Sheri S. Tepper died on Saturday, October 22, 2016 at the age of 87. Like many women of her generation, she began her writing career later in life; her first novels were published in her 50s. Despite her late start, she wrote loads of books: dozens of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery novels populated her busy writing life. Only last year, she received a lifetime achievement award from the World Fantasy Convention. In the annals of genre writing, her name deserved an honored place; that she is not more well known or well read, and that so many of her books are out of print today, is a tragedy that will hopefully soon be rectified, at least so we can discover if Marianne, the Matchbox, and the Malachite Mouse lives up to that glorious title.
I first encountered Tepper’s writing in the astonishing, Hugo-nominated Grass, which a friend pushed into my hands because, she explained, she almost couldn’t believe what Tepper managed to do with the novel. The set-up is not dissimilar to Dune: a political family is sent to a strategically important backwater to work the whims of empire. It does not go well. Grass is a masterful piece of world-building, even as it slowly and carefully makes the reader accept some deeply uncomfortable stuff. I rarely reread, but I’ve read it at least three times. Every time, I shudder at the ostensibly happy ending, as I’m sure Tepper intended. I was (am) disquieted by it, upset and compelled in equal measure. This reading experience became the pattern for my later forays into her catalog.
I picked up The Awakeners: Northshore & South Shore because of my love for zombie fiction, and got nothing I expected, and so much more. While many of Tepper’s books are more or less realistic science fiction, adhering to the standard deviation of what the genre defines as “normal”, The Awakeners colors outside of all of the accepted lines. Many of the details in her riverworld are vivid enough to demand novels of their own; consider the Jarb Mendicants, a religious order whose acolytes smoke a drug that makes its users sane. (Their encounter with a fervent young leader is almost brutally comic, her reaction to their sanity sublime.) Her inventively undead explode any dull imagined arguments about fast vs. slow.
While feminist and ecological themes can be found in much of her catalog, The Gate to Women’s Country typifies Tepper’s specific take. In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, small, women-run communities seem like idylls of rationalism and sense. In fact, they are idylls of rationalism, as we learn in a harrowing excursion to the settlements outside of Ann’s Town, but they’re hardly feminist utopias, predicated on a lot of gender essentialism and…other unsavory stuff. It’s another provocative novel, and like Grass, tricks you into accepting a few harmless axioms, and then walks you right to the teetering edge of where those assumptions lead.
The swooping vertigo Tepper provokes is not always a comfortable feeling, and I’m not going to pretend it always worked for me. At least once, I got actively angry at one of her novels, sputtering with rage at where she had taken me. But she also made me marvel at the complexity of simple human interaction. Tepper challenged me, delighted me, surprised me. I’m sad to see her go. I’m glad I still have so many of her books left to discover.