Singer from the Sea
Sheri S. Tepper
Sheri S. Tepper writes the sort of books that science-fiction fans deeply believe they should enjoy in order to prove that they are more enlightened and open-minded than the folks who buy mainstream fiction. Her work, which now numbers a dozen or so novels in print, almost universally seeks to subvert traditional gender roles, a device that almost always makes SFers feel warm and fuzzy, not to mention downright superior to the mundane masses who pick up Harlequin romances and Stephen King blockbusters.
Beauty is arguably Tepper's best-known book and the one that has received the most critical acclaim; it tosses fairy-tale formulas on their heads, showing that women still get screwed after they find their prince. Her more recent books, including The Family Tree and Gibbon's Decline and Fall, rely on the woman-as-victim theme as well but also weave in a woman-as-Mother Earth thread that is probably as old as, well, Earth.
Despite Tepper's reliance on these shopworn themes -- which were thoroughly explored in the science-fiction field concurrent with the feminist movement of the '70s -- her work is still compulsively readable. Tepper has a knack for knocking the serial numbers off the whole "women good, men bad" theme, twisting around some of the particulars and turning phrases with the skill of a master craftsperson. Her most recent paperback release, Singer From the Sea, runs true to the author's form.
Singer takes us to Haven, a planet somewhere way out in the reaches of space (we're never really told where). Old white men rule the roost in Haven and will go to any lengths to keep young, nubile girls under their collective thumbs, mostly because said girls help keep the old men young by . . . well, you have to read the book for the explanation. It's the central mystery around which Tepper drapes her subplots, which involve a girls' school, some warriors, and -- I kid you not -- dolphins and the "spirit of the earth." Her reliance on these feel-good aphorisms makes you wonder when she'll trot out some rainbows and unicorns, just so the reader will know how good and virtuous her characters' quests are.
As annoying as her New Age-y symbols can be, Tepper's way with the language is still admirable. Descriptions such as "Wigham was a long-armed and stringy fellow who leapt through life with a jerky lack of conviction, like a marionette handled by an unpracticed puppeteer" can't help but suck you in. And her storylines, while predictable in characterization and tone, don't quite go where you expect them to, a pleasant surprise most of the time. Those surprises and her crystalline writing should be the cause for praise, rather than her reliance on prefab feminism that doesn't explore the real boundaries of sex and power.