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Raising the Stones

[Raising the Stones] Raising the Stones
by Sheri S. Tepper
Published by Doubleday, 1990
453 pages
Amazon.co.uk: paperback
Recommended by: Greg Slade

I should probably state, right up front, that I started to get annoyed with Tepper long before she started to get into the themes which make her work so controversial, namely the relationship between the sexes and nature of religion. What annoyed me was the science in this book. Or, to be more precise, the lack thereof.

The characters inhabit a solar system – distant from earth but in contact with it – which has multiple inhabited planets. Some very large, some very small. And yet everyone can walk around with no apparent discomfort due to niggling little details, like maybe the planets which most nearly orbit the central star might be just a wee bit hotter than the ones on the fringes of the system, or that those fringe planets might get just a tad nippy of an evening, or that any atmosphere surrounding a body in the asteroid belt might just consider something like, say, evaporating into space because there isn't enough gravity to encourage it to stick around. Now, granted, science fiction is littered with authors who indulge in what's become known as "hand waving": they know that there's a problem, but they can't get around it, so they present the reader with some imaginary technology to deal with the problem, even though they haven't the faintest idea of how such a technology might work. Technologies like faster-than-light drives, artificial gravity, or Star Trek's "transporters" are all quite imaginary technologies, but accepted as standard science fiction props, because without them, it's much harder to make stories work. Science fiction, even the worst dreck you can fling against a wall in disgust, usually makes some pretence at having some scientific explanation for the impossibilities necessitated by the plot. Tepper doesn't indulge in hand-waving on these issues. In fact, she gives no sign that she is even aware that the issues exist. This makes it very difficult for me to take her work at all seriously as science fiction. (Now, had she chosen to write a fantasy, with magical transportation between her assorted scenes, I would have had fewer quibbles, because the rules are a good deal more lax in fantasies.)

When it comes to her discussion of the relationship between the sexes, I'm afraid I find it difficult to take her very seriously there, either. The "bad guys" (and, in this work, they are very definitely "guys") are so obviously straw men, drawn to be so irredeemably evil, that they simply cannot be taken seriously. If the intent is (as it seems to be) to warn of the dangers of certain belief systems in the real world, that effort is seriously weakened by the gross distortions of the characters. The general argument seems to be that men (all men) are simply too violent by nature to be allowed to play with sharp objects, or even allowed to play quietly by themselves. If there is not a woman in charge, men will inevitably ruin everything. Those who subscribe to the doctrine of some people who call themselves feminists, namely that all men are jerks, might consider Tepper daring and insightful. Male chauvinists might consider her shrill and man-hating. I belong to neither camp, and my criticism is best put by the rejection note I collected myself from the editors of Analog a few years back: "Does not convince."

When it comes to religion, I had higher hopes. Tepper comes up with some interesting ideas. First, there are the alien gods which are "adopted" by the human settlers on one world. They don't seem to make any moral demands, and don't ask for much of anything beyond the occasional sacrificial animal. (And, since the animals in question are pests, sacrificing them is no... er... sacrifice.) The settlers don't come up with any elaborate belief system related to these gods. The gods just seem to... work. On another planet, there is the extremely nasty and misogynist religion of the aforementioned "bad guys." On still a third planet, there is a religion based upon the firm rejection of any form of religious or mental coercion. The three religions are bound to collide, and they do, in somewhat unexpected ways. I was expecting some interesting interaction with ideas, like the differences between appearance and reality, just where the limits of religious tolerance lie, how to deal with people you can't get along with when driving them out or destroying them are not viable options, and so on. Unfortunately, Tepper uses the differences between the religions to bring them into conflict, and then drops the discussion. Once the conflict starts, religion plays no part in how the conflict plays out, or in resolving it. Then again, that may have been intentional. It may have been Tepper's intent to express the idea that all religions, even the one she seems to have been portraying as benign, inevitably lead to conflict, and thus any kind of religion is bad. Certainly the religion she seems to be portraying as benign has some disturbing elements to it, but she never does develop those elements, so that message, if it is in fact her message, is somewhat muted.

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