Despite the fact that her basic messages change little from novel to novel, and that she sometimes tends to pummel you with them until you feel you've stumbled into an epic public service commercial for Planned Parenthood or M.A.D.D., Sheri S. Tepper has nevertheless earned a solid reputation as a skilled storyteller whose venues -- both in terms of setting and genre -- are all but unpredictable from novel to novel, and sometimes even within the same novel (Beauty remains one of the genre-hopping masterpieces of the last 20 years). Her stories attach themselves to strong, passionate, intelligent characters (nearly always women) who must face the challenge of maintaining a consistent moral and intellectual purpose while the very terms of the narrative they are in shifts around them -- a fairy tale world one minute, a hard SF novel the next, a grim dystopia the next. One sometimes gets the impression that the incidents and characters in a Tepper novel are not so much plotted as herded, toward a particular rhetorical point that she's had in mind all along, and that she feels must be approached from a variety of angles. This shaggy unpredictability is part of the fun, of course, as is the earnest rhetoric, the admirable characters, and -- what is perhaps the aspect of her work least celebrated among her admirers -- the sometimes hilarious and unfailingly acerbic element of satire. The latter is especially evident in The Fresco, which is Tepper's funniest book to date, and -- despite the nostrum that satire is what closes on Saturday night -- possibly her most commercially viable as well. The novel is loaded with wicked wish-fulfillment fantasies, poetic ironies, feel-good moments, and spot-on speechifying, and it features as colorful a variety of aliens and alien societies as any of her earlier novels. And it's also, in its linear narrative lines and simple bold contrasts, a comic book, which for many readers will call to mind such comic-book movies as Men in Black and Predator, as well as more august literary antecedents from Swift and Vonnegut to Octavia E. Butler. It's easily Tepper's most movie-ready novel, and, with the possible exception of Gibbon's Decline and Fall, her most accessible.
As I mentioned above, Tepper needs a strong central character to hold everything together, and Benita Alvarez-Shipton, a bright and resourceful New Mexico bookstore clerk trapped in an unrewarding marriage to a drunken bum, is one of her strongest and most appealing. Alone in the woods one day, Benita is confronted by two aliens calling themselves Chiddy and Vess, representatives of the Pistach people, who announce that they have chosen her to act as their principal agent on earth, and to convey their greetings, in the form of a strange little cube, to Washington. They also present her with an envelope containing a hundred thousand dollars in cash, which enables her not only to get to Washington, but to escape her abusive husband Bert once and for all, while disguising her true location even from her college-student son and daughter. Once in Washington, where she takes a job as a bookstore clerk and rents an apartment above the store, Benita begins to encounter the characters that give the novel its contemporary satirical edge -- a corrupt fake-Hispanic congressman, an absurdly hawkish general, another ultra-right-wing congressman, a surprisingly intelligent and sympathetic President and First Lady, and an attractive FBI agent assigned to protect her. When the aliens appear at a White House dinner (in the form of two Indian women; they can assume different appearances at will, and one of them regularly shows up to Benita as Tyrone Power), their offers of new technology and solutions to intractable social problems seems almost too good to be true, but they live up to their own billing as fully as Clarke's Overlords in Childhood's End. Their initial demonstration of their powers seems ominous: they cause the entire city of Jerusalem to disappear, leaving only a crater (remarkably, all the residents are saved), and they cause all the oppressed women of Afghanistan to suddenly appear to their husbands as unbearably ugly and smelly hags (Chiddy and Vess explain that the Afghani women will grow prettier as soon as their human rights are fully restored). But soon they begin presenting almost magical, if sometimes harsh, solutions to a host of social problems, from drug trafficking to alcoholism to prisons to education. For example, they view ''breeding madness'' as one of the more debilitating disorders of human society, and see nothing wrong with castration as a solution.
Their goal, of course, is to whip us into shape for entry into that same galactic community that seems to show up in just about every friendly-alien story set on a near-future earth. But there's also a more ominous side to their visit: other alien races, already responsible for a series of brutal attacks in remote areas (with the victims, conveniently, ecological thugs of various sorts), view the earth less as a potential trading partner than as a juicy snack table, with humans the main hors d'oeuvres. These aliens, with names like Mrrgrowr and Odiferous Tentacle, have made alliance with a right-wing militarist conspiracy within the U. S. government in order to sign treaties that will grant them full hunting rights, especially in third-world and nonwhite countries. Eventually, still a third group of aliens shows up, the Inkleozese, universally respected for their wisdom and skills as mediators. The only problem with the Inkleozese delegation is that they reproduce by finding host animals for their eggs, which gestate for a year before the young hatch and eat their way out, and all the representatives sent to earth are females in the stage of their reproductive cycle which requires them to find hosts. In the novel's most irresistible stroke of poetic justice, the host animals chosen are all plump pro-life male politicians and other public figures who have argued loudly about the rights of the unborn and the concomitant lack of rights of women to terminate unwanted pregnancies. With the cool logic of the observer, the Inkleozese assume that such men would be fully cooperative and entirely protective of their grubs.
Part of the reason the bad aliens (who really begin to act like figures from Men in Black, complaining about the bad flavor of alcoholics and smokers and reassuring themselves that the kids will eat anything) begin to gain a foothold is that the Pistach are facing political problems of their own back on the home planet. Their entire moral philosophy, including their passionate sense of mission as galactic caseworkers, is derived from a single giant fresco painted so long ago that its images have long since disappeared under layers of soot from the candles of the worshipful. The Pistach regard the fresco as too sacred to touch, even to clean, and their understanding of its meaning derives entirely from ancient commentaries. Now a group of iconoclastic rebels plan to clean the mural, with the intention of proving the entire Pistach belief system to be constructed on false premises. Benita, who along with her son and Chad, the cute FBI agent, have been granted a visit to Pistach, as well as other planets, arrives just in time for the rebel takeover, and she eventually hatches an elaborate and unlikely scheme to preserve the self-respect of the Pistach (who, once the fresco is revealed, turn out to be truly lousy artists) while saving the earth. There is more than a bit of Wizard of Oz medal-pinning in Tepper's upbeat you-are-what-you-pretend-to-be denouement, but at the same time the notion of a religion whose integrity seems to depend on never actually seeing its own holiest document is terrifically suggestive. The Fresco may not offer the stern, provocative challenges of much of Tepper's fiction, and it may not have much to say that is new to her readers in terms of social and psychological reforms -- though she does offer more direct prescriptions here than usual -- but it is probably the most purely enjoyable of her novels to date, and certainly one of the wittiest.
Gary K. Wolfe