Two Views: The Margarets by Sheri S. Tepper

Reviewed by Nic Clarke and Sherryl Vint

The Margarets, UK cover

The Margarets, US cover

Nic Clarke:

More than with most authors, one knows what one is likely to get upon opening a book by Sheri S. Tepper. Whether a saga of far future space colonisation (Raising the Stones [1990]), a time-travel fairytale beginning in the fourteenth century (Beauty [1991]), or a present-day court procedural (Gibbon's Decline and Fall [1996]), all her novels are in some sense morality tales. The greatest crime in a Tepper novel is to assume that possessing power—over women and children, over the poor, over the Earth's resources—means one was meant to have that power, to wield it indiscriminately for one's own gratification, and to protect and perpetuate it at all costs. Exploring the cruelty and folly of this culturally mandated selfishness, this self-worth that depends upon seeing others subjugated, makes for a powerful message. But it has also produced a certain amount of repetitiveness in Tepper's oeuvre.

Indeed, readers could be forgiven for the creeping feeling that, over the past decade, Tepper's work has been slowly moving towards self-parody. In The Fresco (2001), at least, this was done, I think, quite literally and deliberately. Tepper's books tend to have wish-fulfillment endings, in which the bad guys—along with the ills they represent, like patriarchal society and exclusive religion—are overcome through brains, sisterhood and (often) alien intervention, and thereupon banished to a dingy corner of the universe or even bred out of the human race altogether leaving the decent, liberal people to evolve towards the higher lifeforms they ought to be. The Fresco took this formula and turned it up to eleven. When its do-gooding aliens took exasperated, hilariously rapid steps towards humanity's betterment—like stealing Jerusalem clean out of the ground and refusing to give it back until all concerned prove they can get along, or contriving for all prominent "pro-life" men to become simultaneously, spontaneously pregnant with alien spawn to see how they like not having control of their bodies—it read like Tepper getting tired of waiting for the rest of the world to understand, but also like Tepper sending herself up.

In any case, the usual suspects are present in The Margarets: the blending of fantasy and science fiction, the unabashed eco-feminism, the self-centred and domineering villains, the embattled but smart heroines with the courage of their convictions, the smugly superior alien saviours—and an overriding impatience, on the part of both characters and author, with humanity's short-sighted wastefulness. There is plenty, in other words, of this:

"Many humans prefer tiny gods," said the Gardener. "Tiny gods of limited preoccupations..."

"Limited to what?"

"To mankind, of course. And to each believer, particularly. Each human wants god to be his or her best friend, and it's easier to imagine god being your best friend if he is a tiny god interested only in a tiny world that's only a kind of vestibule to an exclusive little heaven." (p. 281)

As ever, good-guy characters are prone to laying down the law in no-nonsense, faintly dictatorial terms. Earth, the aliens have decreed, contains entirely too many "barbarians"—those who know that they ought to protect their environment, but would rather not expend the effort or experience the discomfort—to be left to its own devices any longer. Once again, human suffering is laid at the door of those who believe they are the centre of the universe—that the world and everything in it was created for them, or that they hold the one path to truth—or by those who permit and enable this mindset. In The Margarets, these attitudes have signed humanity's death warrant by the end of a twenty-first century in which the majority of people have still failed to acknowledge that the touchstones of their lifestyle—over-population, environmental rapaciousness and general entitlement—are unsustainable. The Earth has been an ecological disaster area for decades, but still denial reigns. "Only when aliens arrived in starships to tell them the end had come did governments try to deal with the situation, and by then, it was too late" (pp. 108-9), we are told; but even then, young Margaret, our introspective narrator, observes that none of the adults around her really want to engage with the subject. When she tries to learn about water rationing, for example, she gets replies like, "'Oh sweetheart, you don't want to talk about that. Let's not spoil the day'," or, "'Honeybun, I just don't think about it,' he said with a winning smile. ‘Measuring it doesn't help anything'" (p. 28).

The aliens in question—the Interstellar Trade Organisation, an umbrella group for space-faring races that takes a dim view of the way humanity has squandered its home—impose draconian measures to save the failing planet. Only through the help of the benign—but still deeply paternalistic in an eco-feminist sense—Gentherans is humanity able to win limited concessions and a stay of execution. But things are harsh: water is rationed, and the rights of the individual are utterly subsumed to the collective. Excess people—that is, from families with higher than the retroactively applied legal number of offspring—are sold into slavery on the planets of the Mercan Combine races, vicious exploiters to a man (or vaguely reptilian creature: "It is said if one imagines a huge, multilegged lizard, hundreds of years old, who is able to talk and count from one to six, one has imagined a Quaatar" (p. 2)).

Margaret is caught in the middle of this, in more ways than one. The only child on Phobos colony, Margaret fills her early life by inventing imaginary friends, or alternate selves:

Ideas oozed out of books like magma out of volcanoes. They solidified into whole, wonderful worlds, and I populated each one with beings and places I read of or invented: flora, fauna, forests, mountains, seascapes, all of them named, though no one knew these names but me, just as no one knew the names of the people I became in my various worlds: here a warrior who led the tribe through many dangers; there a shaman who could send her spirit to far places; here a healer who knew secret ways to cure sickness; there a telepath who could see into the hearts of others and communicate with animals; here a linguist who could understand all languages, ancient and new; there a queen who inspired her realm; here a spy who found out all the things a queen needed to know. (pp. 14-5)

But as she grows up—unbeknownst to her—these selves begin, one by one, to separate from her and take on lives of their own:

"Come with me!"

I felt... I felt something I had never felt before. Joy! Ecstasy! I felt... the arms-reaching feeling, that this was it, the thing I'd needed, that I must go (that I must obey and stay where I was), that the woman was calling me (that I was probably imagining it). Standing there, with my arm through the stanchion, I felt my legs pounding, I saw the back of myself running away, not wearing a helmet or a suit, just free as air. I reached the woman, saw myself seized up by the woman, was seized up, saw myself taken, was myself taken into the dragonfly, and felt it go. (pp. 19-20)

Margaret has an inchoate sense that this is more than just her imagination, but no clear idea of what has happened. But it happens repeatedly as she gets older; in moments of stress, or of turning-points in her life, she divides, and a Margaret splits off to begin her own life on another planet, elsewhere in the universe. One Margaret unwittingly betrays the family secret—that Margaret is an illegal over-the-limit child—to the authorities, and is sold into servitude, while the other is, to her parents' relief, misunderstood. When the same crisis looms again later in life, one Margaret accepts an offer to marry and be whisked away to a colony world with her husband—who sacrifices his career to save her—while the other resigns herself to slavery rather than live with him in what she is sure will become mutual resentment and growing bitterness. In the "separation lobby" through which all slaves-to-be are processed—so called, an official tells her, because it separates "[p]eople from their kin. Earth people from their planet. The optimistic from their hopes, and the pessimistic from their estimation of how bad it can be" (pp. 165-6)—one follows the route she is shown; one gets confused and takes an accidental wrong turn. One reveals language skill—language, and the willingness or unwillingness to understand and communicate more generally, is a significant theme of several characters' stories, and of the intergalactic backdrop—but another does not, thus dictating her opportunities at her destination.

These are less the paths not taken than the paths not forced or tripped down. At every turn, Margaret's decisions are to a greater or lesser degree not her own. Her options are restricted by mistakes, by the circumstances created around her by the decisions of others, or by simple apathy. The one who becomes Mar-agern—and who spends years as a stable-cleaning drudge, marked for death once her term runs out—for example, refuses to make a choice or take responsibility for her future. "Perhaps it would be better," she reflects, "simply to take what came, refuse to choose anything, leave the choosing to others who were not damned as I was to do the wrong thing at every opportunity" (p. 170.)

Generation upon generation of people not taking responsibility for the future is, of course, exactly what has landed humanity—and Margaret—in this situation, and in broad terms the trajectory of each self after separation is a reclaiming of personal and collective responsibility, a long struggle against enforced and self-inflicted passivity.

Each Margaret is given a new name upon entering her new life; none choose their own, although in a meta sense they do since all were named by Margaret's youthful imagination. One awakes as a boy, Naumi, with only faint memories of a previous life, grieving for "some word, some label that lay within reach of my tongue but not within reach of my mind. Who was that? And why was I grieving for her?" (p. 67). (Disappointingly, there is never any sense that Margaret-as-Naumi could be comfortable in a male body, or is not meant to be a girl but for an accident of separation, and while a crush on a male friend creates some tension for a time, the resolution of Naumi's story never really troubles heteronormativity.) Most of them are unaware of the others' existence for much of the book. All remain first-person narrators, often with rather different voices than their chatty, forthright, slightly histrionic originator. Gretamara, the healer, for example, is the storyteller. Like her protector and mentor, the mysterious Gardener, she is given to recasting truths as folktales—such a story opens the book, telling an aetiological tale of how humanity came to be so selfish—and painting warm, languid, descriptive canvases:

A forest. Here a tree immense past reckoning, its saplings gathered at its feet; there a huge, moss-hung hulk looming lonely at the edge of things; here a copse of fluttering leave or a brushy labyrinth of old trees, branches intertwined. Imagine the whole underlain with shrubs and ferns over liverworts and fungi, while in the soil beneath little worms and bacteria writhe and multiply; everything moving slowly, undetectably, chaotically, one part going there, another coming here, all without apparent direction. (p. 51)

Slave and spy Ongamar, embittered by her life but not thrown into dulled despair like Mar-argern, has a more sharp, abrupt voice, fitting her always alert persona and her thinly concealed contempt for her cruel, lazy masters ("Though it was an ugly language, I was getting very, very fluent at gargling Low Mercan" (p. 58)). M'urgi, a shaman on a planet of tribal communities, meanwhile, delivers her account in terse dialogue exchanges and the singsong rhythms of her heavily oral culture: "I shivered in the chill dark, in fear of night, in grasp of bloodshed, in danger of being mistaken" (p. 214).

They are seven people and one person, shaped in different ways—emotionally, mentally, and physically—by their experiences but still recognisable. As the Gardener puts it, they are the people Margaret had the potential to be: "Many children have such selves, harbouring all kinds of possibilities within themselves. Each person contains the seeds of several persons" (p. 84). Some manifestly interest Tepper more than others, however, and this, combined with the need to juggle the development of seven characters coming from quite different starting points, inevitably makes The Margarets' pacing uneven. Sometimes we cut back and forth rapidly between a number of Margarets, sometimes we spend several long chapters in the company of one; some of them have very active roles in pivotal plotlines (Gretamara, Ongamar) while others are largely confined to one spot, mucking out stables (Mar-agern). The result is that there are patches of narrative doldrums to be waited out. Furthermore, certain characters are sidelined from both plot and narrating duties for large chunks of the novel; don't expect to see much of Wilvia, for example, whose main role is to give birth and go a little crazy while in hiding from her enemies "At the far end of nowhere [...] A place that interests no-one, a place visited only by accident" (p. 454).

At length, the Margarets start to piece together the bigger picture, and discover their place in the destiny of humankind. It emerges that they are being steered by a coalition of aliens and gods, as part of a centuries-old plan to a) make humanity better and b) defeat the more arrogant and (not coincidentally) parasitical alien races out there. Its architects, like perhaps Tepper herself, have begun to wonder if "the human problem" (that is, humanity's "unfailing habit of fouling its nest, ruining its environment, killing its original planet, and doing its best to kill any others to which it is moved") may never be solved, and efforts to do so are "a waste of time and resources" (p. 277). The Margarets, then, are a last-ditch plan to save humanity from itself, and from those all too willing to profit from their explosive decline. They have been divided up for their protection and benefit ("camouflage," as one character puts it), to experience many different ways of life and methods of solving problems—and, perhaps, to between them learn all the intergalactic languages there are, all the better to see things from new angles.

Arguably, this outside-interventionist approach is somewhat at odds with the theme of humanity needing to take responsibility for its actions. But it was ever thus with Tepper: putting things right is almost invariably the job of those few clear-sighted enough to see what needs to be done, who are willing to circumvent, undermine and generally frustrate the baser (usually, but not exclusively, male) elements for their own good. What humanity as a whole lacks, the Gentherans decide, is this clear-sightedness: the perspective that brings awareness of personal responsibility and of consequences that afflict the lives of others, long after a selfish individual's death. Tepper conceives of this missing awareness as "racial memory," burned out of humanity by a long-ago encounter with the Quaatar, in the book's fairytale opening. It is a collective bank of generations-spanning experience, a long view to replace selfishness:

"You don't remember your first ancestors. You have no memory of ninety-nine percent of what makes you what you are! Instead you have comfy baby-stories you tell yourselves to explain why you're not good people. [...] Instead of learning how not to be bad, you learn how to be forgiven and carried off to heaven. Most of you find it easier to believe the baby stories than to learn from history and science, because it takes brains and hard study to understand history and science, but the stories are simple." (p. 301)

But, since this is Tepper, some human beings are beyond help, and left to their (safely contained) selfish devices:

Those few who could not be reached went to the newly constructed Death-and-Honor Walled-Off on Tercis. Since Death-and-Honor religions were male inventions, almost entirely, so was the population male, almost entirely. So much had been learned from Tercis. For those impervious to history, only sterilization and quarantine are efficacious. (p. 505)

The Tepperverse remains gratifying as liberal wish-fulfilment, but The Margarets is also its most satisfying embodiment as a novel in ten years: an imaginative story of likeable characters overcoming the odds, told with a lightness of touch that offsets the moments of lecturing. Unlike some of the earlier novels, it makes little effort to get under the skin of its antagonists as people rather than as exemplars of wrong tendencies, and it lacks some of the bite and drive and invention of Tepper at her very best. But in its central conceit, in its economical evocation of the characters' different lives and voices, and ultimately in both its anger and its hopefulness, The Margarets is a reminder of how potent Tepper can be.

Sherryl Vint:

Sheri S. Tepper's latest book, The Margarets, is in some ways an interesting departure from her most recent books, because it focuses on the experience of human characters rather more exclusively than has become typical of her work. In fact, it is largely a story of the experiences of one human character, Margaret, but as the pluralised title reveals, the novel raises complicated questions of identity and what it means to be "an" individual. Although its structure and human-centred focus are unusual for Tepper, we nonetheless find in The Margarets many of her familiar themes: a concern with the relationship between human and other life in the universe; an interrogation of the nature of "evil" in the behaviour of sentient beings, "evil" being defined as deriving pleasure from the pain of others; an advocacy of environmentalism and the need for population control and similar measures to avoid destroying planetary ecosystems; and an interest in the possibility of communication across species.

The familiarity of these themes may discourage Tepper's seasoned readers who may feel that they've heard it all before. Yet the repetition of these themes stresses an urgent need to revise our social structures in light of the problems she continues to perceive in our world. Thus the repetitive quality of some of her work speaks as much to the failure of humankind to learn from its mistakes—a perennial theme in Tepper's work, including this novel—as it does to her writing. I remember reading Beauty (1991) a number of years ago and finding the book intriguing but rejecting its seemingly far-fetched vision of a future in which all animals but humans are extinct and humankind is confined to urban high-rises, sustained by only algae as a food source. Now, reading similar versions of the future of our overcrowded and polluted planet in The Margarets and other recent Tepper novels (such as Six Moon Dance [1998] or The Companions [2003]), I'm struck instead by a chilling sense of how accurate her vision of the future seems. A 1998 survey by the American Museum of Natural History, for example, found that 70% of biologists believe we are living through a mass-extinction event. Although the causes of earlier extinctions, such as that of the dinosaurs, remain unknown—and have provoked many science fiction plots—the cause of the current devastating loss of biodiversity is quite clear: human action.

Such concerns inform the rich background of multiple worlds and multiple species that we have come to expect from Tepper's work and within which the main action of The Margarets takes place. The novel begins in the Phobos colony and quickly introduces a milieu of an overcrowded Earth, struggling colonies on Mars and Phobos, and an intergalactic organisation of species that is trying to determine if Earth counts as civilised according to the criteria of the Interstellar Trade Organisation (ISTO), which recognises four kinds of creatures: "Civilized people know about, care about, and protect their environments"; "semicivilized people know and care, but can't do anything" because they are prevented from acting in their self-interest by factors such as "public apathy. Commercial interference. Religious opposition. Government corruption"; "barbarians know but don't care about their worlds"; and "animals don't even know" (p. 29). Humanity's fate is bound up with the ways in which it is judged to have treated other species. If humans are not deemed civilised, the dying planet will become open to the final stripping of resources by the mercenary Mercan Combine. Human life on the planet is constrained by a system of assigning a numerical value to each person, a combined score of one's parents' numerical birth order in their respective families and one's own birth order among siblings. Children who don't live to adulthood are still factored into the score, and only those with scores of four or lower are allowed to remain on Earth. Everyone else is sold into bondage—which is often violently exploitative and does not end after the contracted fifteen years—or else sent to populate colony worlds. Significantly, humans are also sold in exchange for water, the most precious resource to the planet. The book's main crisis concerns a demand for humans to voluntarily drastically reduce their numbers or else face ISTO slaughterers who will violently decrease the population by the required 90%. A benevolent, catlike race called the Gentherans is dedicated to helping humanity survive the crisis, while a cruel and sadistic race called the Quaatar is dedicated to humanity's destruction.

One of the surprising things about The Margarets is that it ends with rather more optimism for the future than one often finds in Tepper. The main story concerns the character Margaret, who as a child on Mars, isolated from playmates her own age, develops a complex world of inner companions, whom she creates from hived-off parts of her personality. She invents seven such personalities, each with a particular vocation, and the attentive reader will note the correspondence between this number of personalities and a prophecy about walking seven roads at once that shapes the novel's quest narrative. As Margaret tells her life story, we find that various personalities seem to acquire a material life of their own and are separated from her at different moments in her experience. The mystery of the multiple Margarets is unexplained for most of the book, although a prefatory chart of planets, locations, and inhabitants does identify the many Margarets as such. The seven Margarets acquire new names, various personalities, and other attributes that reflect their different life experiences. The various splits happen at moments of crucial decision-making in Margaret's life, and thus the various Margarets create a narrative that exists somewhere between a choose-your-own-adventure tale and a quantum theory multiple-worlds scenario (the actual explanation for the many Margarets, offered near the end of the book, is more prosaic).

The sense of one personality taking different paths and coming to be different people is what drives the novel's narrative, and in many ways this study of the structure of character is more interesting than the background story of Earth in crisis. The seven personalities imagined by the child Margaret are healer, warrior, spy, telepath, shaman, queen, and linguist. The Margarets split at various ages, and they are given new names as part of their new identities: some, variations on "Margaret"; others, the monikers assigned in childhood to these figures. The linguist personality is the one called Margaret throughout, although it would be a mistake to see this as the core, or guiding, personality; many of the Margarets use their language skills (in some cases more than linguist-Margaret ever does). Yet I think it not insignificant that the linguist is the personality that keeps the name Margaret: it indicates the centrality of language to the novel, much of which is concerned with the relationships between personality, perception, and experience.

These range widely for the Margarets, who become interesting studies in the consequences of sacrifice and suffering, companionship and solitude, physical labour and mental exertion in shaping personality. Some are employed under exploitative conditions that approach slavery, some enter into more supportive employment as apprentices, and still others are adopted into family structures or have their own families. One even becomes male, and while it is somewhat disappointing that this path is chosen for the "warrior" personality—reinforcing gender stereotypes as it does—the possibility nonetheless offers interesting ideas about gender as a performance along the lines suggested by Judith Butler. The Margarets in this way also represents a significant departure for Tepper, who in much of her other work is concerned with distinguishing between male and female human tendencies and in linking humanity's destructive qualities to masculinity and the male sex drive in particular. This novel is similarly concerned with the existence of those who enjoy inflicting pain on others, but it ascribes that tendency to certain of the alien races more than to the flawed humans, although even within the alien races it is the males who are the aggressors.

What is most enjoyable about The Margarets is that it demonstrates Tepper's facility for using the resources of SF to complicate our understanding of species. For readers of SF, "species" is a fluid term, moving between a mundane, earthbound understanding of the word as referring to various kinds of animals and a more science-fictional use to denote alien species that are often conceived of as the human equivalents of their respective planets. Tepper plays with the full ambiguity that SF allows in thinking about the term "species" and the relations it entails, and indeed some of the characters who show kindness to animals later learn that these others are in fact alien sentients far older than humankind. Yet her point does not seem to be that it was "right" to show kindness because they turned out to be "subjects," that is, like humans; more radically, she asks us to rethink the relationship between humans and other life on our planet in terms analogous to those of the multispecies cooperatives that unite humans and aliens in her fictional worlds. The reason why humanity is a flawed species, the novel suggests, is that it destroys its environment is that it lacks a race memory, an attribute of civilised people with moral systems, which was stolen from them. We can cognitively learn that overpopulation and depletion of resources are unwise but cannot feel "in our bones," through experience, this truth. Thus the novel links its investigation of the relationship between identity and experience via the Margarets to the larger question of the consequences of human monadic identity. As with many Tepper novels, the solution The Margarets proposes relies not on a technological fix that changes the world to suit our ways but rather on a change to humankind so that we can become one species among many rather than a plague on other life. Ultimately, Tepper does enough to make us consider how different the people we see around us every day are to the humans in her novel, which leaves us with the question that matters: what can we do?


Posted by Gesanods at December 12, 2009 10:36 PM:

I should notify my girlfriend about this.

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Nic Clarke lives in Oxford, U.K., where she is using her PhD funding to assemble the world's largest pile of books-to-be-read. She has previously written for SFX and Emerald City, and spends too much time wittering on at Eve's Alexandria.

Sherryl Vint is an assistant professor at Brock University. She is currently writing Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal (Liverpool UP) and co-editing The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction. She is an editor of the journal Science Fiction Film and Television.