July 2007

Adrienne Martini

specfic floozy

Revisiting the Trapper Keeper Days

With a few exceptions, I enjoy the perks of being a grown up. I like owning my own house and car and, more or less, my time. Paying the bills can be unpleasant but represents a necessary evil. This may be one of the hallmarks of being a grown up: that ability to call something a “necessary evil” and be able to see the other side of writing those checks to the bank and power company. There is no such thing as a free lunch, as so many have helpfully pointed out.

I’ve finally reached that point -- again, 90 percent of the time -- where my youthful idealism has been well-tempered by mature pragmatism and cost/benefit analyses. There have been a few notable exceptions of my eager young ire rising to the surface long enough to drown out the sage older woman. These are the sorts of occasions that remind you who you were and where you are.

I don’t mean to sound all wiser-than-thou. I’m not -- not even a little bit. There are days when I discover that basic math has eluded me and that I haven’t the slightest idea where I’ve put my keys. But I provide the above nuggets of information about the pleasures of grown-upness as well as my knowledge of its costs only to describe my response to Sheri S. Tepper’s The Margarets, which is her return to print after a four-year break.

Tepper is frequently described as an “eco-feminist” science fiction writer. It’s a convenient label that fits -- mostly. Her decades of work have long been concerned with the negative impact that human males have had upon the environments in which they find themselves and how human females might do a better job of maintaining a harmonious relationship between the species and their planet. Tepper’s aims are noble, if nothing else. Her heyday as a writer coincided with mine as a reader. As a teenager and young adult I devoured her works. Gate to Women’s Country (1988) is perhaps her seminal (a word chosen with no small amount of irony) achievement and sets up the themes that she has juggled since.

Gate could be considered another entry in the post-apocalyptic walled-off gender-segregated SF subgenre (see also: Pamela Sargent’s The Shore of Women or, for a recent example, Carol Emshwiller’s short “The Boys”) that seemed to pop up like mushrooms after a spring rain during the late 1980s. Tepper’s spin on the trope placed a mother at its heart. Not only must she deal with the consequences of falling in love, but she must also watch her son make one of the few choices that is allowed to him -- and that does put him smack between a rock and a castrated hard place.

It was the sort of book that I lapped up as a disaffected high schooler who was just starting to learn about such heady topics as power inequalities and the minds of teenaged boys. I snatched up Tepper’s books just as quickly as they came out. Her Arbai Trilogy -- Grass, Raising the Stones and Sideshow -- stand out as my favorites from that time.

Tepper’s work and I drifted apart around the 1996 publication of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. Her themes became too one-note for my tastes. She seemed unable to stray from her two-dimensional conviction that women hold some key to saving the universe that men just couldn’t ever hope to comprehend. By 1998’s Six Moon Dance, her Santa Fe-inspired New Ageiness and I were on divergent paths. I could admire her abilities as a storyteller but could no longer buy the blue-smoke-and-crystal hokum stories.

A decade had passed since I picked up any Tepper. Along came The Margarets, with its lovely Stephan Martiniere cover. The plot was intriguing -- a woman is split into seven personalities that are seeded throughout the galaxy in order to save humankind. The first chapter’s pace and yarn-spinning skill couldn’t help but hook a reader. Perhaps, I thought, I’ve been wrong all of these years.

It turns out that I haven’t been. Tepper works her usual tricks with The Margarets. While she can pull rabbits out of hats with practiced flourish, they are still the same old rabbits. If this is your first Tepper or speculative fiction novel, you will be astounded. If you are a young, idealistic teenaged girl, you will have found your new obsession. But, for me, The Margarets is more of the same.

Granted, The Margarets hangs some new ornaments on the shopworn plot. The idea of wormhole gates and a quest through them -- which Dan Simmons did so well in his Hyperion series that it is hard to read anything that involves the mere idea of them without thinking of Simmons’ mastery -- is an added flourish. Tepper has always been concerned with the idea of gods and humankind’s relationship to them; here she spins that idea in a new manner that sadly sucks all of the tension out of the story. And with The Margarets, Tepper introduces a talking catlike species that is practically perfect in every way, which should gall those who don’t own a Trapper Keeper decorated with unicorns.

I really, really wanted to like The Margarets, if only to retain my memories of Tepper as a visionary writer who changed my views of the world. The best reader for this book may be the younger set, those whose images of the world are still based on idealism and relative inexperience. But for me, all the reading of this book has proven is that I shouldn’t revisit the Tepper books that I still have a fondness for simply because I don’t want to crush that giddy kid memory with the small amount of acquired wisdom and pragmatism that the grown up me has accumulated.