Sheri Tepper has been writing superb science fiction since 1983. Her adventurous plots are compulsively readable, her landscapes are stunningly imagined, and her chronicling of the ongoing battles between the sexes makes her books bold and controversial. In The Fresco, Tepper has created one of her most absorbing and provocative works.
Benita Alvarez-Shipton, an "ordinary person, a nobody," seeks escape from her abusive, alcoholic husband in her underpaid job at a bookstore. Everything changes the day she meets two aliens. Soft-spoken Chiddy and Vess instruct her to bring a mysterious red cube to the authorities so they may arrange peaceful contact. With mixed trepidation and excitement, Benita abandons her husband and travels to Washington, D.C., to tell the president the news.
The shape-changing aliens seem too good to be true -- they intend to provide planetwide contentment on Earth, so that humanity may join a galactic Confederation of intelligent beings. Chiddy explains, "We Pistach know what it takes to mend people, and it takes a good deal more than you are willing to do." Within days, alien nanotechnology is winning the war on drugs, a bizarre transformation frees Afghani women from the horrors perpetrated by their society, and Jerusalem vanishes from the face of the Earth.
Amid the surprises and humor, the occasional sinister note sounds. A cabal of evil politicians are determined to ruin Benita and the president. People are disappearing, leaving nothing behind but broken skeletons. Dangerously irresistible voices speak in apparently empty rooms. Are the Pistach responsible for these events? Or have other, predatory extraterrestrials also come to Earth?
Several chapters narrated by Chiddy foreshadow the novel's greatest mystery: the terrible secret of the Fresco, a vast work of art housed in the holiest Pistach temple. The meaning of this Fresco has formed the basis of Pistach philosophy for millennia. Benita's adventures culminate in a journey to the Pistach planet and a revelation causing as much change on the alien homeworld as the aliens have wrought on Earth. The Fresco is both a brilliantly sustained narrative and a powerful vision of change and renewal, characteristically celebrating biodiversity and articulating the author's belief that the antagonistic relationships between men and women can evolve into something precious and life-affirming. It deserves a place among Tepper's finest novels, which include The Gate to Women's Country (1988) and Grass (1989), a New York Times Notable Book and Hugo Award nominee. (Fiona Kelleghan)
Fiona Kelleghan is a librarian at the University of Miami. Book reviews editor for Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, she has written reviews and articles for Science-Fiction Studies; Extrapolation; The New York Review of Science Fiction; Science Fiction Research Association Review; Nova Express; St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers; Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature; Neil Barron's Fantasy and Horror: A Critical and Historical Guide; Contemporary Novelists, 7th Edition; and American Women Writers. Her book Mike Resnick: An Annotated Bibliography and Guide to His Work was published by Alexander Books in 2000.