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

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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 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

Village Voice Literary Supplement
[Tepper's novels] are the old-fashioned kind, despite their futurisitc settings; the kind that wrap you in their embrace, that take over your life, that make the world disappear.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
HSo what do women really, really want? Elementary, Dr. Freud, according to Tepper's enchantingly sly feminist tale of Earthlings' first contact with alien starfarers: nothing that "virile, arbitrary, egocentric, and often belligerent" human males can supply. Abused wife to a feckless alcoholic, orphaned child of a wise Latina lady and her salvage-yard husband, Benita Alvarez-Shipton finds herself at 36 chosen by Chiddy and Vess, ambassadors from the galactic Pistach-Home, to introduce their message of peace to a largely skeptical, male-dominated U.S. government. Tepper intersperses episodes of Benita's struggle to help Chiddy and Vess with entries from the journal Chiddy keeps for her, an explanation of the Pistach moral-ethical religion centered upon a sacred fresco. To punctuate the many wrongs men in charge have committed, Tepper also inserts some headlines excruciatingly close to today's political scene: "Baptists claim ETs possible demonic invasion; Falwell says ETs more likely gay." Among other fitting punishments, the Pistach envoys see to it that rigid male right-to-life senators are impregnated by sentient wasps, whose larvae chew themselves out of righteous, unanesthetized senatorial bellies. As a clever roman clef and the stuff of secret female dreams, this novel succeeds brilliantly. Better yet, as a commentary on the capacity of women to endure, to achieve and to overcome, it shines as brightly as the stars that one day may provide what Tepper's women really want--true peace. Tepper's novel will sell to wide range of SF readers, but special targeting to women, for instance in feminist bookstores, will increase sales. (Nov.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Two friendly Pistach aliens approach Benita Alvarez-Shipton on a normal day in her depressing life. They ask her to be their intermediary with the United States government as they begin their work with Earth toward neighborliness and an alliance with the galactic Confederation. Most Americans, including the president (a Democrat), believe the Pistach are benevolent. Many Earth problems must be eliminated before such a union can be made, including the destruction of the environment, the mistreatment of women, the conflict in the Middle East, and the widespread use of guns and drugs. A rival group of aliens arrives simultaneously and approaches the president's enemies. These aliens are perfectly clear about what they want—hunting rights on the overpopulated planet—and deals are made with the senators (Republican). The fresco in the title refers to a sacred mural on which all Pistach beliefs are based. Eventually Benita visits Pistach in turmoil and helps the citizens through their spiritual crisis just as they are helping those on Earth through theirs. There can be no disguising the left-wing politics here. The aliens' agenda is practically a liberal wish list for Earth. Readers who tend toward conservative viewpoints might actually be offended. Readers who agree with the Pistach vision for Earth can expect to laugh and savor the wry dream, even when it is spread a bit thick. The subplot about the diehard pro-lifers being impregnated by hornet-like, mega-feminist aliens is overdone but priceless! Many complex issues are addressed, from religion to gender. In the hands of Tepper, this book is a philosophical frolic. VOYA CODES: 3Q 3P S A/YA (Readable without serious defects;Will appeal with pushing; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12; Adult and Young Adult). 2000, EOS/HarperCollins, 406p, Ages 16 to Adult. Reviewer: Elaine McGuire SOURCE: VOYA, June 2001 (Vol. 24, No. 2)
Library Journal
Benita Alvarez-Shipton faces an unorthodox midlife crisis when alien visitors choose her as their liaison with Earth's authorities and provide her with the means to take her destiny into her own hands in the process. The author of Six Moon Dance demonstrates her limitless ability to extract wonder and ingenuity from the lives of ordinary people faced with extraordinary situations. Tepper's talent for creating believable human and alien characters lends power and credibility to her work and makes her a convincing portrayer of sociologically oriented sf. Recommended for most sf collections. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Contemporary alien-visitors yarn from the author of Singer From the Sea, 1999, etc. The benevolent alien Pistach contact hardworking Benita Alvarez. They give her a message cube to present to the authorities—and they also give her the mental balance necessary to break free of her detestable personal circumstances. At length the cube, which shows how the Pistach can help humanity prepare to join the galactic federation by solving such intractable problems as crime, poverty, famine, and slavery, reaches the president. He engages Benita as liaison to the aliens. But predator races have also discovered Earth, say the Pistach, and intend to use the planet as a gigantic hunting ground. Certain politicians are willing to cooperate with them in return for power and wealth. Soon, though, the Pistach methods show near-miraculous results. The Pistach derive their ethos from a holy Fresco painted by the hero Canthorel. The pictures tell a story that inspires and impels the Pistach to help other races, even though the pictures are so dirty that the details cannot be discerned. Naturally, it's unthinkable to clean and possibly damage the Fresco. Then the heretic, T'Fees, cleans the Fresco, revealing the truth: the Pistach were conquerors and slavers! Pistach plunges into despair. The Pistach, however, are notably untalented artists, and this fact gives Benita an idea how humans may be able to help the Pistach. Another consummately skillful, wise, sometimes hilarious, iconoclastic performance, although possibly too relentlessly polemical for some tastes.

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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.

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

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