No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, June 26, 2008

#29: The Margarets - Sheri Tepper

The Quaatar bother easily. Some time in the remote past, they may have encountered humans under adverse circumstances. Perhaps a Quaatar tried to eat a human and got an upset stomach. That would have been enough. (p. 278)

I'm a great fan of Tepper's earlier novels (Grass, Sideshow and others) but my interest faded in the mid-90s, because I didn't find her later novels as captivating. (On the other hand, I'm of the camp that admires the twist in the middle of The Family Tree.) Nevertheless, I leapt at the chance to review The Margarets, and I've enjoyed it immensely: perhaps this is because, though I'm sure she's revisiting themes and tropes she's explored before, I haven't had time to get bored with her take on them.

The Margarets is set at the end of this century, more or less. Margaret Bain, born 2084, grows up as the only child on Phobos. Earth is over-populated, ecologically devastated and governed by draconian reproductive laws. Those who come from large families (I'm simplifying) are shipped out to one of the colony worlds, or indentured as bond-slaves to various unpleasant (arachnid / reptilian / generally vile) alien races. Not all the aliens are bad guys: the Gentherans, small besuited bipeds who made contact with Earth in 2062, seem to feel indebted to humanity, and have provided ships, assistance and galactic good will.

Margaret is a self-possessed child, and like many solitary children she invents personalities: a spy, a queen, a shaman, a linguist ... Unlike most children, though, her fantasy selves become real: they split off at critical junctures, and go off to have adventures (and narratives) of their own. At nine, a version of Margaret leaves Phobos with a woman in a red dress whose spaceship looks like a dragonfly. At twelve, multiple selves leave Earth for different fates. At twenty-two ...

Margaret ends up seven-selved, each self on a different world and usually known by a different name. One self is male. One self is much older than the others, having passed through a time anomaly to reach the colony for which she's bound. Each self is only vaguely, if at all, aware that there are other versions of Margaret out there. And each berates herself for making the wrong choices, or bewails fate stacked against her.

Pan back from the Margarets. There's a plan millennia in the making, and a shadowy Order of the Siblinghood to implement it: there's a cosmic gathering-place, like an ocean or a forest or a galaxy, where the gods of all mortal races dwell. Well, they say they're gods, but they would, wouldn't they? The gods of humankind include Mr Weathereye (a one-eyed gentleman of indeterminate age), Lady Badness, and the Gardener. There are other, less balanced entities in this assembly, notably a triptych of Quaatar gods (the Quaatar being vast, multi-limbed lizards who can only count to six -- it's unclear how many limbs they do have! -- and who harbour an innate loathing of humanity for reasons that are lost in the mist of time, or 'the first chapter') brewing hatred and bloodshed against the human menace. The gods can only think, only do, what their followers are capable of thinking and doing. This does not limit them in any useful way.

Now, blend in Tepper's big themes: population control (at all levels from intra-familial to racial); ecology and the fragile biome of Earth; inscrutable aliens; the need for rescue. Throw in a pinch of kindness-to-animals (in a kind of fairytale morality, this is a gift that benefits the giver), lost children, lost memories, some truly nasty religious practices, slavery and human trafficking, conjoined twins and the misuse of religion. And season with a new take on 'the human problem' -- not the problem perceived by various alien races, of the galaxy (and the pantheon) being overrun by humanity, but the more basic issue of humanity's appetite for wasteful destruction, and whether this appetite can ever be removed.

Stir well.

The Margarets is less about the roles and rights of women, and more about humanity regardless of gender, than I recall from earlier Tepper. There's a strong undercurrent of outrage at aspects of contemporary life: the dumbing-down of education, the ineffectuality of environmental policies, the pro-life movement. There's also humour, and something that I suspect an antagonistic reviewer might term 'whimsy', though I found it heart-warming. The seven-fold Margarets give Tepper ample room to indulge other favourite themes (shamanism, medicine, linguistics and a rather swashbuckling romance) without upsetting the balance of the novel. Which is, in a sense, about balance.

I confess I was irritated by aspects of the actual, physical book. (Gollancz trade paperback edition: 505pp, rather than the 384pp that Amazon claim.) I think the page numbers are supposed to be grey rather than black: they're almost unreadable. There's a map at the front of the book (no, this is not a fantasy novel!) and some of that's printed in Invisible Grey as well. And having the map, and the dramatis personae, at the front of the book is irritating in a different way: even casual perusal reveals plot twists and developments that are better handled by the narrative.

That said, I enjoyed The Margarets very much, though the plot seemed to become vaguer at the end. "That is one of the ways it could have happened," says the Gardener in response to a hypothesis, and maybe I'm imagining her defensive tone. "The how is less important than the why." The 'how' is complex and cleverly plotted, the 'why' is an interesting speculation, and together they make a vastly entertaining tale.

My Vector review of The Margarets is here

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