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Speaking to the Universe

(excerpted from Locus Magazine, September 1998)
Sheri S. Tepper
    Photo by Charles N. Brown

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Sheri S. Tepper was born Shirley Stewart Douglas, July 16, 1929, near Littleton, Colorado. She married for the first time at age 20, but divorced ''when I was 26 or 27, so I became a single mother of two kids, and spent ten years on my own, working all kinds of different jobs.'' That included a clerical job with international relief agency CARE, but her major career was with what was then called Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood, where she stayed for 24 years (1962-1986), eventually becoming Executive Director. She married Gene Tepper in the late '60s. She runs a guest ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

As Sheri S. Eberhart, she wrote some poetry and children's stories in the early '60s, including ''Lullaby, 1990'' in the December 1963 Galaxy, but devoted most of her time to her children and the job with Planned Parenthood, until the early '80s. The first fantasy novel she wrote was The Revenants, but the Ace editor thought it was too complicated for a first novel, so she quickly wrote the ''True Game'' books: King's Blood Four and Necromancer Nine (both 1983), and Wizard's Eleven (1984). Other YA series books, featuring Jinian, Marianne, and Mavin Manyshaped, followed, along with a few standalone books including The Revenants (1984) and After Long Silence (1987). Tepper did not receive much critical attention until after retiring to become a full-time writer she produced SF novel The Awakeners (1987, originally published as two volumes: Northshore and Southshore), The Gate to Women's Country (1988), and Grass (1989). Most of her notable later novels are also SF (though some have enough elements of fantasy to bemuse reviewers). They include Raising the Stones (1991), Beauty (1991, winner of the 1992 Locus Award for Best Fantasy), A Plague of Angels (1993), Sideshow (1992, completing the trilogy with Grass and Raising the Stones), Shadow's End (1994), Gibbon's Decline and Fall (1996), The Family Tree (1997), and Six Moon Dance (1998). She has also written horror as E.E. Horlak, and mysteries under the pseudonyms A.J. Orde and B.J. Oliphant.

''Science fiction still is an idea genre, but early on it was to think up ideas about differences, and now it's to try to solve problems. Most of what I read now is that kind. I'm trying to remember what I absolutely loved when I was a kid. The works of A. Merritt were ones I adored. These were, as I recall, mythic romances, almost without exception. There was always a big male/female love affair going on at the heart of those books. And of course I loved C.S. Lewis. I ignored the religious part, but I liked the rest of it, the idea of this country where animals could talk. I loved the 'Oz' books, of course. They were a big part of my growing up. William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land always meant an enormous amount to me one of the dullest books ever written, and one of the most fascinating. I've read it again and again. Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright was another of my favorites, and I found many of the ideas in that so sensible, it made so much more sense than what my grandmother and mother were telling me. These were the books I went back to again and again. I think I still have them all.

''I know I continually pound on the same themes, because they're things I care about deeply. Those are the soapboxes. But when the stories get too similar, begin to feel like the same book, that is when I am dissatisfied. I want to be sure it's something at least a little fresh and new, in approach or idea. I know some critics have said some of them are way too polemical, and I'm sure they are. I have a feeling I would have done a better literary job if I had been able to avoid polemicizing. I have thought on occasion that I wish I hadn't written a book that year. But having formed the habit of writing every day, it's a hard habit to break, and I'm not sure I want to. So for me, it may be important to write a book that doesn't come up to what I would like to have, rather than to write no book at all.

''To me, fantasy has always been the genre of escape, science fiction the genre of ideas. So if you can escape and have a little idea as well, maybe you have some kind of a cross-breed between the two.

''There's some of that in Six Moon Dance as well. The young man Mouche is sold into being a consort, because the women on that particular planet are entitled to have consorts. They marry, they give their husbands children, and their husbands are men of business much too busy to give their women any pleasure, so in the marriage contract it says that after so many years of marriage, she may have a consort. And young Mouche, because his family is very poor and they desperately need the money, is sold to a consort academy to be made into a consort. It was kind of fun, working with that!

''I'm not sure a world run by women would be any better. They're human beings! What I'd really like to see, and what I think we should have maybe in this country to start with, or in one of its states is for men to elect a male legislature and a male president, and women to elect a female legislature and a female president. All issues to do with men ought to be decided by the male legislature, and all issues to do with women by the female legislature. And then there should be joint committees to work out any problems, and the male and female presidents should operate as sort of a team. This would give women what they ought to have: absolute numerical parity in the political process. (Though I'm not sure they'd make any better sense than men do.)

''I know there are writers who say they have no social responsibility except to write a good book, but that doesn't satisfy me. I've written all my life, but before 1983, with Planned Parenthood, I was a pamphleteer, a sermonizer, a speech-giver, a person who wagged her finger under people's chins and said, 'Now see here!'

''I happen to be obsessed by some subjects. There's the whole card of environmental issues, the extinction of species after species. To my mind, the expression of divinity is in variety, and the more variable the creation, the more variable the creatures that surround us, botanical and zoological, the more chance we have to learn and to see into life itself, nature itself. If we were just human beings, living in a spaceship, with an algae farm to give us food, we would not be moved to learn nearly as many things as we are moved by living on a world, surrounded by all kinds of variety. And when I see that variety being first decimated, and then halved and I imagine in another hundred years it may be down by 90% and there'll be only 10% of what we had when I was a child that makes me very sad, and very despairing, because we need variety. We came from that, we were born from that, it's our world, the world in which we became what we have become.

''The only people who have the long view are some scientists and some science fiction writers. I have always lived in a world in which I'm just a spot in history. My life is not the important point. I'm just part of the continuum, and that continuum, to me, is a marvelous thing. The history of life, and the history of the planet, should go on and on and on and on. I cannot conceive of anything in the universe that has more meaning than that.

''What do I have to say to the universe? A soul ought to have something to say to the universe if it's going to be immortal. But the world has something to say to the universe, all of these systems have things to say to the universe, and we're part of that. You go in the ground, and the grass grows over your bones, and that's good too! I take a lot more comfort out of that than I would out of some notion of the feathery form rising up, strumming a harp. Harp music can get dreadfully dull!

''I'm now working on the third of a three-book contract. I don't like writing to contracts. Most of my books I have written and then sold, not sold and then written. But this contract involved moving to a new publishing house, and some other things. I fulfilled two of the books with The Family Tree and Six Moon Dance. The last one I'm almost finished with. The working title is Singer From the Sea.''

© 1998 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.