Sunday, July 18, 2010

Review: The Fresco, by Sheri S. Tepper

I picked up this aliens-make-First-Contact-on-Earth gem by randomly browsing the shelves at the library.  I'm not quite finished yet, but I don't want to risk giving away the ending, so I'll write about it anyway.

It's pretty good, I'll be checking out more by this author. 

I like it because of its, hmm, irony?  Part of it is clearly a place for the author to vent her solutions, were anything possible, to various social problems.   The solutions are humorous, and clearly an interesting mix of left and libertarian, unabashedly so, considering the Bad Guys are socially conservative Republicans.  Socially conservative Republicans may not be amused--but they may not be all that inclined to read science fiction anyway, I don't know.

 Anyway, the interest in the book is in its multi-layered analysis of good and bad especially through the lens of modern political ideas like libertarianism and liberalism.  The protagonist; forty-something, Hispanic Benita Alvarez, is approached by the seemingly stereotypical benevolent aliens with a message of goodwill that she has been chosen to deliver to the authorities.  They give her money in exchange--and and reason to finally leave her drunk, abusive husband after nineteen years of capitulating and making excuses for him.   In typical star trek fashion, it turns out that the aliens have observed one of our deep-space probes (time-line: circa 2000, with a made-up Democrat president struggling to reclaim the party name after The Sex Scandal of his predecessor) and want to extend an invitation for us to join some intergalactic confederation, if we but make some minor changes to better achieve the prime requirement for entry:  Neighborliness.  Yet rather than interact directly with the leaders, they choose to keep Benita as their envoy, chosen, Benita suspects, because she was a poor, unknown minority woman, with no personal ax to grind, no reason to lie, and every reason to wish that the aliens would correct a lot of the world's social problems.

And correct problems, the aliens begin to do, no matter what we humans have to say about it.   The surprise in this book, the reason why I ended up muttering "oh shit, oh my god" at the end of each chapter, is the lengths and creativity the Pistach undergo to make sure humans can be considered Neighborly.  Civil liberties?  What if it works?  How do we decide when it goes too far?  (In my opinion, there is one, particularly disturbing part where it DOES go way too far.  The author however, has multi-layered things to say about this, just like everything else, and I suspect Going Too Far is the Point.)  Turns out Neighborliness should be vitally important to humans, because worlds rejected by the Confederation become fair game for the predator species out there.   (SciFi geek alert:  I have a theory as to why, if there really were intelligent aliens out there, they probably wouldn't be predatory, but that's for another time.)

I'll give you one, tantalizing example of one of the author's 'solutions':  the genderless Pistach are most perplexed by the treatment of women in the middle east.  They are perplexed that such treatment exists (the burquas, the sequestering, the stoning of to death women who accidentally allow their veils to slip), and they are perplexed that nations like the United States don't do anything about it.  When challenged about what it is they can do to Earth people, the Pistach use their seemingly-limitless technology to make all of the women in Afghanistan hideous and yet un-harmable by physical violence.  If the men of Afghanistan are so worried about preserving the modesty of their women, the aliens proclaim, then surely if the women are repulsive then they will have no need to worry.  The women can then go to markets and schools without fear of engendering lusty thoughts in the minds of others.

Ms. Tripper is certainly NOT worried about offending people.  If you don't think you're easy to offend, then you might enjoy it too.

Added after reading the end: Actually, I was kind of dissapointed.  The Oh Shit moments didn't resolve themselves into exploration of the ideas presented.  The personal situation of the protagonists ended with some illogical and out-of-left-field twists that I didn't like because they didn't make sense.  Not terrible, just, not as good as I'd hoped, or maybe just not my personal taste.

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