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The Visitor
Sheri S. Tepper
Victor Gollancz, 416 pages

The Visitor
Sheri S. Tepper
Sheri Stewart Tepper was born (in 1929) and raised in Colorado. For many years, she worked for various non-profit organizations, including the international relief organization, CARE, and she was the executive director of Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood, responsible for the administration of about 30 medical clinics in Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico. In 1983, she left her job to become a full-time writer. She is the author of several acclaimed novels, including The Family Tree, Gibbon's Decline and Fall, Shadow's End, A Plague of Angels, Sideshow, and Beauty, which was voted Best Fantasy Novel of the Year by the readers of Locus magazine. She has also published novels using the pseudonyms of E.E. Horlak, B.J. Oliphant and A.J. Orde.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Raising the Stones
SF Site Review: Beauty
SF Site Review: The Fresco
SF Site Review: Singer from the Sea
SF Site Review: Six Moon Dance
SF Site Review: The Family Tree
SF Site Review: Gibbon's Decline and Fall

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

In The Visitor Sheri Tepper once again amply displays why she is one of the more popular and prominent voices in contemporary speculative fiction.  Turning to an old and familiar theme readily telegraphed by the title, the author reinvests yet another alien visit to our planet, a contact that will result in cataclysmic consequences.  In Tepper's tale, a giant ship inexorably plummets to Earth, plunging both the world and humanity into perpetual twilight and chaos.  While small groups of scientists have prepared for the crisis, constructing underground redoubts as repositories of knowledge and a cryo-suspension shelter for a chosen few, most of humanity are far from as fortunate.  Those not killed outright by the impact soon succumb to the resulting climate change, or alternatively find themselves victims of starvation and disease.  Monsters, both human and otherwise, arise during the darkness.  By the time the skies eventually clear many years after, much of North America lies submerged beneath new seas, the remaining small pockets of humanity dwelling in remote and isolated locations, tribal and often hostile to those outside their own communities.  The pre-Happening world has for the most part long been forgotten, or if recalled at all, viewed through a lens of distorted myth and legend.  A millennium has passed.

One such community is Bastion, home to the Spared.  Guarded against outside or corrupting influences, Bastion's religious elite devote their energies to a study of the Ephemeral and Inexplicable Arts, hoping one day to regain the magic lost during the Happening and renew their knowledge of humanity's earlier "angelic" skills.  Divided into three tribes "named after commands in the old hymn: the Turnaways, the Come Adores [Comadors], and the Praisers," society is rigidly structured and controlled, un-Regimic behavior punished by Chairing, the deformed Bottled at birth.  No one is "allowed to die all at once" in the Regime, living cells instead removed and stored in sacred bottle walls awaiting some future resurrection when Rebel Angels will return. Adhering to the prescriptions set out in the Dicta, every aspect of life is looked after or scrutinized by a bureaucracy of quasi-religious offices: the Bureau of Happiness and Enlightenment; the Department of Death Prevention; the Office of Personnel Allocation; the Office of Chair Support; Bottle Maintenance; the Office of Conformity Assurance; etc.  And the city of Strong Hold bears a passing resemblance to Gormenghast, with its Fortress' great and labyrinthine chimney and a culture dedicated to social engineering entangled in a ritualistic breeding between sorcery and religious belief.

Into this world steps Dismé Latimer, a strange child orphaned within the Spared's conformity.  Left in the malicious care of a stepsister she suspects of killing her father and brother, Dismé has adapted by making herself innocuous, never drawing attention to herself.  In a world in search of magic, Dismé hides what she can see: the horned demons that frequent the margins of her village, the spirits that linger undetected in the early dawn and twilight.  She does not reveal the small flame she can summon into the palm of her hand: without a permit such magic is forbidden.  Instead, Dismé seeks to survive by attracting no notice, but unbeknownst to her, she has already simply by her name, garnered the attention of one from whom she would most wish to stay undiscovered.

As in much of Tepper's work, the author skillfully blends settings of science fiction with elements more commonly associated with fantasy.  Bastion and the world of The Visitor are decidedly medieval in appearance and structure, with the society's obsession with sorcery only further contributing to a sense of the magical.  The figure and grim incantations of Gohdan Gone could easily grace the pages of high fantasy without causing anyone to blink, and the mythos and prophecies tied to some legendary Council of Guardians bearing names such as Elnith of the Silences and Rankivian the Gray seem to beg for a fantasy setting.  Yet interjected within this fantastic backdrop pings echo back images, recorded by scientific survivors of the 21st century hidden deep within their bunker redoubts, silently, unobserved monitoring mankind's progress while awaiting the right moment to reveal themselves and usher back the knowledge and technology of a past millennium.  The past has been preserved in the present.

More, the themes are purely contemporary.  Tepper uses her backward society to extend current arguments of the religious right to their ontological conclusion: if "one cell is a human being," then "A life is a life.  Whether it has a body or a mind doesn't matter so long as it's living!... The cell is the life, and the life is the soul."  This belief provides a justification and rationale for an ongoing trade in living body parts, as well as the basis for the Bottling of those regarded as unproductive or supernumerary.  Theological doctrines and social dogma allow the author to create a triune of critically counterpoised beliefs and heresies between man's current conceptions of magic, religion and science, often blurring the boundaries between one and another, at least in terms of their advocates.  The unforeseen results and evolution of social engineering are largely scifi.  But there is a spiritual element contained in Tepper's writing that would hardly afford comfort to fans of hard science, any more than its new age undertones would accommodate the more conservative traditions of fantasy, unless through some hybridization of new age and faerie, a miscegenation some might find natural.

As always, the author's greatest strengths are exhibited in her imaginative use of metaphor and symbol, supported by a story that, just as it seems familiar, takes off in unexpected directions.  Throughout, Tepper maintains a firm grasp of her narrative, stumbling only near the end when the Visitor is finally revealed, apparently feeling compelled to resort to admonitory and explanatory discourse, which, as is often the case, distracts in its artifice and deflates much of the energy of the story up to that point.  Nonetheless, this is a very rich and successful novel, intriguingly plotted and populated, both in characters and ideas.  Fans of the author's work should be delighted, as should many readers of traditional fantasy and what some have called soft science fiction.  Ms. Tepper continues her versatile, artfully poised crossover between the two genres, creating a work that is likely to be regarded as one of the better books of the year.

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.

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