Six Moon Dance, Sheri S Tepper (1998)
Review by SueCCCP
The planet of Newholme was first settled hundreds of years ago, but that group of violent men vanished. The later waves of settlers had their own problems trying to develop a world strangely devoid of metals, with increasing volcanic activity and a 50% death rate amongst baby girls. The female-dominated society that has developed subordinates the men, who must remained veiled in order to prevent arousing lust in women. Marriage is an expensive business agreement designed to give the men the offspring that they want, whilst allowing women to obtain entertainment and sexual fulfillment from Consorts, sterilized men who are trained to be the perfect companion and to provide ‘compensation’ for the unpleasant business of breeding. Mouche is an only child and, as a boy, he is only a drain on resources, so he is sold to one of the Consort schools where he begins his training. He soon discovers that life on Newholme is not as it seems: another, indigenous, race lives amongst the humans, but their presence is denied, so much so that everyone over the age of seven simply does not see these ‘invisibles’.
The increased volcanic action, strange gender relations and rumors of the indigenes catch the attention of the Questioner. ‘She’ is a bionic construct, including three human female brains, that is tasked with judging societies against a set of ethical standards. She chooses a pair of humans to join her: Gandro Bao who chose to train as a Kabuki dancer, playing female roles and Ellin Voy a cloned Nordic ballet dancer. The Questioner’s arrival causes panic amongst the Hags who rule Newholme and soon Mouche joins the Questioner, Gandro, Ellin and Ornery Bastable, an orphan girl who has become a sailor and pretends to be a boy, on a quest to discover the truth behind all the problems and peculiarities.
Set in the distant future, this science fiction story includes some novel concepts, such as the idea that people are cloned, grown and trained to be authentic, living parts of history exhibits. Some of the exposition is a bit laborious, but Tepper explores gender / power relations within societies with great insight. Although I found this is very interesting it does slow down the flow of the story, and some readers could get bored in these sections. Also, she follows several strands of the story in a way that seems somewhat random at first, so, for example, we meet Ornery very early on, but then hear nothing more of her for another one hundred pages. Again, this interrupts the flow of the story and can be frustrating. However, there are nuggets of great wisdom to be found that really made me think. Some of Mouche’s training lectures on the ways in which men, women and society function are particularly enlightening, as are the Questioner’s insights into human behavior. It is also refreshing to come across aliens that are truly different in every way, not just humanoids with bumps or based upon a form of life we already understand. The misunderstandings that occur because of these differences show how difficult it is to think outside of our own experience. The characters are intriguing and engaging, even the Questioner, who is nothing like the typical cyborg / bionic constructs that plague science fiction writing. She is grouchy and funny, with a no nonsense attitude and a love of card games. The journey paints a wonderful picture of an alien world, while the ending is satisfying, bringing everything together neatly and leaving no unanswered questions. This is a work of great imagination from a writer with a profound understanding of the human condition. It is also a great read and I look forward to trying some of her other works.
This review originally appeared on Coffee, Cookies and Chili Peppers.