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The Fresco

The Fresco

3.8 15
by Sheri S. Tepper

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The bizarre events that have been occuring across the United States -- unexplained "oddities" tracked by Air Defense, mysterious disappearances, shocking deaths -- seem to have no bearing on Benita Alvarez-Shipton's life. That is, until the soft-spoken thirty-six-year-old bookstore manager is approached by a pair of aliens asking her to transmit their message of


The bizarre events that have been occuring across the United States -- unexplained "oddities" tracked by Air Defense, mysterious disappearances, shocking deaths -- seem to have no bearing on Benita Alvarez-Shipton's life. That is, until the soft-spoken thirty-six-year-old bookstore manager is approached by a pair of aliens asking her to transmit their message of peace to the powers in Washington. An abused Albuquerque wife with low self-esteem, Benita has been chosen to act as the sole liaison between the human race and the Pistach, who have offered their human hosts a spectacular opportunity for knowledge and enrichment.

But ultimately Benita will be called upon to do much more than deliver messages -- and may, in fact, be responsible for saving the Earth. Because the Pistach are not the only space-faring species currently making their presence known on her unsuspecting planet. And the others are not so benevolent.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
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.

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Chapter One

Things That Go Bump in the Night

Along the Oregon coast an arm of the Pacific shushes softly against rocky shores. Above the waves, dripping silver in the moonlight, old trees, giant trees, few now, thrust their heads among low clouds, the moss thick upon their boles and shadow deep around their roots. In these woods nights are quiet, save for the questing hoot of an owl, the satin stroke of fur against a twig, the tick and rasp of small claws climbing up, clambering down. In these woods, bear is the big boy, the top of the chain, but even he goes quietly and mostly by day. It is a place of mosses and liverworts and ferns, of filmy green that curtains the branches and cushions the soil, a wet place, a still place.

A place in which something new is happening. If there were eyes to see, they might make out a bear-sized shadow, agile as a squirrel, puckering the quiet like an opening zipper, rrrrip up, rrrrip down, high into the trees then down again, disappearing into mist. Silence intervenes, then another seam is ripped softly on one side, then on the other, followed by new silences. Whatever these climbers are, there are more than a few of them.

The owl opens his eyes wide and turns his head backwards, staring at the surrounding shades. Something new, something strange, something to make a hunter curious. When the next sound comes, he launches himself into the air, swerving silently around the huge trunks, as he does when he hunts mice or voles or small birds, following the pucker of individual tics to its lively source, exploring into his life's darkness. What he finds is nothing he might have imagined, and a fewmoments later his bloody feathers float down to be followed by another sound, like a satisfied sigh.

Near the Mexican border, rocky canyons cleave the mountains, laying them aside like broken wedges of gray cheese furred with a dark mold of pinon and juniper that sheds hard shadows on moon glazed stone, etched lithographs in gray and black, taupe and silver.

Beneath feathery chamisa a rattlesnake flicks his tongue, following a scent. Along a precarious rock ledge a ring-tailed cat strolls, nose snuffling the cracks. At the base of the stone a peccary trots along familiar foot traits, toward the toes of a higher cliff where a seeping spring gathers in a rocky goblet. In the desert, sounds are dry and rattling: pebbles toed into cracks, hoofs tac-tacking on stone, the serpent rattle warning the wild pig to veer away, which she does with a grunt to the tribe behind her. From the rocky scarp the ringtailed cat hears the whole population of the desert pass about its business in the canyon below.

A new sound comes to this place, too. High in the air, a chuff, chuff, chuff, most like the wings of a monstrous crow, crisp and powerful, enginelike in their regularity. Then a cry, eerie and utterly alien, not from any native bird ever heard in this place.

The peccary freezes in place. The ring-tailed cat leaps into the nearest crevice. Only the rattler does not hear, does not care. For the others, staying frozen in place seems the appropriate and prudent thing to do as the chuff, chuff, chuff moves overhead, another cry and an answer from places east, and west, and north as well. The aerial hunter is not alone, and its screams fade into the distance, the echoes still, and the canyon comes quiet again.

And farther south and east, along the gulf, in the wetland that breeds the livelihood of the sea, in the mangrove swamps, the cypress bogs, the moss-lapped, vine-twined, sawgrass-grown, reptile-ridden mudflats, night sounds are continuous. Here the bull gator bellows, swamp birds call, insects and frogs whir and buzz and babble and creak. Fish jump, huge tails thrash, wings take off from cover to silhouette themselves on the face of the moon.

And even here comes strangeness, a great squadge, squadge, squadge, as though something walks through the deep muck in giant boots on ogre legs, squishing feet down and sucking them up only to squish them down once more. Squadge, squadge, squadge, three at a time, then a pause, then three more.

As in other places, the natives fall silent. The heron finds himself a perch and pulls his head back on his long neck, letting it rest on his back, crouching a little, not to be seen against the sky. The bull gator floats on the oily surface like a scaly buoy, fifteen feet of hunger and dim thought, an old man of the muck, protruding eyes seeing nothing as flared nostrils taste something strange. He lies in his favorite resting place near the trunk of a water-washed tree. There was no tree in that place earlier today, but the reptilian mind does not consider this. Only when something from above slithers sinuously onto the top of his head does he react violently, his body bending, monstrous tail thrashing, huge jaws gaping wide . . .

Then nothing. No more from the gator until morning, when the exploring heron looks along his beak to find an intaglio of strange bones on the bank, carefully trodden into the muck, from the fangs at the front of the jaw to the vertebra at the tip of the tale. Like a frieze of bloody murder, carefully displayed.

The Fresco. Copyright © by Sheri Tepper. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Ursula K. Le Guin
[She] takes the mental risks that are the lifeblood of science fiction and all imaginative narrative.

Meet the Author

Sheri S. Tepper is the author of more than thirty resoundingly acclaimed novels, including The Waters Rising, The Margarets, The Companions, The Visitor, The Fresco, Singer from the Sea, Six Moon Dance, The Family Tree, Gibbon's Decline and Fall, Shadow's End, A Plague of Angels, Sideshow, and Beauty; numerous novellas; stories; poems; and essays. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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Fresco 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This story, served up as a profound and touching adventure tale, is also an indulgent fantasy of justice - justice hilariously delivered with all the innocent effeciency and practicality you'd expect from, say, a perfect house-wife.
Guest More than 1 year ago
At thirty-six years old, Benita Alvarez-Shipton finds herself trapped in an abusive relationship with her drunk of a spouse. In spite of her hard work ethic, Benita seems reasonably low on the human food chain. Yet for some unknown reason beyond earthly understanding, the intergalactic traveling Pistach ambassadors Chiddy and Vess choose Benita as their emissary.

Chiddy and Vess give the earthwoman a cube containing a message of peace, an opportunity to join the galactic federation, and finally the ability to end crime, poverty, famine, and slavery. The male oligopoly running our country scorns the cube and its female holder. In spite of their contempt, the cube finally weaves its way through the bureaucracy to reach the president. He names Benita as his point of contact with the aliens. However, just as the Pistach have discovered the needle in the haystack affectionately called Earth, other races much more hostile see the planet as a large hunting reserve.

THE FRESCO is a different type of science fiction novel that succeeds as a wonderful tale in support of women's rights. The story line satirically skews obstinate men in a very amusing way while highlighting the dreams of women seeking peace, freedom, and prosperity for all. The weird Python-like humor ironically offers intriguing twists to headline news is not for everyone (ask Jerry Falwell who makes a cameo appearance). Though clearly Sheri S. Tepper's novel targets a select group of women, men will enjoy this wild morality ride or face the Pistach impregnating them via a wasp.

Harriet Klausner

Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This author manages to portray just how "bizarre" an alien race would most probably percieve many of humankinds customs and beliefs. She actually does it in such a manner that the READER starts to question the absurdity of them. Excellent read!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I've read several of her books and loved them. But this one was too simplistic, suitable for young, idealistic readers. Her hatred of men comes through too obviously. The aliens fix the things she personally (I think) that she sees wrong with the world.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This wasn't a bad book, but I think Tepper used it to bash readers over the head with her political views. Aliens come to Earth to announce that Earth must now join a Confederation. If they refuse, they will be hunted by other, less benevolent aliens. But are these aliens really benevolent? They begin a massive reconfiguation campaign on Earth's people, starting with erasing Jerusalem till people stop fighting over it, making one country's women ugly till their men treat them better, and the like. They even forcibly impregnate US politicians who have come out saying they are firmly pro-life, so they know what it feels like, more or less. It's a bit sad when such a talented author has to force her case this way, and it's a bit artificial-feeling for humankind to improve only after this level of forcing. Is this really something to be regarded as positive? I personally resist that idea. It scares me that any race might disregard personal freedom and personal choices that much -- is it fair of me, a pro-choice woman, to deny a pro-lifer his or her opinions? I think not. Tepper makes beautifully well-realized characters, and here is no exception. Her alien races are rich and credible, well worth the reading time. There's a lot here that is diverting. Upshot: take this as a fantasy, a fairy tale. It's fun to read, in that adolescent way one might imagine one's enemies getting their just desserts through fair means or foul, but it certainly isn't up to the par of Tepper's other works.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I've read many of Sheri S. Teper's books, including 'Beauty', 'Jinian Footseer', and 'King's Blood Four,' and liked most of them. However, 'The Fresco' is one of the worst books I have ever read. In 'The Fresco', benevolent aliens come to Earth offering to solve all of its problems, if only Earth will enter into their Confederation. The aliens are less like technologically advanced visitors and are more like gods. They release a plague on Afghanistan to teach the men there a lesson about how they treat women. They spirit Jerusalem away to teach people in the Middle East to be peaceful. They give police drug-sensing devices which are 100% infallible so all drug dealers are caught, with no need for pesky warrants. Meanwhile, other alien species teach pro-life men a lesson by impregnating them with alien larvae, while loggers and anit-environmentalist types are eaten by predator aliens. The book brings to mind Christianity's Final Judgment, when a higher power comes to earth to punish the guilty and set everything right. Except, in 'The Fresco', the higher power are aliens and 'right' means agreeing with a certain set of political beliefs. The politics in the book are sort of strange -- definitely pro-choice and environmentalist, which makes you think liberal, but at the same time some very conservative viewpoints are espoused. The homeless are basically lazy and should be encouraged to kill themselves with drugs and alcohol to keep them out of the gene pool. Due process and probable cause are annoying and only serve to keep criminals out of jail. The ACLU is evil. People who agree with these statements (and in the book, that's everyone who isn't blatantly evil or stupid) are heroes, while those who disagree are punished or reprogrammed. Basically, this is a scary book. I am a liberal and a feminist, but I don't want people who disagree with me eaten or impregnated with alien larvae. Beyond that, I don't want some all-powerful aliens coming to earth, releasing plagues and vanishing cities to teach humans a lesson. This book advocates a big-brother scenario that should disturb anyone, regardless of their political beliefs.