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The Fresco by Sheri S Tepper
(Gollancz, 10.99, 406 pages, trade paperback; hardback also available, 17.99; published 15 March 2001. Mass market paperback, £6.99, published February 2002.)
cover scan

Benita Alvarez, taking time out from baby-sitting her drunken, abusive husband, encounters two aliens in the woods near her New Mexico home. The aliens, members of the benevolent Pistach race, inform her that they have come to earth to assist its development into a suitably civilized society, able to attain membership in their galaxy-spanning Confederation. They ask her to inform the authorities of their intentions, and give her money and a mysterious technological device with which to impress and convince said authorities.

From this starting point, Benita is catapulted into a world of political conspiracy and personal redemption as she jettisons her millstone of a husband and begins to assert independence and competence as the Pistachs' chosen Intermediary with the human race. It's not all plain sailing, as the Pistach are not the only aliens with an interest in earth; various 'predator' species see it as a desirable property (splendid hunting, humans are so numerous, and such good sport!), and are angling to block its membership in the Confederation.

Then again, the Pistachs' ideas about assisting the development of a civilized society take in actions such as removing the entire Old City of Jerusalem to another dimension, along with all its sacred historical monuments, until such a time as the peoples of the Near East begin acting in a more peaceable fashion, or again, inflicting every single woman in Afghanistan with a (reversible) Ugliness plague, such that they appear to their men as hideously loathsome crones, utterly incapable of inspiring desire in anything; 'you want pretty women?' say the Pistach, 'stop treating them like prisoners or livestock and blaming them for your lust'. All of this causes consternation around the world and when the alien predators get together with reactionary political forces in the USA the pressure on Benita and her friends begins to reach breaking point.

Tepper's career in Science Fiction has lasted now for nearly twenty years, and to my mind it falls reasonably neatly into two halves. For perhaps the first ten years she wrote easily accessible, innovative fantasies, such as the Land of the True Game series, or the Marianne trilogy.

After that, her work took a discernible change in direction. Contemporary or explicitly real-world settings became more common (as in Gibbon's Decline and Fall), and the fantastic or scientific elements began to run side by side with a more overt social, political and environmental agenda, (which had always been present in embryo in her earlier work).

The Fresco is a logical end-point in this ongoing trend. The setting is not simply contemporary, it's a barely disguised echo of the last days of Clinton's America, and Tepper is not hesitant about demonstrating where her sympathies lie. Likewise, her social/political agenda is not simply present, it's dominant. Benita, at times, is little more than a mouthpiece, denouncing reactionary religious, political, environmental and gender policies. Though a mouthpiece, she is at least an eloquent one, but this cannot change the fact that the message does not emerge subtly from the story; it rings out, loud and clear!

This feels like a flaw (though I'd gladly read Tepper's views on these issues in a Sunday newspaper article). Occasionally the tone of 'lecture' rises into something cleverer, and in one instance quite delightfully, wickedly witty, but by and large we are being restrainedly dictated to. Additionally, for far too much of the book, the protagonists have the upper hand. Benita is endangered, pursued and harassed, but her allies are too formidable for one to be greatly worried about her.

The Fresco is well written science fiction, and it tugs at one's attention. But it doesn't contain the same sense of tension or danger or canny political restraint that earlier works by Tepper did. If she truly aspires to reach out and change hearts and minds, then she needs to remember that fiction communicates best, has a longer lasting effect and reaches a wider readership if its message rises subtly out of its events.

Review by Simeon Shoul.

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© Simeon Shoul 10 June 2001