Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, Sheri S Tepper (1996)
Review by Cheryl Morgan
North America, 1959, a group of young college girls meet for the first time and become friends. One of their number, Sophy, is stunningly beautiful and scared stiff of boys. In order to protect her from the endless stream of suitors, her friends give her a make-over so that she looks dowdy. Along with the poorly fitting clothes and glasses, they advise her to carry a large, heavy book everywhere so as to look studious. The book in question is The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. It becomes a symbol for the group, and they form a club, the Decline and Fall Club, in which they swear to each other to stand on their own two feet as women and not Decline or Fall from that noble position.
As many of you will know, Sherri Tepper is one of my favourite authors. Her early fantasy stuff is, I’m told, not very good. I haven’t gone back to check this. I was introduced to her work with Grass, which was a Hugo nominee. Since then she has produced a series of fine novels that combine SF and fantasy themes and most of which have a sharp feminist edge to them. Of particular note are The Gate to Women’s Country, which is a thoughtful, and sometimes hilarious, look at a feminist utopia, and Beauty, a startling re-interpretation of the Sleeping Beauty story which lives up to its name. Tepper has her faults, and we’ll come back to a few of them later, but I always look forward to a new novel from her with considerable eagerness.
Forty-one years later, the girls are grown older, wiser and, inevitably, sadder, but they still try to adhere to their vow. Once a year they meet up at the home of one member and assure their friends that they have not Declined nor Fallen in the intervening months. And for most of them that is mostly true.
Carolyn is married and has an adult daughter. When her husband retired from the FBI she gave up her legal career and moved to the country with him. Ophelia is married too, to a famous journalist who is never home, but she is still working: a doctor in the Manhattan South Receiving Infirmary (Misery to its staff). Bettiann’s husband is in advertising. She does not work, having swapped the endless round of beauty pageants her mother had forced her through for the equally artificial life of a society hostess. She is still bulimic. Jessamine keeps company with the chimps and monkeys who are her research subjects as she struggles to unravel the mysteries of genomes. The primates make better company than her drunken, philandering husband. Agnes, married to God, is now head of her abbey, which also happens to run one of the best oyster farms in an America whose coastal waters can no longer support fish. Faye, still a militant lesbian, is now an internationally respected sculptress.
And Sophy? Frightened, uncomprehending Sophy? Thoughtful, questioning Sophy? Sophy, who travelled the world recording stories of man’s inhumanity to woman? Sophy who spent all the money she got from her books establishing shelters for battered wives? Sophy lost hope. There was a bridge, a fast flowing river, an abandoned car. Sophy, it would appear, had Declined and Fallen, terminally.
Much of Tepper’s Science Fiction is written in answer to the question `How might Society be changed?’.
That was Anne Wilson, from a long and perceptive article on Tepper in Attitude #8. It is spot on, as is Anne’s contention that Tepper’s answers to this question are frequently unacceptable. She has tried covert social engineering, submission to a parasitic mind-controlling fungus, wiping out most of the population and, in her previous novel, Shadow’s End, God turning up in person to flush His failed experiment down the plug hole of the universe. The majority of this has been done in a science fantasy setting.
Gibbon’s Decline and Fall is different. Whereas before Tepper has always used an invented setting to detail the villainy of her enemies (primarily males and patriarchal religions), the new book is set fair and square in our world. The onset of the Millenium is used as the pretext for postulating a resurgence of the type of ideas she despises, but she has needed no artifice to find examples of evil with which to terrify us. Any reader of the excellent Marie Claire could have done the same thing: brides burned for their dowries in India, girls “circumcised” in the Sudan, girl babies exposed in China so that their parents can try again to make their single allowed child a boy, raped women jailed in Pakistan for their “immorality”, doctors at abortion clinics murdered by religious mobs, and unmarried mothers deprived of welfare in the supposedly enlightened west to discourage them from breeding again. In many ways the real world is more horrible than anything a fantasy author can imagine.
But, as usual, Tepper has no easy solution, no evolutionary path to a better society. Is she really as despairing as she makes out? Does she really want some avenging angel to come down from Heaven and cleanse the world of its wickedness? I can’t tell, but I would love to get to talk to her and ask.
Shortly before the annual DFC meeting, Carolyn is asked to take on a new case. An uneducated girl, without even the sense to know she was pregnant, gave birth to her rape-engendered child in a quiet alley and disposed of the unpleasant, bloody lump in a nearby skip. The local District Attorney, a known misogynist, has taken on the prosecution as part of a moral crusade aimed at boosting his chances of being elected Governor. Carolyn calls on her friends for help. But there is much more to the case than meets the eye. Her opponent is but a tool for the vast and shadowy American Alliance which masterminds right wing groups around the world. How can six old women living on past idealism hope to challenge an international conspiracy?
Perhaps Sophy would have known, but she is dead, isn’t she? The women are not so sure. They have been having visions, and the body was never found. Perhaps they should check up on their old friend, but how? She came, she said, from an obscure Amerindian tribe in New Mexico. But how much did they really know about her? Who was she?
Needless to say, it is Tepper, the writing is wonderful, the emotion it generates is intense. I loved it. But ever since my long and fascinating discussion with David Brin about Glory Season I have had new criteria by which to judge feminist SF. Once again, Tepper fails on both counts.
On fairness, yes she does have some good men: Carolyn’s husband and friends are solid, reliable and caring. But there are no bad women. Sure some of them are taken in by the lies men have fed them and slot apparently happily into their controlled lives, some of them are just too poor, stupid and desperate to know better, but none of them are ever motivated by greed to share in the oppression. Tepper, it would seem, has never heard of Margaret Thatcher. And, as I have already said, she once again falls back on the unacceptable solution.
Maybe I am an idealist, maybe I am just young and foolish, but I don’t want to give up looking for a solution that does not involve mass disease, death and destruction. And I don’t believe that any answer we come up with in that way can be any better than what we have now. Unacceptable solutions lead to unacceptable results. I will keep reading Sherri Tepper’s books in the hope that she manages to find an answer that is less apocalyptic, and I will continue to enjoy her fine writing. But I think I will continue to be sad and disappointed by her endings.
This review originally appeared on Emerald City.