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The Visitor

by Sheri S Tepper

(US edition: Eos, $25.95, hardcover, 416 pages, 26 March 2002, ISBN: 0380979055. UK editions: Gollancz, hardback, £17.99, 416 pages, 18 July 2002, ISBN: 0575074159. Gollancz, trade paperback, £10.99, 416 pages, 18 July 2002, ISBN: 0575074167. Gollancz, £6.99, 407 pages, mass market paperback, 10 April 2003.)

A partly good novel that is overburdened with ideas, plotting and writing to its detriment. There are very much two parts to it. The first is an intricate realisation of cover scanhumankind recovering from a global catastrophe, seen in large part through the eyes of a girl growing up in hierarchical theocracy aimed at controlling the ill-understood vestiges of the science it blames for the catastrophe. Deviance is severely punished. Interwoven into this is the survival of a group of pre-catastrophe scientists, although it is uncertain how and whether they have survived, as well as suggestions of various kinds of magic, whose nature and reality is unclear.

The physical details and belief system of the world are made simultaneously convincing and fascinating. For instance the sick and deviant are 'bottled', which people seem to believe means that their souls or essence is preserved in a glass container. Is this nonsense, magic or science? It takes ages to find out. The descriptive writing about scenes and things is often wonderful, although sometimes overwritten. Trying to understand what is going on in this believable yet fantastic and confusing world kept me reading. The plot builds and builds towards an anticipated, uncertain climax. What is going to happen?

What happens, once the heroine and friends leave the well-depicted society, is a rather disappointing sword and sorcery type war between good and evil. It turns out that the asteroid that crashed into the Earth carried goodies and baddies of the highly developed species that seem like gods and demons to us variety. They have been lurking about for various inscrutable if not unbelievable purposes for centuries. Some of the baddies feed on pain. The goodies for some reason need various godlike powers to become embodied in specific people -- who turn out to be many of the main protagonists so far. Weakly plotted coincidence or destiny; only God knows the difference. Goodies and baddies clash. At first it doesn't go the goodies' way, horrible monsters are described unpleasantly. Secondary characters suffer and die unpleasantly. Hordes of spear carriers are crushed, eaten, etc. Bad people must be punished so die even more unpleasantly. Once the whole set of godlike power folk is collected together they trash the level boss baddies fairly easily.

During this conflict, the workings of the world so interestingly depicted in the first part of the book are explained. Unfortunately, these workings are too complex to follow, grandiose even by SF/ fantasy standards and did not convince me. Also, given the complexity of the world depicted, the morality is childishly crude. Pain and suffering are bad. Ignorance is bad. Bad people/things/demons etc must be destroyed without a moment's qualm because THEY ARE EVIL! Indeed mopping up all the baddies in various ways takes quite a bit of paper. The book is at its best earlier on when it shows more and explains less. A more satisfactory plot could have been built with a much less meglomaniacal climax. I just wanted the heroine to triumph over her wicked stepmother and the corrupt regime to be shaken or shattered. Instead we somewhat unexpectedly get Armageddon. The attempt to mix magic and SF was challenging but I felt that it tried to have it both ways too often -- 'scientific' bases for things when convenient, inexplicable powers when not convenient or to make a good image or scene.

As often with established writers, the book would have benefited from vigorous editing. It is over 400 pages long and not all of it is necessary; there is a surfeit of imagination. Sometimes it makes no sense: "They climbed scaffolding of opinion toward a goal she could not even imagine" (p45). Come again? By the final page I had not found it consistently enjoyable enough to read to forgive its basic pointlessness. A pointlessness that was disappointing because the first part of the book is so full of imaginative promise. But then more becomes less.

Review by Richard Hammersley.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

  • non-fiction - more reviews of the work of Sheri S Tepper, including another view of The Visitor.

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