Pedo Snore Screed of a Octafish

by Arthur B

Sheri S. Tepper's The Waters Rising is sufficient cause to fire the entire editorial staff at Gollancz and HarperCollins, and no credible SF or fantasy publisher should accept her work until she apologises for it.
Uh-oh! This is in the Axis of Awful...
~
This is the worst novel I have ever reviewed for Ferretbrain. That's a big claim, but I am confident it is true. I am confident it will remain true for a long, long time. I got an e-mail out of the blue from someone I thought I could trust, asking if I was interested in reviewing a fantasy novel, I said yes, I read this book, it changed my definition of what "terrible" is because my previous conception of awfulness wasn't sufficient to encompass just what a disaster this is.

Trigger warnings for rape and pedophilia by the way, gang.

The Waters Rising is, in principle, a sequel to A Plague of Angels from way back in 1993. It came out in 2010 in the States and 2011 in the UK, making it eligible for the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke award, which it was shortlisted for. Christopher Priest got very angry about this on the basis that the book feels more like fantasy than SF, and the Clarke is supposed to be a SF award. Then again, China Mieville won the Clarke with The Iron Council, which is fairly clearly fantasy, and the SF/fantasy borderline isn't as clear as some people might like. Then again, Priest was angry at the Clarke judges not just because he thought the books they picked weren't SFy enough - he also thought they were shit and should never have been in the running. I haven't read all of them because I have no particular desire to stay current with every single book which is currently making waves. But I have read this one. Dear God, I have read this one until I was sick to the back teeth. I can confirm that it shouldn't have won an award. I can also confirm that in its present state it probably shouldn't have been published. There's trash authors who self-publish because no publishing house in its right mind would release their bilge who, despite their utter lack of anything resembling authorial skill, effortlessly manage to outwrite this crap. The book is terrible in both conception and execution.

The thing about Tepper is that her books are polemics. She makes no bones about this. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, she has a following anyway. I'd never read any of her work before this and am unlikely to in the future; I was mainly aware of her because Beauty was honoured with a spot in the Fantasy Masterworks series, but based on valse's assessment this seems to have been a mistake. Of course, it's possible to do polemic without being tedious or preachy, but on the evidence of this book Tepper seems to be completely incapable of doing so; on top of that, a lot of what she preaches here is reprehensible (there's a nasty eugenics spin to the story) or actually counterproductive to the various causes she espouses. She's known as an eco-feminist, yes, but she's the sort of eco-feminist that embarrassess all the other ecologists in the room by behaving almost exactly like the sort of total cartoon that climate change deniers like to paint ecologists as.

Premises & Pedophilia


I should tell you what the story is about, shouldn't I? Abasio and his talking horse Blue are two best pals who wind up in the region of Woldsgard because someone said they would find something interesting there. What they find is Xulai, a plucky 8 year old Tingawan girl. The Tingawans are fantasy-Asians; I actually can't get more specific than that. At first I thought they were meant to be pseudo-Chinese because Romanisations of Chinese tend to be heavy on the X's and there were vague hints that the Tingawans have a big empire. Then there was mention of having traditional Japanese bathing habits. Then late in the book we encounter a Tingawan sea-captain whose name reads like someone who doesn't speak any Asian languages tried to make up an Indian-sounding name. At this point I realised that it was best just to assume that Tingawa is fantasy-Asia.

Or, actually, just plain Asia: it rapidly develops that the land Abasio and Blue live in is what is left of the USA, following an apocalyptic period known as the Big Kill and a highly radioactive period known as the Time When No One Moved Around, in the wake of which a pseudo-Medieval society arose because... Well, just because. On top of all this, the sea level is rising rapidly - oh , not because of the icecaps melting for anthropogenic reasons, that happened already and wasn't so serious. This time, it's because ice comets which were trapped deep inside the Earth when it was still forming are melting and the water is seeping upwards, raising the sea levels to a point where only tall mountains will survive. Xulai, however, has more immediate concerns. She's the Xakixa or soul carrier for Princess Xu-i-lok, daughter of a mighty Tingawan noble who married Justinian, the Duke of Woldsgard, but was cursed and fell into a deep coma shortly after they married. Xulai is to stay with her and carry her soul back to her clan in Tingawa when she dies - but Xulai is also in telepathic contact with the Princess, who is urging her to go on a scary nighttime errand to retrieve an item of some importance. Helped to accomplish this errand by Abasio, Xulai is heartbroken when Xu-i-lok almost immediately dies, and soon discovers changes occurring within her and powers being untapped that she never knew she had. Accompanied both by Bear and Precious Wind, two fellow Tingawans from Princess Xu-i-lok's retinue, and various friends from Woldsgard - including Abasio and Blue, who are able to quickly befriend Justinian and convince him to send them along with the others, Xulai begins the journey to Tingawa, not realising that she is going to end up not only being imperilled by the same evil forces that did for her mother but also coming face to face with the truth behind the mysterious Sea King and his war with the drylanders - as well as the incredible solution to the problem of the waters rising which she is an unwitting part of.

Also, Abasio has a raging boner for 8-year-old Xulai and wants to fuck her hard.

That part needs a little context. Tepper has gone out of her way to build in a fair amount of plausible deniability on this score. The thing is, it turns out that Xulai isn't actually 8 chronologically speaking; according to Precious Wind, she's actually around 18-20 years old, but had unconsciously remained at around 7-8 years of development as a sort of camouflage against the dangers posed by Alicia, Duchess of Altamont, who had used forbidden technology to kill Princess Xu-i-lok and may wish to kill Xulai, partly because she just likes killing people (especially Tingawans) but also because Xulai is secretly Princess Xu-i-lok and Justinian's daughter. Overnight, after arriving at the Abbey of Wilderbrook where she is to study until the Sea King's war ceases and she can go back to Tingawa, Xulai spontaneously adopts her true adult form, and it is only at this point when she becomes sexually active with Abasio, who got all horny over her 8-year-old form solely because on some level he could see through the disguise. So, not pedophilia after all, right?

Well, wrong. Really kind of badly wrong.

Firstly and foremostly, if you find yourself in a position of trying to come up with a long and involved explanation of why something isn't really pedophilia, you have already fucked up. Regardless of how good the explanation is, the fact that it's in question in the first place is kind of a major problem. It's a problem when Jacob falls in love with a tiny baby in Twilight, and it's a problem when Abasio gets horny over Xulai when she looks like an 8-year-old here. Maybe he did subconsciously perceive her adult form, but he absolutely definitely did perceive her child form too, and usually if the presence of a small child isn't a bonerkill then you're into lumberjack territory.

Secondly, although a physical transition does occur in Xulai, it isn't accompanied by much of a mental transition in the way she behaves or is treated by others. Oh, she's somewhat more assertive and her mood is more variable (insta-puberty must be really harsh on the emotions in that way), but on the whole it still feels like she's talking like a curious child (or rather, talking like an adult author who isn't good at doing realistic-sounding child's dialogue thinks a curious and rather precocious child talks), and when Abasio is explaining stuff to her he still sounds like he is explaining something to a small child. Take this, from a completely tangential and irrelevant rant Tepper has Abasio go on about the subject of, of all things, reform schools:
"The people in the Before Time preferred easy myths to rigorous analysis. Belief instead of reality. That's why things so often went wrong."

"Couldn't they tell the difference?"

"People can't tell the difference if they start with an 'if' statement. Myths always have an 'if' in them. 'If people believed in Whifflepop, then we wouldn't have Gloop.'"
And the conversation goes on from there, littered with whimsical Whifflepops and Gloops. Tepper ranting here about people prioritising belief over reality is really fucking rich, for reasons which will hopefully become clear soon. But to get back on topic: structurally The Waters Rising is still, like an awful lot of fantasy fiction, a bildungsroman; Xulai begins it as a little girl and ends it as a mother. She starts having sex with Abasio almost immediately after she stops being a little girl, which is really rather soon. Abasio starts yearning to have sex with her whilst she still has the appearance, personality, mannerisms and thought processes of a little girl, which is really fucking wrong.

Obligatory Minority Warrior Gubbins (including the triumphant return of Fantasy Rape Watch!)


Tepper is often cited as being an eco-feminist author. I don't feel comfortable tackling whether she does or doesn't manage to succeed at writing feminist fantasy here, because there are few things uglier in Internet discourse than a man telling a woman she is doing feminism wrong. However, at the same time there are some things which I just don't feel comfortable staying silent about, and Tepper deals directly with one of those subjects and handles it in a way which is massively inconsistent and, at points, actually kind of reprehensible. Valse has raised this point already, I want to speak up here to confirm that yes, I see this shit too.

The issue is the book's treatment of rape, which earns the Fantasy Rape Watch tag several times over. The talking horse Blue, in quotes valse has kindly reproduced on her article, talks about how horse sex often involves a lack of consent on the part of the lady horse, and when Abasio points out this is rape Blue shames him into shutting up about this. Nothing in the narration subsequent to this suggests that Blue was wrong to do this. This is deeply disturbing on many levels - firstly, the whole "friends don't call friends rapists" bit is basically saying that when a pal of yours tries to justify rape you should let it slide because they are your pal. Secondly, the attempt to apply sexual morality to animals shows up the incoherence of the novel. In real life we accept that some mating processes between animals would amount to rape in human beings; that doesn't mean we're condoning rape, but it does mean we are holding ourselves to higher moral standards than animals when it comes to sexual activity. In Tepper's world, where some animals are capable of talking and having a conversation on a human level, we could actually do something about that - discuss it with our horses, talk about why consent is important, perhaps suggest that talking horses capable of considering ethical points might have more of an ethical duty to seek consent than mute animals who can't really talk about this sort of thing and, so far as we know, don't have any developed philosophy surrounding it.

In short, it would be lunacy to expect animals to abide by human standards of sexual morality in our world because we can't talk to them on that level, and whilst we can stop our pets and farm animals and zoo collections from being rotters to each other there's no policing the wild. All we can do is shudder and be glad that we are not animals and at least have the potential to use our more nuanced and powerful means of communication to properly establish relationships based on consent (even if some of us aren't very good about that). However, Tepper consistently takes the stance in the book that humans and animals exist in a state of ethical parity, so for her it would be wrong of us to hold a horse responsible for rape even if it could talk and understand what rape is, because humans shouldn't tell animals what to do. I will get back to Tepper's attitude to animals later.

The other thing about rape in the book is how often women are threatened with it. Xulai is threatened with it. Thugs sent to assassinate Precious Wind debate the merits of raping her. The Old Dark Man (who I'll be chatting about more later) is implied to have physically abused Duchess Alicia, her mother, and her maternal line several generations back, and in their ultimate confrontation threatens to impregnate her. In fact, every time a man turns out to be flat-out evil in the book (in terms of just deeply ethically confused), he is depicted as being a nasty rapeman - right down to Prince Runciter, who never does anything of significance beyond existing as part of Alicia and her mother and the Old Dark Man's plot to conquer the region and launch a genocidal war against Tingawa, but who we are nonetheless informed is a horrible rapeman. (But only of women! The worst thing that happens to any men here is that they are subjected to some offscreen violence, and this is vanishingly rare.)

I don't intend to be all "what about the mens' here, but I have to say that this evinces a rather limited conception of evil, if you really want to include characters who are irredeemably evil in your stories at all. Call me crazy, but I think it is perfectly possible for a man to be a reprehensible piece of shit who reduces the net worth of the planet by his very existence without rape coming into the equation at all. (For instance, if a man was involved in the decision-making process which led to a major publishing house releasing this novel, then that's a hideous atrocity he has to bear some responsibility for.) This doesn't seem to be the case in Tepper-land, any more than it's almost possible for any threat to be brought to bear against Xulai or the other women on Team Nice which doesn't involve rape, or things defined as being worse than rape. I appreciate that rape and the fact that women are on the receiving end of it to an appallingly disproportionate extent is an issue which is of extreme importance in feminist discourse for obvious reasons, but I can't help but think that telling us that rape is bad, very bad, really very bad over the course of the whole novel only to at the end give Blue a free pass because he's a horsie (who, remember, can talk and understand that rape is bad) takes the conversation into, to put it mildly, a bit of a weird area.

Fantasy Rape Watch rundown, because it's high time this shit was resurrected:

Women threatened with rape/actually raped: 3 humans on-camera, an unspecified number of horses and women off-camera.
Cartoonish villains who are rapists: Many.
Horses who are rapists: 1.
Rapist cartoonish villains who get some form of comeuppance: All.
Rapist horses who get a pass because they get upset and yell at you if you call them a rapist: 1
Probability that Tepper thinks the horse isn't actually a rapist: Uncomfortably high.
Women whose lives revolve around either their capacity to make babies or their participation in the upbringing of children: All of them, sooner or later.

There's also the race issues to consider. The Tingawans are fundamentally the good guys here, and the overwhelmingly white folk of Norland are not meant to be villains or anything, but the thing is Asian people are not, to my knowledge, magic elves or Vulcans or anything like that. As well as loading them down with various stereotypical attributes (they're so subtle and clever and good at technical stuff and espionage and assassination and they're so elegant and inscrutable!) Tepper makes the Tingawans overwhelmingly superior to anyone they run into and gives them so many qualities and abilities which no Asian individual of my acquaintance has ever displayed that the Tingawans seem basically inhuman. Not only do they enjoy a massive secret technological superiority, but they can control people's moods and behaviour through the medium of backrubs (the quality of which I have never found to have any correlation with the ethnicity of the provider) and go through puberty at 18-20 or thereabouts. Like I said: elves, or Vulcans. Not really very much like people at all.

Water Doesn't Work That Way, Sheri


"Well, that's a shame," you might think, "but at least it has a positive ecological message, right?'

Well, now. There's the thing. Tepper's ecological angle in this book is so incoherent, irrational, and at points objectively inaccurate that she does more damage to her own side than she ever manages to do to the anti-ecology lobby. To pick this apart, we need to tackle the genre of the book. I think Christopher Priest is broadly correct when he says that the book isn't straight-up science fiction; despite many of the fantastic elements having technical explanations, it's really best described as science fantasy, and science fantasy which tries to cleave to the tone of traditional mass market fantasy as closely as possible. There's a map at the beginning, and a cast of characters, just like every Tolkien imitator in the fantasy market for the past few decades. There's a whimsical song which bookends the story. As Priest points out, there are talking animals in this, and whilst it turns out late in the day that this is mostly due to the secret Tingawan eugenics program genetically tampering with animals to allow them to speak, the various talking creatures are at first presented as something whimsical and fantastical and fairy tale-y, which causes some mild tone whiplash when it turns out they are the result of genetic experiments. Moreover, not all of the things which speak actually have a technical explanation at all: the polymorphing chipmunk/fisher/hawk who acts as Xulai's little familiar for most of the story turns out to be a fragment of Princess Xu-i-lok's soul. No technical explanation is offered for this, or for Xulai's telepathic contact with the Princess, or for that matter for the objective reality of souls as demonstrated by the Tingawan soul traditions. Likewise, there's the "mirror curse"; whilst technological and pseudo-technological feats are often accomplished with mirrors, or flatscreens which look like mirrors, as it turns out the actual mirror curse itself is none of these things - it's basically ye olde Wiccan Threefold Law of Return mashed up with cosmic ordering:
[Precious Wind] had also laid a mirror curse upon Alicia, upon Mirami, to reflect the evil they did back upon them. So far as she knew, the duchess was as yet untouched, her mother was as yet untouched. Mirror curses were not magical or supernatural in any way. They were merely statements of intention, communicated to the universe. This person has done great evil. Let evil return upon them. If they hunger, do not feed them. If they are drowning, let them drown. If they thirst, let them go dry. Though the duchess and her mother had not yet been repaid, so far they had been robbed of their prey! Xulai was in hiding. Justinian had gone so quickly they could not track him.
So, to recap: not magical, not supernatural, not even slightly. But you ask the universe for bad shit to happen to bad people and it obliges. Riiiiiiiiiight.

It is this weird mashing up of things which definitely have technical explanations and those which really don't that makes the genre of the book such an uncomfortable mashup of science fiction and fantasy. First the book presents us with with something that appears fantastic. Then it gives us a technological explanation for it. Then it throws in exceptions to that which really have to be fantastic, like cosmic ordering and the objective existence of souls, neither of which are things you'd really put in a technically rigorous science fiction novel unless you personally were absolutely convinced those things were objectively real and don't especially care that some people don't share your spiritual beliefs.

How does this feed into the ecological side of the story? Well, the ecological disasters befalling the world in the book are consistently given clear technical explanations, prompting the reader to treat them under the sciencey part of the science fantasy mashup Tepper has got going here. Unfortunately, whilst Tepper is willing to blame a lot on humanity, she seems perfectly happy to hand ammunition to those people who are willing to deny that climate change happens. First off, the flooding in this story is non-anthropogenic, which is precisely what climate change deniers claim about current climate trends - sure, she mentions that the ice caps melted in the past, but the narration never talks about human activities causing the melting of the ice caps and specifically depicts a world where eventually the ice caps re-formed and everything turned out OK. When environmentalists are screaming out for people to take anthropogenic climate change seriously, they really don't need people who are ostensibly on their side minimising its impact.

The bigger problem, though, is that the mechanism for the incredible global flood Tepper proposes is utter bunk.

The fact is, there's not enough water on the planet to raise the sea level by miles and miles, to the point where only the highest mountains aren't submerged. Tepper, to her credit, at least seems to be aware of this. What she proposes is that ages ago, whilst the Earth was forming, ice comets slammed into the planet and were buried deep underground, and that now they are melting and releasing the water stored within them, which is seeping up through the ground and causing the sea levels to rise.

This is nonsense on so many levels it isn't even funny. First off, if these comets slammed into the planet whilst it was forming, then that'd place the impacts within the geological period known as the Hadean - known as such because the Earth was as hot as hell and had plenty of volcanic activity going down at the same time. And you know what they say about snowballs' chances in Hell, right? (Namely, they're not very good.) That, of course, isn't even accounting for melting as a result of the trip through the atmosphere, or the fact that an ice comet hitting the earth would almost certainly shatter into tiny pieces as a result of the energy of impact even as it does a serious number on the planet.

Let's assume, though, that we have a comet which hits the Earth, stays as one large body, and doesn't fall into any lava. Well, unless it happened to land on one of the ice caps or in a glacial area, you'd expect it to sit in its crater melting until you end up with a perfectly circular lake where the crater was. Even the comets which landed in freezing cold regions of the Earth would most likely end up sat on the surface at the centre of its impact crater, or at most buried under a thin layer of loose debris thrown up by the impact. And that, of course, is assuming the comets landed on land; around two out of every three comets you shoot at the Earth would end up plopping into the ocean, at which point they would probably end up becoming floating icebergs (ice floats in water, remember?) and would most likely melt unless they ended up floating into the polar regions.

You can't have it two ways: either the comets hit when the earth wasn't yet solid, in which case they would have already melted, or the comets hit when the world was good and solid, in which case they've probably either already melted or been incorporated into the existing icecaps. Any comet which hit with sufficient force to bury itself deep under the earth without creating a conventional impact crater would probably impact with such force that it would be instantly vaporised, as well as everything else in a wide radius.

On top of that, even if you did have these big comets which had somehow stayed frozen for millions and millions of years buried deep underground, exactly what would happen when they start to melt? Well, their volume would decrease by about 10% - ice takes up more volume than water. If the cavities they were inside were airtight and watertight, I guess you would have a vacuum forming which might eventually cause a collapse of the land immediately above them, but that isn't the case - the cavities can't be watertight because according to Tepper the water is seeping up through them. However, in that case the vacuum made by the contracting iceball is more likely to suck down air or water, rather than pushing water up out through the porous rock. In other words, the creation of such underground cavities would be more likely to cause the sea level to drop than rise.

The explanation we are offered for the flooding in the book is, in short, completely impossible. Although impossible things are meant to happen in fantasy fiction, the flooding is presented to us here in technical terms and so we can only conclude that it's meant to be taken as one of the more science fictional elements of the story, but it completely fails as plausible ecological science fiction. (Granted, the theory presented is just a theory proposed by some characters in the book, but every technically astute character accepts it as being plausible despite the very serious problems with it.)

Why is this a problem? Simply because climate change deniers love scientific nitpicking. Their position hinges on attacking the scientific credibility of the evidence for climate change, or for the anthropogenic causes of climate change. When as an ecological campaigner you start making technical statements you need to be really rigorous about it, because climate change deniers would ideally like to be able to discredit you as a source by painting you as a clueless scientific illiterate who doesn't know what the fuck you're talking about. On the strength of The Waters Rising, Tepper fits that description to the core. She could not do any more damage to her credibility as an environmentalist if she made a video of herself drowning seabirds in a lake of crude oil.

Tree-Hugging Hippies Who Love Eugenics


The heroic Tingawans do not consider humanity to be uniquely special, and feel that other animals should be considered as having the same rights to self-determination as human beings. (This is apparently a recurring thing in Tepper's fiction.) This position gives rise to some interesting ethical hypocrisies over the course of the novel.

For instance, I suppose you were wondering why the talking animals exist in the first place. Well, as I mentioned, it's part of a massive Tingawan breeding project, which Xulai herself is also a part of. See, because land-based life is soon going to cease to be an option, the Tingawans are collaborating with the Sea King in order to breed a race of human beings who can polymorph between land-based and sea-based form, and whose children will be able to live happy lives in the world-ocean of the future. But it's not just humanity who get to be in on the deal - they want to save as many land-based life forms as they can! That said, they don't want to infringe on the animals' right to choose what sort of weird genetic experiments are perpetrated on them, so they bred the animals to talk so that they could consent to being turned into ocean creatures. After all, you have to seek consent from them, otherwise you're treating the animals as though they are lesser forms of life that exist for the sake of human beings, and that's not an ethical position Tepper wants to take here.

Except, of course, the taboo on doing things to animals without the consent has already been violated here. At what point did they consent to being tampered with so that they could talk? Oh, sure, I guess you could say that you can assume they're OK with being taught to talk because there's no reason why they wouldn't want to be able to clearly express their preferences on such matters, but there's an equivalent argument that you can happily assume they would want to not drown so you can do genetic tampering with them in order to enable them to not drown. Does Sheri Tepper think that you shouldn't step in and save the life of a person or animal unless you can understand them giving their consent to be saved? ("If you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand... unless you spoke English"?)

(Don't even get me started on how the various sea creatures like the Sea King learned to speak human languages all by themselves without any genetic tampering. Apparently they peeped into language lessons conducted below decks on cruise ships.)

It gets worse. Tepper dislikes the idea of eating meat but also has trouble tackling the idea that some animals kind of need to eat meat if they're going to get proper nutrition. There's bits towards the end of the book where the characters talk about only eating intelligent animals but at the same time end up conceding that all animals are intelligent on some level, even ants and bees, and at one point you hear about Tingawans theorising that even trees are able to think and feel, just on a very slow scale. The Sea King says that in the seas you only eat creatures which have no real higher thoughts (what's left? Plankton?) or evil sea creatures, who are sometimes ritually eaten by the good sea creatures. That, right there, teases out one of the major problems with Tepper's ethical premises here: she genuinely seems to believe (or proposes for the purposes of this story at least) that there is such a thing as objectively evil people and creatures whose deaths are necessary so that everyone else can live a sustainable lifestyle.

This is the dark side of the Tingawan's eugenics project. I mean, the lighter side of the project is kind of dark enough when you think about it. Xulai, Princess Xu-i-lok, Justinian, Abasio and countless others have been carefully paired up through the behind-the-scenes manipulations of the Tingawans and the Sea King, in a plot going generations back, to essentially breed them like cattle until finally you arrive at human beings who can metamorphose into squid. This is done without getting the consent of any of them, which makes the process of making animals talk so that their consent can be obtained seem extra-absurd. There's a bit towards the end where Xulqi says that she feels bad that she never had a choice, but in the long run it's OK because she wouldn't have chosen differently anyway, which along with the whole "Blue isn't a rapist, you cranky old geezer" deal I suppose is a compelling reason why Sheri Tepper should never be listened to again when she philosophises about issues of consent.

All of that - all of it - pales in comparison with the book's attitude to evil.

First off, Tepper takes an extremely deterministic attitude to genetics. In the world she portrays here, DNA is destiny. Princess Xu-i-lok and Justinian and Xulai and Abasio all fall in love with each other more or less automatically because they are just that compatible. Meanwhile, the Old Dark Man's own breeding project creates people who automatically hate all Tingawans and take pleasure out of killing because of their genetic inheritance from him. They are literally described as having "evil blood" and the good guys, the characters we are expected to root for and support, want to see this evil blood absolutely exterminated, because there's really no possibility of reform for any of them.

Secondly, there's the ideological demands of the eugenics program. The offspring of humans who get given Sea Eggs to allow them to transform into squid at will aren't squid babies - they're merbabies, who will grow up into happily humanoid mermen and mermaids. But they can't tell people that before they accept the Eggs! You see, they have to be willing to transform into a form they will find alien and, quite often, kind of hideous in order to survive, because if they aren't willing to do that penance for the evil humanity has done to the ocean they can't be expected to be good oceanic citizens - the Tingawans and the Sea King are intent on making sure that humanity do not bring warfare, hatred, and murmaider (video NSFW and amazingly violent) with them into the oceans. So, they make sure the Sea Eggs only go to the right sort of people, and keep an eye on them to make sure they only breed with the right sort of people, and don't give eggs to people who would use them selfishly, and threaten to brutally murder anyone caught selling Sea Eggs.

This is both repulsive and nonsensical. I will deal with the nonsensicality first: Sea Eggs are produced by women with squid powers as part of their menstrual cycle. The Tingawans are aware that this will lead to an exponential increase of Sea Egg availability as they distribute more Sea Eggs to the population, so you'll fairly quickly hit a point where unauthorised people could get their hands on Sea Eggs fairly trivially because not all women are going to go out and seek out a suitable squid candidate every time they lay an egg and sooner or later this exponentially increasing stockpile of Sea Eggs is going to become impossible to keep track of. There will be losses. Some people may sell their Sea Eggs. Others may steal Sea Eggs from women they know possess them. People will do desperate, savage things when survival is on the line, and if that includes kidnapping and murder, well, if the alternative is drowning then many will consider that a fair price to pay. The Tingawan's plan is going to have all sorts of ghastly, horrifying consequences for any woman fool enough to accept their Sea Eggs, because by doing so those women turn themselves into a resource to be harvested - either by the Tingawans and their co-conspirators, or by anyone terrified enough of death and heedless enough of causing pain to others to take matters into their own hands.

But even setting that aside, there's a basically repugnant undertone to the program: essentially, to survive the drowning of the world and ensure a future for your children, you have to personally accept that humanity are bad and need to be punished by being turned into squids to prove worthy of survival. If you think that's crap and people shouldn't be forced to abase themselves like that for stuff their ancestors did, or if you don't agree with the Tingawan plan and want to work on an alternative, well, fuck you, the land might not disappear in your lifetime but all of your descendents are going to drown. Everyone who thinks unacceptable thoughts like "this can't be the only way" or "I refuse to be degraded in order to atone for something I bear no personal responsibility for" is going to die.

So when the Tingawans moralise about how the Old Dark Man and other cyborg killing machines were cooked up in the era of the Big Kill were invented by terribly evil people who wanted to exterminate everyone who thought wrong thoughts, they are being the biggest hypocrites I have ever encountered in fiction, and by asking us to show a shred of sympathy for them Tepper is making herself an enormous hypocrite too. The Tingawans are basically designing a program in which everyone who thinks wrongthoughts - at least to the extent of not accepting the sea-change - will go extinct, if not now then in the long run. How is this different in any significant respect from what the Old Dark Man and his creators were trying to do, except the Tingawans prefer drowning to direct violence when it comes to methods of execution?

Again, anti-ecologists like to accuse environmentalists of being "eco-fascists". Usually when they say this they are being crazy. When Sheri S. Tepper shows up, suddenly they have a point, like the stopped clock which tells the correct time twice a day. For someone who is sufficiently technophobic that she basically blames the ecological apocalypse on humanity's reliance on "ease machines" (related to saviour machines?) - because living should be hard work, damnit! - Tepper sure likes the idea of hypertechnological conspiracies using genetic magic to provide an oceanic Rapture for the chosen ones whilst everyone she doesn't like drowns. (Apparently this isn't new for her - for instance, in The Gate to Women's Country the benign feminist elders use genetic engineering to completely exterminate homosexuality on the basis that it's a neurological disorder. In retrospect, the SF and fantasy scene should be kind of ashamed of harbouring her for as long as it has, but then again this is the same scene which defends Howard to the death and embraced S.M. Stirling.)

Who Needs Basic Competence When You're a Well-Respected Fantasy Author?


"But Arthur," you may be saying at this point, "you don't understand! I am a complete moral vacuum who doesn't care how odious the opinions put forth by a novel on ecology, rape, mass drowning and eugenics are. Surely I can at least enjoy this novel as an ethically reprehensible but competently written science fantasy saga?"

Nope, 'fraid not. The miserable failure of The Waters Rising as a novel is something which we can all agree on. Come back, Steve Stirling! Take up your axes and ride out with me, oh hordes of Robert E. Howard fans! We can all find something we hate with this novel! Reactionaries will hate the eco-feminism, ecologists and feminists will yell "Get the fuck off my side!", and all of us can be united in one common experience: the fact that reading this book is an incredibly tedious process.

The action of the novel essentially unfolds in Socratic dialogues - long, tedious, redundant, over-long Socratic dialogues, so lacking in wit, insight and philosophical rigour that it's a mild insult to Plato and Socrates to use the term "Socratic dialogue" in relation to them. A large proportion of these agonisingly long conversations between characters whose personalities are often so similar that it's hard to keep track of who's talking concern matters of interest to nobody, but are dredged up from Tepper's worldbuilding notes anyway because for some reason I can't account for she seems to have believed that the novel calls for a little padding. One of the longest conversations in the novel relates to, I shit you not, the meal arrangements at the cafeterias at the abbey of Wilderbrook, explaining how breakfast, lunch and dinner arrangements differ, how many hours the cooks work, how you go about getting your meals, the etiquette surrounding the use of the dinner trays, and so on and so forth ad nauseum. It's the most pointless exchange in a fantasy novel I've ever laid eyes on and it was probably at that point when I realised the book was trying to kill me.

Tepper shows an unerring ability to focus on the aspects of worldbuilding the reader leasts wants to hear about. Waffling about the meal trays and geographical minutae and what meals people are eating and so on and so forth far outweighs the bits of worldbuilding we actually need to hear about to follow the story and get a grip on what sort of setting we are dealing with. In fact, important aspects of the worldbuilding - stuff we really actually would kind of like to know - are completely spurned. For instance, we spend a ridiculous amount of time at the abbey, but at no point do we learn anything at all about the religion that is practiced there. A character makes a gesture for "holy work" (a pair of fingers of one hand "walking" along a little road you make with the other hand, which seems rather goofy as far as religious gestures go), but all that does is establish that the abbey definitely is a religious institution without telling us the first thing about their religious views.

I'm no fan of fantasy novels which exist mainly for the author to show how fantastically detailed their worldbuilding is, but if you're going to detail the abbey right down to the level of meal tray etiquette, I'd have thought at some point the religious underpinnings of the abbey's philosophy would be discussed. They never are. Xulai never shows any curiosity about it, we are told about the technological basis of their achievements and their internal politics and their custodianship of a cemetery and a whole bunch of other stuff but their theological ideas or basic philosophy never get a look-in. I get the impression that Tepper isn't thrilled with the idea of organised religion - at any rate, monotheists tend to be blamed for the creation of the death cyborgs back in the Big Kill - but if you don't want your utopian little community to have a religious angle to it, then calling it anything other than an abbey might be a smart move.

The focus on long-winded conversations which tend to become Socratic dialogues doesn't leave much space in the novel for actual action, and indeed a lot of the more interesting-sounding action sequences like the fate of Bear take place offscreen. Based on valse's review of Beauty I get the impression that Tepper isn't keen on horror (in which case I wonder how she explains Xulai's horrific first transformation into squid form, which involves her ramming her squid-beak through a man's skull) and wants to write about beautiful things, and therefore is disinclined to include thrilling action or violent sequences. Then again, it might be that she doesn't include this stuff because she's just bad at it. The few action sequences we do get are entirely devoid of tension; aside from Bear, who due to his betrayal of Xulai (thanks to genetically-invoked dreams, of all things - yes, Tepper really does think DNA is basically magic) comes to a bad end, most of the good guys end up having things basically their own way all the time. More or less the only really serious setback the side of good suffers is the brief kidnapping of Xulai, a problem which solves itself when she turns into a squid and slays her kidnapper. (Hey, gang, here's a thing: apparently Xulai killing her kidnapper was perfectly justified because she instinctively had to do it in order to prevent him raping her and disrupting the eugenics program. That's right: being directly threatened with rape isn't a good enough reason on its own to resort to violence to protect yourself in this world.) In all other cases, things go more or less according to plan aside from very occasional wrinkles which are ironed out as soon as they show up, and generally there's no interesting tension or back-and-forth.

To illustrate how bad Tepper is at the whole "tension" thing, as well as how sloppy the pacing of the novel is, the means of the death of Duchess Alicia are all arranged and put in place about 50% of the way into the book, leaving the reader waiting interminably for the other shoe to drop. This isn't really Chekov's Gun because rather than the means of Alicia's destruction being sat in the background, it's placed in the foreground and waved about in front of us in such a way that we can't possibly fail to work out what's going on with it, we understand precisely how the gene-specific super-disease works, we basically know how it's going to go down, there's no tension involved here. Essentially, Alicia points a gun at her own head and pulls the trigger halfway through the novel and it's not until the final act that the bullet actually hits her. This is just one example of how Tepper turns tension into tedium.

A failure to judge pacing characterises the novel as a whole. The pace of the story is as slow as molasses for the first half, with a massive page count being devoted to the journey from Woldsgard to the abbey. (An awful lot of Tolkien-imitating fantasy is really fond of the idea that narrating travel arrangements and processes in excruciating detail is interesting. It rarely is.) Then there's the interminable abbey section. Then Xulai is kidnapped and escapes and suddenly the pace accelerates to the point where we whiz by events, which regular interruptions so that the characters can have long, dull conversations in which it is carefully explained to the reader what just happened. Imagine if The Lord of the Rings had its pacing cocked up so that the hobbits don't get to Bree until the end of The Two Towers, then the rest of the events of the story are crammed into the half of The Return of the King which comes before the appendices: that's how badly paced The Waters Rising is, and Tolkien himself wasn't always brilliant at the whole "pacing" thing.

Another author Tepper seems to want to imitate here is my beloved sweetie-pie Gene Wolfe, in the sense that - for the first half of the novel anyway - the presentation of events and the world is often extremely oblique, and a lot of incomprehensible stuff happens which will only make sense when you go back and take another look after the first read-through, and you have a setting which looks fantastical but, like Wolfe's Urth in The Book of the New Sun, is actually Earth in the far future with the fantastical events actually having technical explanations. However, Gene Wolfe is the Blessed Walrus of Obliqueness, whose books are a pleasure to read even when you haven't the first clue as to what is going on, and Tepper... well, Tepper's no walrus. The irritating thing about a lot of the Socratic dialogues in the last act or so of the book is that they explain in exacting, minute detail, a whole bunch of shit that readers will have probably worked out anyway if they paid attention, because funnily enough Tepper isn't very good at writing oblique SF. The trick, see, is to not get too repetitive and redundant and to not assume the reader is a dribbling idiot; Tepper does, and so makes sure we are told over and over again, repeatedly, sometimes multiple times in the same conversation, exactly what everything in the novel actually means, otherwise people might come up with disapproved interpretations of the novel and that would be terrible, wouldn't it?

Additionally, the book just plain contradicts itself. It turns out that the war against the Sea King is a complete sham, a front to discourage shipping from passing freely between the continents to prevent the Old Dark Man or his forces from getting to Tingawa. Precious Wind seems to be aware of this, and indeed the librarian at the abbey has sussed out that wooden Tingawan ships won't be subject to the Sea King's blockade. So, why the stopover in the abbey in the first place? Why do Bear and Precious Wind plan on staying in the abbey for a long time potentially if they could just take the boat at any time? They should have been planning with Xulai to smuggle her out of the abbey secretly to continue the journey to the port their ship is waiting at as soon as they reached the abbey.

Apparently, even Tepper fans think this one stinks compares to her earlier work. Given some of the stuff people have raised about her other books this should give you an idea of how dire this is. Imagine what happens when an author who at the best of times is an acquired taste and has had a long-running tendency to occasionally say daft or genuinely morally repugnant things loses what little competence as an author they have and just vomits words endlessly onto the page until you would rather jump out of a window than read another page. That's what you're dealing with here.

Not Even a Good Sequel


As I mentioned, the book is a sequel to A Plague of Angels, another story featuring Abasio and Blue set in the same world. Or is it? I suspect anyone who liked A Plague of Angels will be disappointed with this.

First off, you have the issue of Abasio and Blue, two heroes who fans of A Plague of Angels will probably have some affection for, turning out to be a pedophile and a rapist respectively. That's going to leave a bad taste in your mouth for starters. (I mean, it should leave a bad taste in your mouth anyway. But it adds insult to injury to do this to a pair of characters your fans presumably have a certain level of affection for.)

Secondly, the background for the world given late in the day when the matter of the Old Dark Man is laid out once and for all actually contradicts the background given in A Plague of Angels. How do I know that when I haven't read A Plague of Angels? Because Abasio points the contradictions out, and then Tepper just fudges it so that the eco-apocalypse of A Plague of Angels and the cyborg intolerance apocalypse of this book both happened without offering any explanation of how they are in any way compatible. Yeah.

Thirdly, Abasio actually does fuck all in this book which couldn't have been trivially achieved by anyone else, or nobody at all. He inspires Xulai to fulfill the Princess' errand and force-feeds her the Sea Egg, but Xulai could have just plucked up the courage on her own and then swallowed the Sea Egg consensually. He travels with the party to the abbey, but a lot of people do that and his presence doesn't seem to add much value. He does a little spying along the way to keep an eye out for the Duchess' machinations, but several other characters help out with that and they could have done the job on their own. He goes to find Xulai after she's been kidnapped and escorts her to the ship to Tingawa waiting for her at Merhaven, but Xulai rescues herself from her kidnapper and if she really needed an escort to the town of Merhaven, Precious Wind could have done the job more than adequately (not least because she's travelling in the same direction and ends up meeting Xulai and Abasio there). More or less his only contribution to the novel which couldn't have been handled by any other character is fucking Xulai, and he has no other reason to be here.

Blue, for his part, does sweet fuck all aside from out himself as a rapist.

It's almost as though Tepper wrote this as a standalone, had it rejected, then convinced her publisher to accept it if she rewrote it as a sequel to one of her more successful novels and consequently inserted Abasio and screwed up the backstory in the process.

Again: I haven't even read A Plague of Angels and I can still identify ways in which the book can't possibly be a satisfying sequel to A Plague of Angels. Goodness knows how many a Plague of Angels fan would be able to find.

Beware Pears Bearing Books


This novel really did a number on me. I'm lying on the floor broken and twitching with fury. The primary targets of my fury are this book and Tepper herself, but there's a sizable dose of rage left over reserved for the editors who greenlit this. The Waters Rising is a miserably incompetent and morally reprehensible science fantasy novel which demeans science fiction, fantasy, the political causes Tepper supposedly espouses and literature as a whole by its existence.

I don't believe in censorship - pointing out the flaws with shitty, substandard, ethically bankrupt material and urging people to shun it is vastly preferable - but The Waters Rising doesn't help me stick to that position. Certainly, I think any credible SF or fantasy publisher who put out her work would lose their credibility in my eyes as discerning publishers of quality books unless she issued some kind of apology for foisting this mess on the general public. Not only is it morally nauseating, but it also lacks the basic level of competence you'd expect of any professional author, let alone one of Tepper's stature.

It shouldn't be hard to take the premise of an awesome Dethklok song and turn it into an exciting story, but Tepper and excitement do not exist in the same universe. If my thorough root-and-branch rejection of Tepper's ethical position means that I and my descendents deserve to drown, then so be it. At least we won't have to read this drivel when we are dead.

The Waters Rising goes directly to the Axis of Awful - displacing Robert E. Howard, who I genuinely expected to keep in there longer before relenting - and I sincerely doubt I'll ever remove it.

"Thanks" - if that's the right word - to Pear, who provided the review copy.
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Comments (go to latest)
Neal Yanje at 06:39 on 2013-02-04
You know, when I started reading this review, I didn't think it could get any weirder than horse rape. I guess I was wrong.

This reads to me like the incoherent ramblings of a young, highly-opinionated first time writer. I would have never guessed Tepper was an accomplished author with decades of publication history from what I've seen here.

I have to wonder why the horse rape stuff was even included. There is probably a valid point to be made about not using human morality to judge non-humans, but it seems Tepper then wants to have it both ways by denying a difference between the two.

Melanie at 07:18 on 2013-02-04
On the whole ice thing--even if you did accept that the ice, er, "somehow" got embedded in the Earth without melting and there were giant chunks of ice underground for no plausible reason... why would it only be melting now? I thought the temperature underground was generally above freezing (maybe not at the poles, but for the most part?) especially as you go deeper down?

...if you find yourself in a position of trying to come up with a long and involved explanation of why something isn't really pedophilia, you have already fucked up.


Yeah, it smacks of rules-lawyering, which is rarely a good sign. It's like saying, "Well, I know this isn't actually okay, but I want to do it anyway, so I'm going to try to justify it by obscuring what it actually is under a pile of technicalities." (Or, okay, sometimes just, "This rule is stupid and so I'm going to try to get around it". But I don't think that applies here specifically.)
Arthur B at 07:34 on 2013-02-04
I have to wonder why the horse rape stuff was even included. There is probably a valid point to be made about not using human morality to judge non-humans, but it seems Tepper then wants to have it both ways by denying a difference between the two.

It's actually more hypocritical than that. Humans aren't allowed to judge non-humans by human morality, but non-humans (the sea creatures) are allowed to judge humans by their morality and demand a temporary period of squidness as atonement for bad things humans have done.
First off, you have the issue of Abasio and Blue, two heroes who fans of A Plague of Angels will probably have some affection for, turning out to be a pedophile and a rapist respectively.

Well, the first things that Abasio does in A Plague Of Angels are fall in love with a baby and then rape a young girl so I'm not sure how much of an issue that is. (Not to mention A Plague Of Angels wasn't published until after The Waters Rising in this country with Gollancz rather disingenuously describing it as a 'prequel'.)
Arthur B at 10:50 on 2013-02-04
Well, the first things that Abasio does in A Plague Of Angels are fall in love with a baby and then rape a young girl so I'm not sure how much of an issue that is.

I stand corrected. Also horrified.
Pear at 14:33 on 2013-02-04
*sips tea*
Daniel F at 14:45 on 2013-02-04
On a far more superficial note, there's something eye-roll-worthy about the cover for me. 'The Waters Rising: A Novel'

No, really?
Arthur B at 15:00 on 2013-02-04
To be fair, in the e-book era it's probably more important to put "A Novel" on the cover of something because you can't eyeball its thickness to quickly and automatically assess how long it is, especially since I've seen people selling short stories with individualised cover art.
Arthur B at 18:12 on 2013-02-04
A thing I have become aware of: an interview with Tepper from Strange Horizons in which she says a number of alarming things. More or less any time she mentions any culture outside of her own it's usually facepalm-worthy, but the money shot is at the end, when she quite seriously proposes sterilising all mentally ill people, reclassifying them as "not human" and sending them to concentration camps (well, "walled cities", but it's the same principle) where they can die off without bothering the rest of us.

Can we stop using the term "eco-feminist" in relation to her political beliefs and just wheel out good old-fashioned "fascist"? I know it's one of the Big Guns but she's earned it several times over.

(Oh, and she talks about about The Waters Rising here. Spoilertron: the waters are a metaphor for excess population.)
Wanted to post this earlier but OpenID wasn't having it...

I have to wonder why the horse rape stuff was even included.

Hopefully we are all agreed that horses cannot commit rape. Tepper keeps horses in real life and is using whinnied and subdued to describe their actual mating habits. Tepper is contrasting this with human mating habits - "I have long observed that human people do not care what they do in front of livestock, and believe me, what some humans do during mating makes horses look absolutely... gentle by comparison." - with the clear wagging finger that we think we are civilised but we are not. This fits into her eco-religious worldview where animals are good and in a state of grace whereas humans are bad and in a state of sin.

I think whether Blue is or isn't (or even could be) a rapist is a less interesting question than the question of why Tepper raises the issue. But, contra Arthur's review, horses cannot give consent because they lack intelligence so Blue cannot seek it. There isn't really a direct comparison to this in the real world but it puts him somewhere between humans who have sex with animals and those who have sex with Real Dolls. We usually regard such people as pathetic and disturbed but not as rapists. As a shorthand, "talking horse rapist" sort of elides the depth of Tepper's weirdness.

(Apparently I was wrong about the publication order of A Plague Of Angels - I misunderstood the copyright page on my edition, 2011 was the first Gollancz publication, not the first British publication.)
Arthur B at 20:09 on 2013-02-04
But, contra Arthur's review, horses cannot give consent because they lack intelligence so Blue cannot seek it.

This is true as far as real horses go, but the thing is Blue unquestionably does possess intelligence within the framework of the novel. He does not speak exclusively in idiotic puns and requests for sugarlumps; in fact, he's asked to consider some fairly difficult things, like how he envisions horses transforming when they are transferred into the oceans so that they still feel suitably horsey, and he's able to give fairly cogent answers. Moreover, he understands the concept of rape and also understands that rape is generally considered to be a bad thing.

As for other horses, of course for the most part Blue can't seek it because most other horses don't talk. The operative word is most. There are other talking horses out there; Blue mentions encountering them. Nor does he specify whether the mares he's had sex with were of the talking variety or not.

It emphatically is not the case that Blue is faced with a choice between life as a rapist and a life of celibacy (though someone with a functional moral compass would pretty much always choose the latter over the former, right?). He can choose to have sex with other talking horses. Or, he can choose to have sex with non-talking horses.

If he has sex with horses he can't talk to, then he's not somewhere between a human who has sex with animals and a human who has sex with real dolls, he's exactly like a human who has sex with animals, because he's a creature capable of thinking about consent and able to give it forcing himself on a creature which may well lack the level of intelligence he has (presumably the genetic engineering includes beefing up of the language centres of the brain) and definitely can't express consent in the way he can.

If he sticks to having sex with horses he can talk to, that's very different, because they can give consent to the same extent that he can. But then, why would they need the whinnying and the cajoling and the subduing and the pestering? Gaining language and the ability to unambiguously and meaningfully negotiate and give consent ought to change the way you approach reproduction. Of course, we who are gifted with language don't always live up to that standard ourselves. That's when rape happens. With great power comes great responsibility and all that jazz.

So, put it this way:

- If Blue has sex with horses who need to be pressured into it and can talk, he's a rapist.
- If Blue has sex with horses who need to be pressured into it and can't talk, he's a rapist who's into bestiality.

In addition, Tepper flatly denies in the book that animals lack the same sort of intelligence we have. Even chickens, bees and ants apparently have sufficient intelligence to, say, meaningfully consent to being turned into aquatic species. I would say that if you can consent into having your body physically transformed to a point where it's nigh-unrecognisable, you can probably also think about issues of consent when it comes to sex. So in Tepper's universe animals absolutely can be rapists because everything is intelligent. Hell, it's hinted that trees have a form of intelligence, so conceptually you might be able to have tree rapists.
James D at 21:06 on 2013-02-04
but the money shot is at the end, when she quite seriously proposes sterilising all mentally ill people, reclassifying them as "not human" and sending them to concentration camps (well, "walled cities", but it's the same principle) where they can die off without bothering the rest of us.

What the fuck. The irony of this statement is just stupendous, because Tepper herself definitely belongs in one of those walled cities where she can't bother the rest of us.
http://cheriola.livejournal.com/ at 23:47 on 2013-02-04
Oh, god I shouldn't get into this discussion as this book is evidently irrational and not well thought out. (I'm trying to avoid ableist slurs.)

But I can't sleep and this is bugging my inner biologist, so here goes:

No, Arthur, if Blue fucks non-sapient horses, he's not a rapist. Humanity has long ago made it clear that it's not possible to do a moral wrong to something that isn't sapient (though it may be sentient) aside from subjecting it to "unnecessary" physical pain. That's why it's an *it*. Otherwise killing an animal for whatever reason (food, leather, to end its suffering) would be murder. Domestication would be slavery. Medical experiments on, say, rats and mice, would be seen on par as crimes against humanity. And things like spaying and neutering, all breeding programmes, artificial insemination of for example cows (or for that matter what needs to be done to the bull to get the semen in the first place), and most things a veterinary does to assist the birthing process in farm animals would all be rape.
This is why bestiality isn't a crime in the Netherlands, by the way. As long as the human's actions don't constitute willful cruelty (so fucking anything smaller than an adult human is still illegal) giving the animals personal rights in this context but not all the others is seen as hypocrisy. (Yes, I know some people really do think that way. If they actually manage to live by their convictions, fine. But most make the rights dependent on how similar looking an animal is to a human, and are not willing to extend the same rights to insects or mollusks and other beings that are without a doubt sentient (feeling). Which, yes, probably includes plants.)

Also, even though I really don't think the author of this book thought this far: the question isn't whether Blue could ask for consent, or even if he and his sexual partner have the cognitive capacity to understand ethics or empathy. The question is whether he's been given the ability to consciously override his instincts when in estrus, or if his "uplift" only goes so far. Humans have evolved to lose any truly imperative procreative urges in favor of a more rational choice of an advantageous time and partner and have also evolved an internal and external reward system as an incentive to do it without being absolutely forced to by instincts and hormones. In fact, one of the major evolutionary differences between humans and all other animals (except maybe large primates, I'm not sure - I dimly remember reading somewhere that chimpanzees sometimes use rape as a weapon) is the fact that the human ovulation is so well hidden that the male usually can't even tell if the female is currently able to conceive. So we really can't compare Blue's situation to a human's until it's been made very clear that he always has the ability to choose, even in those few weeks in spring. If he doesn't, I can see why he would take offense at the accusation that he's responsible for something he has just as little choice over as the mare he is impregnating at the time. And why would the people who experimented on his genes go so far as to mess with something as complicated as reproductive instincts and exceptional hormonal states, when he's just as capable of answering their questions some other time of the year if they leave that part of his physiology alone? (Yes, I know this question is a bit silly considering a horse that can actually make human sounds would already need a complete rearrangement of his vocal box, tongue and brain.)

Of course, if she actually meant something like that, then you get the problem of her writing an extended metaphor for "I'm a man, I can't help it." and/or the temporary insanity excuse. That's where things get really awful. And this is why writing about talking animals in a mature context is always a bad idea unless those animals are basically humans in all but name and shape.
(I know a few fantasy authors who still managed to do this without the animals, though. I think the Dragonriders of Pern feature something like this for the rider and the general population they're flying over whenever a dragon goes into estrus. The Darkover series by our dearly departed second wave feminist Marion Zimmer Bradley features seasonal spreads of sex pollen, at least in the early books. In fact the whole trope is pretty sure to crop up in most bond-animal stories or sci-fi written by people who want to have their hero(ines) "blameless" for the sex scene they're about to write...)
Arthur B at 00:31 on 2013-02-05
Of course, if she actually meant something like that, then you get the problem of her writing an extended metaphor for "I'm a man, I can't help it." and/or the temporary insanity excuse. That's where things get really awful. And this is why writing about talking animals in a mature context is always a bad idea unless those animals are basically humans in all but name and shape.

Basically this. Tepper wants us to treat animals as though they were human beings - in fact, as though they were better than human beings, not burdened with the Original Sin (the Original Sin, of course, being burning fossil fuels and generally being messy pups) - for some of the time, and at other points she wants us to give them a free ride because they are animals.

There is no particular rationale as to when we are meant to treat Blue like a person and when we are meant to treat him like a horse, except that she tends to roll with whatever makes human beings look worse. Therefore chickens and bees and ants are alleged to have a level of sentience and sapience comparable to people when she wants to slam us for eating meat and stepping on bugs. On the other hand, if Blue says something which, if a human being said it, would basically amount to condoning rape, we're meant to give him a free pass, because how dare we judge Blue for anything at all he does when there are also human beings who do wrong things?

On top of that: in the Strange Horizons review I linked earlier Tepper basically holds forth the view that things which don't look human can still qualify as human if they hit a certain ethical level. On the other hand, she also says that if you cause harm to other living things then you are evil and shouldn't be treated as a human being. She doesn't care if this harm happens because of mental illness, drug addiction, or any other compulsion. So by her own standards, if Blue is even mildly rougher with the mares he pairs up with than he needs to be (and if we go with the estrus theory he's not likely to be in control of that), then by Tepper morality we have to declare him not-human and send him to a concentration camp.

Basically, Tepper talks an awful lot of shit and doesn't seem capable of stopping and thinking about how it all connects together and what it ends up implying.
Daniel F at 01:52 on 2013-02-05
There is no particular rationale as to when we are meant to treat Blue like a person and when we are meant to treat him like a horse, except that she tends to roll with whatever makes human beings look worse. Therefore chickens and bees and ants are alleged to have a level of sentience and sapience comparable to people when she wants to slam us for eating meat and stepping on bugs.


Um, question. Is there any way to tease out what is so bad about humans coherently? As you pointed out, there are quite a lot of carnivores in the animal world, and apparently those are fine. Killing insects and the like are the same. Using fossil fuels was up there as well, but it seems a rather bizarre choice; and in any case, humans are clearly not the only animals capable of causing ecological devastation.

The point of original sin is that humans, from the time they are born onwards, have a tendency towards evil, both in thought and in deed. That is both not particularly radical and actually rather sensible, but whatever: the doctrine as a whole is meant to be an aetiology for evil. If God is good and made humans good, why do humans do evil? Answer, we have this original sin thing on us modifying our decision-making processes. I believe there are some versions of the doctrine that suggest that original sin applies to all other living creatures and perhaps even the physical universe, in order to explain cruelty and violence between animals. (Presumably animals were also originally good, in a 'the wolf shall lie down with the lamb' sort of way, though that raises its own issues...)

I bring this up because Tepper's version seems to hinge on some massive, unbridgeable gulf between humans and animals. You've commented on how religious her view is. The traditional Abrahamic view is that there is a gulf between humans and animals, but that it's rationality. Humans can reason, know God, make free choices, and so on. Tepper seems to have decided that animals can do all that as well, so she's left with no justification for the gulf.

Therefore she has to come up with something else unique about humans... and apparently it's our capacity for evil? The thing is, I could accept that if it was linked to something like intelligence. Humans are more self-aware or have advanced technology or something like that, therefore we are capable of bad stuff on a far wider scale than animals, or maybe we're morally culpable for our actions in a way that animals are not because we know what we're doing. That's not an option for Tepper, though, and I get the impression that the intelligent animals in The Waters Rising are not portrayed as particularly different to humans, psychologically, so all we get is that humans are uniquely evil for... um... well... because! If we have some greater tendency towards evil, what is it? Why do animals lack it?

It surprises me because as far as I'm aware people who study animals have been gradually narrowing the supposed gulf between animals and humans for decades. Many animals are smarter than we thought, and at the same time, we ourselves are victims of our monkey brains more often than we like to think. Abrahamic original sin is at least robust enough to survive a narrowing of the gap. Tepper's view of humanity doesn't seem to be.
Arthur B at 10:40 on 2013-02-05
Um, question. Is there any way to tease out what is so bad about humans coherently?

As far as I can tell we are bad because we murder and make war and are intolerant and made pollution happen.

It occurs to me that this is another aspect in which it makes no sense for the global flood to be non-anthropogenic, actually: if it's meant to be a metaphor for runaway human population growth and we've crapped up the environment and need to atone for it, then for both those reasons the flood really ought to have some anthropogenic cause instead of the comet nonsense.

It surprises me because as far as I'm aware people who study animals have been gradually narrowing the supposed gulf between animals and humans for decades. Many animals are smarter than we thought, and at the same time, we ourselves are victims of our monkey brains more often than we like to think. Abrahamic original sin is at least robust enough to survive a narrowing of the gap. Tepper's view of humanity doesn't seem to be.

It doesn't need to be if she completely ignores any new evidence.

Tepper has been caught before using extremely out of date notions in her fiction - this commentary on the Strange Horizons review highlights ways in which she hasn't been keeping up with the discourse in a whole swathe of fields she nonetheless feels a need to comment on. Her ideas about population growth stem from being introduced one day to Malthus, and as far as I can tell since then she hasn't really developed them further or considered other perspectives. (Both the interview and this book, in fact, give me the impression of the sort of person who when they first learn about a subject rapidly settles on a fairly black-and-white opinion about it, and then determinedly ignores all subsequent data.)
Cammalot at 22:25 on 2013-02-05
This... saddens me. I remember liking "Grass" and "The Awakeners" (I forgot that was one of hers) unequivocally, and "Six Moon Dance" (except for the sex-torture machines... yeah. I mentally edited those out), and being very impressed by "Gibbons Decline and Fall" (it contained ideas I had not yet encountered) when I was maybe sixteen, but giving up on "The Family Tree" midway (I am not sure, but I think that was the one where the main character turned out to be a monkey of some sort at the very end, and her pet turned out to be a human being -- I think it ends with all the "pets" standing on their hind legs again, having decided that their hundreds-of-years-long penance of living as beast of burden to intelligent animals was not over and... I sense a theme).

There was a point in my early twenties where I stopped reading both Tepper and Octavia Butler, simultaneously, because there was this recurring theme in their works that nothing in the world could possibly improve until human beings were somehow altered at the genetic level, forcibly. But I went back to Butler, and never got back around to Tepper. At this point, I have no regrets on this score.
http://alula_auburn.livejournal.com/ at 00:37 on 2013-02-06
This is. . .kind of amazing. In a jaw-to-the-floor kind of way.

I'm pretty sure Beauty crossed my radar at some point, because feminist (or even "feminist") fairy tale retellings are kind of A Thing I Have, and I think I may have gotten scared off by some other review.

I've been amusing myself by googling other responses to that Strange Horizons interview, and I'm curious/horrified by a few references that suggest Plague of Angels suggests the dystopia is partly caused by treating HIV-patients instead of, idk, summarily walling them up?

I'm honestly horrified at the handful of rave reviews I do find, including that interview. And honestly, the supposedly beautiful "Shakespearean" prose strikes me as competently violet at best.

So if nothing else, I don't feel the need to read Beauty now!
Arthur B at 13:38 on 2013-02-06
I've been amusing myself by googling other responses to that Strange Horizons interview, and I'm curious/horrified by a few references that suggest Plague of Angels suggests the dystopia is partly caused by treating HIV-patients instead of, idk, summarily walling them up?

Not read Plague of Angels and am incredibly unlikely to after suffering through this, but at the same time I wouldn't be entirely surprised. Tepper seems to be desperately concerned about runaway population growth so I guess she's the sort of person who'd see AIDS as a glorious opportunity to drive the numbers down a bit.

Fun fact: she used to work for Planned Parenthood and wrote a bunch of educational pamphlets for them before she turned to SF full-time, and only retired from that in 1986. The idea of a Planned Parenthood executive in the early 1980s having such an attitude to HIV chills me to the bone.
Cammalot at 14:41 on 2013-02-06
"The Family Tree" midway (I am not sure, but I think that was the one where the main character turned out to be a monkey of some sort at the very end, and her pet turned out to be a human being -- I think it ends with all the "pets" standing on their hind legs again, having decided that their hundreds-of-years-long penance of living as beast of burden to intelligent animals was not over and... I sense a theme).


Yikes. Ought to read:

'I think it ends with all the "pets" standing on their hind legs again, having decided that their hundreds-of-years-long penance of living as BEASTS of burden FOR intelligent animals was NOW over...'

(I don't know what happened there.)
Cammalot at 14:46 on 2013-02-06
Fun fact: she used to work for Planned Parenthood and wrote a bunch of educational pamphlets for them before she turned to SF full-time, and only retired from that in 1986. The idea of a Planned Parenthood executive in the early 1980s having such an attitude to HIV chills me to the bone

I'm fairly chilled, now, about a thread in "Gibbons" that I wasn't before, a bit about [good/effective] motherhood being a learned behavior and not innate. That on its own still doesn't sound very off to me, except it was juxtaposed with a minority girl who didn't or wasn't capable of seeing her baby -- whom she'd abandoned -- as a human being because she wasn't raised right.
Sunnyskywalker at 02:53 on 2013-02-07
...what. I don't even.

I remember back when I first read The Gate to Women's Country and had only vaguely heard of Tepper (she, like, wrote some books?), I thought the Big Damn Societal Conspiracy reveal was meant to be disturbing. There were bits all throughout, like the offhand comment that Stavia's sister might have turned out okay if she'd been allowed to focus on the job she loved instead of being forced into a mold that didn't fit. And didn't "women's country" in the play they perform every year turn out to be death? That doesn't really seem like much of a recommendation for its non-theatrical counterpart, does it? So surely we were supposed to note the wack science and fascism and homophobia etc. and feel that if anything was improving, it was in spite of the scary conspiracy - and that things were more likely setting up for disaster?

Then I read a couple more of her books and realized she meant it straight. *shivers*

Also, anyone who can take book with trees suddenly springing up in cities like some sort of mad Huorn revenge, eating bits of your homes and occasionally your children (except for people who propitiate the Tree Gods enough getting handy bug screens and bike holders instead), and make it turn boring, is not a good writer even if you disregard all the chilling eugenics parts. Yes, I quit Tepper The Family Tree... after I think only 4 Tepper books, fortunately for my poor brain. (Yeah, slow learner. You'd think I'd stop thinking authors are doing something subtle and clever after the 523rd time being wrong...)

But never in my wildest literary nightmares could I have imagined anything approaching the horror that you and Valse have described. Times like these, I wish there really were an official feminist ID card so we could take hers away. Along with her eco-advocate ID card. And her license to kill brain cells with words.
Arthur B at 11:56 on 2013-02-07
Then I read a couple more of her books and realized she meant it straight. *shivers*

Unfortunately, there's little space here to read the Tingawan master plan as being a dystopian mess. When Xulai actually gets a chance to take a tour of the undersea world with the Sea King it's this incredibly cutesy and twee place with all different species happily living in harmony, where the dolphins and octopi and other animals live together happily. Tepper's conception of how the animal kingdom works is the sort of thing which is only sustainable if you studiously ignore everything we learn about nature.
http://alula_auburn.livejournal.com/ at 20:32 on 2013-02-07
This rambling, incoherent review kind of scared me, although part of it was curiosity that it appeared as a Scalzi review on my Googling. (I find Scalzi as an internet presence kind of meh, but her weirdness didn't seem like what I think of as his weirdness, if that makes sense.) On the other hand, I'm partial to shitty reviews that inadvertantly reflect shitty content (although obviously not as much as I am to clever reviews which intentionally and joyfully reveal shitty content.)

I'm just. . .really having trouble understanding what people DO like about her, let alone describing her a href="http://www.tor.com/blogs/2010/08/ok-where-do-i-start-with-that-t">"joyous" or "comfort reading". Even from my lazy-ass liberal arts student POV, the science is nonsensical, even internally; the excerpted quotes and plot summaries make me want to dive for a red pen, and the attitudes are ludicrous when not repulsive. I could see ignoring one of those things on balance, but all three?

I'm also weirdly curious about the interviewer/"shaman" guy from the Strange Horizons interview. I only read SH sporadically, and I can't tell if the end is, like, whole-hearted endorsement or backing away slowly or just a very poor interviewer letting that drop with no follow up.
Arthur B at 22:22 on 2013-02-07
I'm also weirdly curious about the interviewer/"shaman" guy from the Strange Horizons interview. I only read SH sporadically, and I can't tell if the end is, like, whole-hearted endorsement or backing away slowly or just a very poor interviewer letting that drop with no follow up.

I'm actually inclined to give the interviewer the benefit of the doubt and assume they were doing a Louis Theroux thing, where they just concentrated on getting Tepper comfortable enough with them that she'd start making with the really outrageous stuff and, once she started on that, letting it roll. Really, a lot of her statements in that interview more or less condemn themselves without the interviewer needing to step in to challenge her.
Cammalot at 22:57 on 2013-02-07
The piece on the Scalzi page isn't him -- the intro paragraph is, but the rest is his "The Big Idea" feature where he lets authors self promote. So it's Tepper herself. (If I remember correctly, when it began he'd let authors he didn't necessarily like or agree with self promote -- including, if I remember correctly, the delightful personage who's now running for SFWA, per Michal's playpen post -- and I don't think it was the best policy. Especially in that case, it seems to have had repercussions. I don't think it's still the policy
Adrienne at 05:48 on 2013-02-08
So I am actually a huge fan of a lot of Sheri Tepper's earlier work, although you won't hear me defending anything she's written in the last fifteen years or so at least.

Her early stuff isn't free of problems, but some of it is pretty fantastic. Arthur B: if you never read anything else by her, at least read Grass. It's a phenomenal novel. (I have a soft spot for the other two novels in the same milieu, Raising the Stones and Sideshow, but Sideshow in particular is well into what i'd say is her "later and therefore rantier and more full of fail" period. I mostly love it because of the female protagonist, not because it's really very good.)

And contra Sunnyskywalker, I am entirely certain that the society in The Gate to Women's Country isn't meant to be read straight. Women's Country isn't a utopia, it's simply the best solution anyone has. And TGtWC is also a book I'd say is worth reading, because it is an Important Feminist Novel, for all its issues. But it doesn't hold a candle to Grass for either sensawunda or quality.

I also love the three interlocking trilogies that make up the True Game, which are her very earliest novels. But dear god, they are early novels, with all sorts of stylistic and plotting issues and a lot of heavyhanded philosophizing.

She's always had Stuff She Wants To Talk About. Patriarchal religions being made up of villains; how commonly whole cultures engage in the subjugation and sexual abuse of women; eugenics as a Good Thing; certain classes of criminals being in some way "subhuman" by definition. But early on in her career, they were themes rather than obsessions, and she was a hell of a lot more readable.
Robinson L at 08:36 on 2013-02-08
I'd never read any of her work before this and am unlikely to in the future; I was mainly aware of her because Beauty was honoured with a spot in the Fantasy Masterworks series, but based on valse's assessment this seems to have been a mistake.

Oh, I can assure you, it was. (Also see this.)

I think the first time Tepper crossed my radar it was in a favorable mention by someone whose opinion I respected. Between that and the sheer What the Hell, Seriously? factor of Beauty, I half chalked it up to a weird little side-project by an otherwise respectable speculative fiction author. So much for that theory.

Tepper dislikes the idea of eating meat but also has trouble tackling the idea that some animals kind of need to eat meat if they're going to get proper nutrition.

Ha, reminds me of the muddled polemic for vegetarianism in Eldest.

she genuinely seems to believe (or proposes for the purposes of this story at least) that there is such a thing as objectively evil people and creatures whose deaths are necessary so that everyone else can live a sustainable lifestyle.

Yeah, that fits in with her general attitude toward humanity as expressed in Beauty. Though to be fair, most speculative fiction implicitly embraces the idea that some people are objectively evil and need a good killing so that everyone else can live a sustainable lifestyle.

essentially, to survive the drowning of the world and ensure a future for your children, you have to personally accept that humanity are bad and need to be punished by being turned into squids to prove worthy of survival.

This actually sounds reminiscent of one of the more disturbing elements of Beauty which I didn't touch on at the time only because it took place mostly as background.

By the 21st century, humanity has so overextended the Earth's resources that everybody has to live in capsules closed off from the outside and eat nutrient tablets. Most of the action takes place in the fourteenth and twentieth centuries, but the main character occasionally meets time-travelers from this 21st century dystopia, and she eventually realizes that by around the beginning of the 22nd century, even this system has broken down and the entire human race is horribly wiped out by famine.

Ah, but without us humans to muck things up, the Earth will then begin the slow process of healing and regenerating life. So what the protagonists do is, they build a magical ark for all the humans and animals (who aren't fetishized in Beauty the way they apparently are here) to tide through the 22nd century apocalypse and however more centuries it takes for the Earth to be able to support animal life once again. Only they don't build the ark in the 21st/22nd century to save all the poor bastards who get caught in the great collapse without a working time machine to escape, and they don't even build it in the 20th century, when the book is written - they build it in their own time, which is the 14th. Even when I first read the book it came off as a big middle finger to following six centuries (especially considering the sequences where our main character is in the 20th century trying to avert the coming catastrophe to avail, with the implication that humanity has spiritually as well as environmentally passed the point of no return).

So in that book, it's not necessarily that human beings are inherently evil, but sometime between the 14th and 20th centuries we became, as a species, so irredeemably evil that the only solution is to nuke the whole project and then reach back 600 years into (Europe's) past and start over again from there.

The structure and pacing got pretty bad at times, as well, but I wouldn't characterize them as outright terrible. So either I'm just ridiculously forgiving, or on this point at least, Beauty scores higher than The Waters Rising.

alua-auburn: So if nothing else, I don't feel the need to read Beauty now!

Congratulations on dodging that bullet.
Arthur B at 10:16 on 2013-02-08
@Adrienne:
But early on in her career, they were themes rather than obsessions, and she was a hell of a lot more readable.

Eh, I'm inclined to say that a fixation on eugenics and declaring people subhuman is still going to be a problem even if you sprinkle it on lightly.

@Robinson:
So in that book, it's not necessarily that human beings are inherently evil, but sometime between the 14th and 20th centuries we became, as a species, so irredeemably evil that the only solution is to nuke the whole project and then reach back 600 years into (Europe's) past and start over again from there.

Well, obviously, because patriarchal religion and deeply ingrained cultural misogyny were so rare in 14th century Europe. Wait, what?
Robinson L at 15:00 on 2013-02-08
Arthur: Well, obviously, because patriarchal religion and deeply ingrained cultural misogyny were so rare in 14th century Europe. Wait, what?

Ah yes, but Medieval Europe still lacked at least two of the greatest blights of the contemporary world: massive environmental devastation (I suspect the 14th century Europeans were probably about as bad about the Earth's ecology as we are today, they just didn't have the technological capacity to screw it up to the degree we do; but from everything I've seen first-, second-, and third-hand, I wouldn't be surprised if Tepper didn't see it that way); and horror writers. Yes, horror writers. You can't make this shit up.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 15:45 on 2013-02-08
suspect the 14th century Europeans were probably about as bad about the Earth's ecology as we are today, they just didn't have the technological capacity to screw it up to the degree we do;


Oddly enough, Romans were still able to screw the environment pretty badly. For some reason, many hard core environmentalists seem to put the tragic mistake somewhere from 14th to the 17th century, for all I know because of the renaissance and because arguably the birth of the scientific revolution could be placed there, although that's a bit sketchy. Wouldn't the real original sin have been the invention of agriculture, or the handling of fire? So why not try to get back to that?

On the review, two notes. First:

This novel really did a number on me. I'm lying on the floor broken and twitching with fury. The primary targets of my fury are this book and Tepper herself, but there's a sizable dose of rage left over reserved for the editors who greenlit this. The Waters Rising is a miserably incompetent and morally reprehensible science fantasy novel which demeans science fiction, fantasy, the political causes Tepper supposedly espouses and literature as a whole by its existence.


You should put this quote to every review site from amazon to whatever. It would make a handy template as well, although if it was used too much, it wouldn't be as effective.

Secondly, you should probably take a break from these sort of books. You'll end up reading some equivalent of the King in Yellow and just breaking down completely.
Arthur B at 20:29 on 2013-02-08
Ah yes, but Medieval Europe still lacked at least two of the greatest blights of the contemporary world: massive environmental devastation (I suspect the 14th century Europeans were probably about as bad about the Earth's ecology as we are today, they just didn't have the technological capacity to screw it up to the degree we do; but from everything I've seen first-, second-, and third-hand, I wouldn't be surprised if Tepper didn't see it that way); and horror writers.

And of course the 14th Century boasts the most efficient means of human population control ever unleashed on Europe.
Adrienne at 20:43 on 2013-02-08
@ArthurB

Eh, I'm inclined to say that a fixation on eugenics and declaring people subhuman is still going to be a problem even if you sprinkle it on lightly.


I don't say they're not. :) But some of her early novels are still worth reading, and the eugenics and subhuman crap certainly isn't present in all of them. (And some of the stuff she's had to say, over the years, about how cultures keep women subjugated is pretty damn insightful.)

Grass, for example, has crazy religious villains and overpopulation and cultural subjugation of women as themes, but no eugenics. The Gate to Women's Country has eugenics, a whole bunch of it, but it's never presented as anything like an unmitigated good. (The society they're trying to build, in Gate, is based on eugenics and fueled by terror. In some sense even if they succeed in their grand project, they've already failed.)

Seriously, there's much more nuance in some of her work than there is in Waters, i swear!
Ash at 21:22 on 2014-07-23
In a shocking twist, ice comets are apparently a thing, now. (I have spent way too long trying to figure out why this news srticle made me think of talking horses.)
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