what the book is doing (and because environmental degradation is a real and pressing problem) I think it a fatal sort of wrongness. Malthus noted that population increase outstripped increases in food production, and foresaw catastrophe in his own lifetime. It didn’t happen, because Malthus didn't see that a larger population also provides a larger number of people to invent solutions to the problems posed by a larger population. Tepper also doesn’t see things this way. For her, people are a brute problem, to be solved by the intervention of gods and superpeople. A certain sort of person is presented in the book as attractive and honourable; other sorts are presented as agents of a kind of caricature decadence that approaches Puritanism:
“What was Benny Paul up to?” Glory asked him when she gave him a thank you hug.
“Him and Trish,” he said, making a face. “They were going to put on a sex show for us, and Til said we’d get to … take part.”
“Jeff, you’ve got to stay away from him.” [287]
Her disapproval is palpable (‘Benny Paul … his nastiness’) and, really, pretty prudish. Nasty people and their nasty habits of having sex and filling the world up with people. You know what is better than people, in this book? Cats. The cats. My God the cats.

Heart: Are you really saying you dislike cats so much that their mere presence can ruin a book for you?

Head: Don’t tell me you like cats. I won’t believe it.

Heart: But that’s because I’m your heart. Everybody else’s heart loves kitty-cats to pieces.

Head: Fair enough. But love them or not, please at least accept that cats aren’t actually little tiny furry sort-of human beings. Their owners play that game as an indulgence. But key agents in this novel really are diminutive furry aliens called Gentherans/Gibbekot. They have a long association with humanity:
In time long past an armada of Gentheran ships was travelling near a variable star, and the radiation caused a mutation in all the unborn babies. They were born physically deformed and mentally limited. Their fingers never developed, they couldn’t stand erect or learn to speak … Our people called them “the afflicted” … When the Gentherans found your race, oh, many thousands of years ago, they had some of the afflicted ones with them. Your people were … silly about them. They just loved them. [298; that last one is Tepper’s ellipsis]
Margaret spells it out: ‘she’s talking about cats, Gloriana.’ This struck so daft a note with me that I wondered, briefly, if it was Tepper deliberately channelling Douglas Adams (cats instead of mice; and ‘K’Famir’ and ‘Frossians’ instead of Vogans; and with seven-headed Margaret instead of two-headed Zaphod). But I really don’t think so. I think Tepper just really loves cats. What does the novel present a thinking, speaking, high-IQ species of cat as being like?
The Gentehrans and the Gibbekot have an ethical system, along with rules of morality. They try to be fair to all thinking beings as well as some or all living things that don’t think. [299]
What do I imagine a thinking, speaking, high-IQ species of cat would be like? I just read a book about such beings, actually. It’s called The Kindly Ones and it’s by Jonathan Littell.

Heart: Now you’re just being cranky.

Head: I don’t think so. The novel left, the more I think about it, an unpleasant taste in my mouth. It codes its own ending ‘happy’, but the route to happiness is mass murder.

Heart: Those ‘murdered’, as you put it, were in the process of trying to slaughter humanity!

Head: That’s exactly what I mean. There’s a level—and I suppose what I’m saying is that it’s precisely the level of the fairy tale—where Otherness is demonised in so complete and so unironic a manner that it crosses over from fable into ideological repulsiveness. The enemies in this novel are called The Vile Races. Of the K’Famir and the Quataar we are told that they are literally nothing but cruelty: the hold other ‘races’ in utter contempt. ‘They don’t care about their own families. Their women are for amusement or breeding; their daughters are for sale or disposal; their sons are turned into copies of their fathers’ [463]. I didn’t believe it. I didn’t, for instance, believe that a species wholly without empathy, or social fellow-feeling, could develop a functioning society in the first place, let alone a political, interstellar, trading society, with a complex religion and culture. I’m not sure Tepper believes it either; in the novel beings who act with violence and cruelty—as the K’Famir and the Quataar certainly do—are absolute blanks when it comes to interpretation. (‘When one considers violence and cruelty,’ one character says, ‘the whys seem to get lost.’). Margaret says:
When I studied the Quataar language I learned that they consider avoidance and regret are signs of weakness. You can’t convince them they’re wrong because right and wrong aren’t part of their vocabulary. [463-4]
But of course this can’t be correct: presumably at the very least ‘wrong’ to a Quataar must mean something like ‘weak and avoiding’, just as ‘right’ must mean something like ‘strong and proud.’ Margaret ventriloquises the book’s broader perspective: not, actually, that right and wrong are alien to these peoples (although that is what’s explicitly said), but that they don’t share our human concepts of right and wrong—they are not like us, and therefore they are the vile races. This is fairy tale in the sense that it doesn’t do to try and plumb the motivations of the Big Bad Wolf. Or, to be more precise: that morality itself is predicated upon the objectification of the Big Bad Wolf: he hurts us, bad; we hurt him, good.

Heart: Most people prefer The Wizard of Oz to Wicked, after all. Most people’s hearts do.

Head: But Wicked is at least a novel. In a novel that aims for complexity, as this one does, it’s fatal to blur the actual complexity of the moral universe. The novel’s complexity is all on the surface, an elaborate embroidery of actors and settings, whilst underneath all that there’s a fearsome simplicity at work. It means, for instance, that the villains have exchanges as absolutely wooden as these (one K’Famir has just tortured his daughter to death): ‘“She did not live long. Her pain was amusing.” “I too find females’ pain most amusing,” the other answered.’ [177]. That’s just plain clumsy. (Imagine a historical novel in which two agents of the Inquisition were conversing: ‘I spent all day torturing Jews and heretics; it was fun.’ ‘I too enjoy torturing Jews and causing them pain.’)

The Vile Races are plotting to destroy humanity. The Seven Margarets, with divine help, light upon a solution to their wickedness; but it is tantamount to a Final Solution. So, the entire combined aristocracy of the K’Famir, the Frossians and the Quaatar get into some space ships—in order, you understand, to prosecute their Evil (‘you remember the size of those ships?’ notes a human. ‘Designed to carry huge cargoes’):
They were full to bursting with, Frossians, K’Famir, and Quaatar who wanted to see us die. There might have been a million of them on those ships, the entire ruling class of three starfaring races. [502]
Obliging of them to concentrate themselves like that. Humans then destroy the ships, and this holocaust puts an end to the Vile Races’ evil scheming. Do you see what I mean when I say the happiness of this ending left me itchy?

Heart: I cheered the bravery and perseverance of the Margarets and was glad to see the Wolf boiled in that pot.

Head: A novel needs more than this; more self-awareness, more ironic understanding of ethical complexities. The Margarets is too rusted for its novelistic mechanism to work.

1 comment:

Michael Tuchman said...
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