Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al

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Reading Wednesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tags: book, reading wednesday

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