This review originally appeared in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, in Winter 2008.
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 (the calculation is based on number of children and number of siblings) are shipped out to one of the colony worlds, or indentured as bond-slaves to various unpleasant 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.
Like many solitary children, Margaret invents alter egos: 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 can only think, only do, what their followers are capable of thinking and doing; but this does not limit them in any useful way. Humankind's pantheon includes 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 bloodthirsty Quaatar gods: the Quaatar harbour an innate loathing of humanity, and their gods are hatching a dreadful plot.
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.
The Margarets is less about the roles and rights of women, and more about humanity regardless of gender, than in some of Tepper's earlier novels. 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.
There's a certain amount of handwaving at the end of the novel ("The how is less important than the why," insists the Gardener). And readers who've followed Tepper's career may experience a sense of déjà vu from time to time. But this is a complex, cleverly-plotted novel, and a vastly entertaining read.
My personal review of The Margarets is here