The Big Idea: Sheri S. Tepper

Sheri Tepper is one of my favorite science fiction authors of the last double decade, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that she’s perfectly willing to ask the inconvenient questions in her books, and in answering those questions, give you a story whose narrative you don’t always expect. I first encountered her with the planetary epic Grass (which along with its quasi-sequel Raising the Stones rank in my personal Top Ten of science fiction novels) and since then have kept coming back for more. So it’s with no small pleasure that I host her here today, to discuss her latest book The Waters Rising, and the ideas within. It’s clear she’s not yet done with the inconvenient (but necessary) questions.


The big idea of The Waters Rising is the same idea The Author has been agitating about ever since she worked for CARE and then for PPWP (Planned Parenthood-World Population, which it was at the time) as a young woman.

It’s a simple idea: “Hey, people, the world is drowning . . . in people.”

Beating a dead horse: Nobody’s listening.

OH-kay. Can’t talk about that. Several religions say we can’t have too many people. Male egos (some female, too) says can’t have too many. “Lookee me, how prolific I am, world’s biggest mommy, eight at a whack, just like a mommy jack rabbit.” Instinct says can’t have too many. This was a very good instinct back when every cave held a saber-toothed tiger or a cave bear or something more deadly. Back when infections had no medications, wounds had no sutures, breaks had no casts. Back when three or four out of five humans died before they grew up. Back when creatures ate people more than the other way around. Not such a good idea now.

Talking to the wind: Nobody’s listening!

OH-kay. Leaders make pronouncements: We have to feed generations yet unborn! We have to provide for generations yet unborn! We (who?) have to do this and have to do that for generations yet unborn! Leaders are paid to say these things by the housing industry (build, build, build), the oil industry (drill, drill, drill), the all-everything-all-the-time industry (more, more, more), all for the generations yet unborn –

Just try to drown out that noise! Nobody’s listening!

OH-kay. So, generations yet unborn will inherit a barren. A warren. A world devoid of trees. A world devoid of animals. Protein grown in factories. Plastic made in factories. People living like termites in termite hills. A world in which the ocean is poisoned, in which there are no fish. ALL RIGHT! Talk about oceans. Not a flood of people, because nobody’s listening, but a flood of water. Talk about people being the prey instead of the predator. Talk about a Big Kill. About what life was like after a Big Kill. Talk about threats to the human race . . . a natural killer, the flood. An unnatural killer . . . one left over from the time before. Plus a few villains because human nature hasn’t really changed.

And a character from a time before. At the end of A Plague of Angels, Abasio, the male lead, was left alone and grieving with only his horse for company. That, too, was a world made barren by a time before. The Author had not intended him to be alone. She had thought he deserved to have his partner, but Charlie Brown (of Locus), who was visiting at the time, read the manuscript, and Charlie said she had to die. The Author did not like this at all, but what can one do when confronted with superior knowledge and firepower? The Author has felt guilty about this ever since.

So, bringing Abasio and his horse back will be a kind of expiation. They fit very nicely into that sort of world, and we let the waters rise and see what happens, with only one very definite end in mind: this time we will not kill off his beloved. The “we” referred to is the Author and the characters, because once they are on the screen—they appear, as on a TV or movie screen, in a setting and the Author’s immediate task is only to record where they are and what they are doing—they do things that they want to, even when the Author has not foreseen any such thing! They get involved with other characters; they develop their own points of view, they see fit to argue and scream and refuse to do certain things (usually something agents or editors think they should do) and eventually have a decisive voice in the matter. In the Author’s head, this character was born and reared in a certain fashion, and when this character must suddenly do something entirely different than his birth and upbringing would lead one to expect (which birth and upbringing exist, mind you, only in the Author’s head and sometimes tenuously at best), the Author feels obliged to rebirth them. Rebirthing is not done at the keyboard, obviously. It is done while sulking. In bed. Reading something else. (People unfamiliar with the Author may or may not know she is a longtime sufferer with arthritis, now having more titanium than bone in her body, so sulking in bed is not as irresponsible as it might appear in a younger and more elastic person who might choose instead to get drunk or have a fit of depression. The Author in general eschews depression as a waste of time, since she doesn’t have much more of it left.)

But of course, each rebirth is only the beginning of other problems, because the characters have to decide where the water is coming from. How high it will get. What will happen to people when it gets there. The answers are always surprising! “My heavens,” says the Author to herself, “how did that happen?” One cannot argue. It did happen. It’s right there, in black and white.  Several characters are in agreement that it did happen, and it seems fairly logical. Author in her role as inventor. But, the solution to each problem changes everything else. This summons the Author in her role as mediator. So, that, at the end, when everything is tied together fairly sensibly, the story goes forward and back, millennia, perhaps, in both directions involving unforeseen octopi and sea bottom castles and how wolves may learn to talk.

The last role is agent and editor, of course. Trying to make it all flow sensibly and of a piece. In this, thank God, we are helped by our real agents and real editors at publishing houses who are not occupied by the entire cast of characters and who are instead people of infinite tact, wisdom, and ability.


The Waters Rising: Amazon|Barnes&Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt from the novel. Visit Sheri S. Tepper’s biography page.

33 Comments on “The Big Idea: Sheri S. Tepper”

  1. I love, love, love, love, LOVE this author – she asks inconvenient questions, yes, but unlike so many, she can still tell a good story. Yay for a new book from her!

  2. I picked up this author 20 years ago by shear chance and have devoured everything she’s created that I can get my hands on (btw, she writes mysteries too).

    thanks for having her as your guest. I was thrilled to read her words.

  3. I gave up on Sheri Tepper at “A Gate to Women’s Country”, where — among other things — she had decided on a cure for the Gay. Suspended my disbelief right out the window, and I dropped the book like it had the plague.


  4. I’m sure it’s an excellent read, like the other Tepper books I’ve read, but the premise seems very dated to me, considering that the population bomb everyone was worried about in the 60’s and 70’s failed to go off — birth rates are falling all over the world, including in poor countries, and current projections say that the world population will stabilize by 2050, at around 9 billion people – and that’s without any real organized attempt to limit population growth, just people’s natural tendency to K-select as their educational levels and standards of living go up.

  5. The first time I encountered her books was with the “True Game” series; it’s still one of my favorites.

  6. Ginger: I was never very happy with that, but neither was Tepper. The issue was that she was trying to deal with a dichotomy, and it unfortunately called for black and white; the society needed for women and men who wanted what was on the other side of the wall. It was an awkward solution thrown in to acknowledge the issue. I filed it with ‘about as likely to happen as post-radiation psychic powers’ and instead contemplated the other issues she detailed.

  7. Aha! I *thought* that was Abasio from A Plague of Angels. I don’t have my copy anymore, so I couldn’t check. Tepper has the distinction of being about the only SFF writer whose book I have thrown across the room upon the Big Reveal (that would be The Family Tree), so I know she can write effectively, if at times preachingly; but considering the amount of fluff SFF that’s out, genuine “thinky” SF that intertwines issues is hard to find. For that I’m grateful.

    And I was so glad to find that Abasio had returned. Thank you!

  8. I wish there was an edit on comments. I meant “I’m grateful for Tepper’s dealing with actual issues in her books”. Not grateful that there’s tons of fluff SF out there.

  9. Stephanie: From what I remember, the cure for homosexuality was essentially a few lines early on in the book that didn’t really have much bearing on the rest of the story. If Tepper wasn’t happy with it, why include it? From what I can remember, the cure was mentioned once and never brought up again.

  10. Java Monster: I had to stop reading when I hit The Family Tree’s reveal, and go back to the beginning because I knew that if it surprised me that much, I obviously needed to read more carefully. It was a brilliantly written sneak attack.

    dunmurderin: it was added after the book was written, because an editor didn’t take it as written (which was basically a Socratic dialogue, in novel form), and started to ask about all sorts of issues external to the discussion Tepper was trying to illustrate. As to why it was done; at the point that she was selling it, all she had published were her YA True Game books, After Long Silence, and The Awakeners (Marianne and Ettison had been sold but not published yet). The Gate to Women’s Country is generally considered to be a point book; if you talk to people who have studied her, the agreement is that’s when she finally shifted into what most people consider her ‘mature’ form where she started to get much more headon with the subjects (compare the feminism of Mavin or Jinian, and the touchy feely environmentalism to the later work).

    She could totally publish that work unfettered now, but she couldn’t *then*, so when the editor started pushing, toss away lines like that were inserted.

  11. Actually, I find it interesting that in this very blog post, it gets mentioned that at the end of A Plague of Angels, Abasio was left alone, and Tepper wasn’t happy about that, though it was done on the advice of someone else, but you’re saying ‘If Tepper wasn’t happy with it, why include it?’.

    Writers don’t write in a vacuum, and sometimes they’re not happy with what they did. Sometimes they get a chance to fix it.

  12. I’m weird in that I love the reveal in ‘The Family Tree’. As well as the end of ‘The Fresco’–my favorite Tepper due to the humor.

    I didn’t like ‘The Gate to Woman’s Country’, but I need to re-read it now that I’m older.

    I thought the unhappy ending to ‘A Plague of Angels’ was super intense, but suited the book and made it more memorable, and maybe a more ‘artistic’ ending (whatever that means).

    I’m glad to see more of Abasio and am looking forward to reading this book.

    Almost all of Tepper’s books (since Grass) stay on my Keeper shelf.

  13. Stephanie: Writers don’t write in a vacuum, and sometimes they’re not happy with what they did. Sometimes they get a chance to fix it.

    True, they don’t but ultimately the decisions they make are theirs. Tepper still chose to describe homosexuality as a disorder that needed to be eradicated for the future health of humanity. As a bisexual woman who was reading the book without benefit of having studied Tepper, I found it insulting when I read it and finding out that she added stuff like that at editorial demand doesn’t make me any less insulted by it.

  14. Glad to get an insight into Tepper’s writing, and glad to see Plague Of Angels getting a sequel. I enjoy Tepper’s writing quite a lot though I agree that one book in particular led to a lot of discomfort on the part of many readers of all sexual preferences. I actually read this the same month I first read Elizabeth A Lynn’s Sardonyx Net, which is disturbing in it’s depictions of sexual sadism and twisted desire, and also Lynn’s A Different Light. I’m glad that authors I enjoy can sometimes disturb me, on different levels.

  15. I’m with dunmurderin @ 15; I found the throwaway lines about homosexuality unnecessary to the plot, and insulting. As a lesbian, I’d enjoyed reading the Mavin and Jinian books, so the undercurrent of homophobia in Gate was repellent. Back then, every positive mention of a gay or lesbian character in a book (or article, or show) was an achievement to be cheered; every negative was still par for the course. If she’d felt the need to address the issue because of editorial questions, it could just as easily have been handled in a more positive manner.

    Back to this blog post: most of the Big Idea authors have made me interested in their books; this is one that hasn’t. I’m not sold on the concept that the world is drowning in people, not when I can zoom around on Google Earth and see all the wide open spaces where humans are not.

  16. A couple of points I have concerning this novel:

    As previously stated, aren’t horrific Malthusian tales of overpopulation more than a bit dated?

    “Soylent Green is people!” sounded good in the early 70’s, but now… not so much.

    Anyone doing a bit of research on the subject will see that the birth rate in 1st world countries has fallen below the replacement rate. Current population trends show a leveling off, followed by a decline in world population happening within a century.

    Finally, as I read this entry in the “Big Idea” series, a thought kept running through my head… boy, James Jay Lee, aka the Discovery Channel eco-terrorist would have LOVED this novel!

    If it fits your taste, enjoy reading it because Tepper IS a good writer… but in this case, as in some of her other books in the past, the subject matter puts me off enough to take a pass on reading this myself.

    If I do ever decide to read this book, I’ll do it for THE SQUIRRELS!

  17. Lubert @18: the Big Idea post put me off too*, but it’s pretty darn offensive to say that it would totally have appealed to a terrorist and murderer with mental health issues.

    *Really, the idea that ‘nobody’s listening’ and ‘can’t talk about that’ are mind-boggling to anyone who has been out in public and pregnant, or appeared in public with small children. Plenty of people are more than happy to talk about that, often in as loud and ignorant a manner as possible.

  18. Ginger @ 17:
    “I’m not sold on the concept that the world is drowning in people, not when I can zoom around on Google Earth and see all the wide open spaces where humans are not.”

    I’m sure Australia never had rabbit problems, either. I mean, you could look out the window and still see the ground and not a carpet of rabbits, so it must have been fine huh? Yeah, that’s a straw man – and so was yours.

    I’m not saying we’re barreling down toward a full planetary city and living off yeast products. Or wall to wall humanity. It might be interesting to do some research about food shortages and our delivery mechanisms. Reliance on just-in-time systems and human populations heavily concentrated in urban areas (for many good, and many not so good, reasons) are a dangerous mix and vulnerable to disruption from many sources. And we’ll do well not to forget the impact of this on the ecosystem, which does minor things like the carbon/ dioxide oxygen cycle or nutrient replacement in the soil.

    @Lubert Das:

    So, the fall and leveling of birth rates in first world countries means that the third world, which massively outnumbers the first world in terms of population and average family size, will naturally follow suit? Especially as medical and technical advances allow longer periods of fertility and women surviving birthing longer, with lower infant mortality. The UN projections have numbers for low, medium, and high. The population numbers don’t drop off in the UN projections until they level in the 2040’s and possibly drop from the 2040’s to the 2080’s. A low-to-high projection range on the UN’s scale is 5.5billion(low, declining population) to 14.25 billion (high, increasing population, more than twice current).

    I have doubts about those numbers, primarily because it assumes constants that are not constants – no increase in average lifespan in other countries as medical care there progresses, etc. Even the best projections take current trends and project them forwards, since predicting future changes to those trends is limited. Not to mention major death events, such as wars, famines, droughts, plagues, what have you.

    And for the second part, same argument, straw man’d up: Wow, a book containing Christians? I bet those Planned Parenthood bombing Jesus terrorists would love it!

    Shit, eco-terrorism is usually well known to nod in the direction of Edward Abbey’s Monkeywrech Gang. And it’s even a good read.

  19. I loved Grass. It’s one of my favorite books. But this interview made me pretty sad. The Malthusian stuff laid out here is dated, and dangerous. Population isn’t the same as consumption, and neither of those are the same as politics and economics.

    All of this intellectual slipperyness over whether we are talking people having more babies and people wanting more stuff is, first of all, a little bit of a sad view of parenthood (babies aren’t stuff), and secondly a way to elide the difference between how societies are organized in terms of consumption and exploitation, and who has the power.

    And you see hints of it above, where first there’s the point that in terms of population the First World isn’t the problem, and then a suggestion that the Third World will be. That’s the logical extension of this kind of Malthusianism, but it shoudl signal why it’s so wrong: an analysis that necessarily pits the needs of the first world against the needs of the third world goes nowhere good. They are not competing for the same resources – there is a system in which one exploits the other and the mentalities of greed and excess arise from the same tendency, they are not some general condition of humanity.

    also, not really appreciating another likely “throwaway line” in this piece here – I’m sure it’s nice that the Author can eschew depression, apparently having some choice in the matter of whether she is depressed.. Perhaps she could suggest to others suffering from depression that they simply “eschew” being depressed as well? I’m sure they’ve never thought of that before.

  20. I’d have to agree, this piece sort of turned me off to the book, but I do appreciate the writer taking on an interesting topic. I don’t know the population statistics, but either way it seems like a dated topic.

  21. I initially read Still Life and after that I was hooked.

    Sadly, I’ve lent a lot of her books to people who have lost them or never returned them and they are now out of print. She is one of those authors whose books I read over and over again.

    As for the population debate, I see that as manifestation of the broader theme of self-interest that runs through her books. Over population provides the background to the environments in which her books are set. It is a familiar theme but she uses it as a springboard for launching off into fascinating tangents.

    She often plays with the paradoxes, begging the question: “They knew what the problem was. Why didn’t they just stop doing whatever it was they were doing?”. The answers in her books logically parallel the forces in the real world – lack of political will, vested interests and short-sightedness, etc., etc. If she has a message then she manages to deliver it in such a way as to make even jaded topics thought-provoking.

  22. I’ve liked the majority of her books but they have trended toward excessive ‘preachiness’ that distracts from the stories. It can be like sitting next to a vegan during a meal.

  23. Count me among those who were turned off by this piece, though for different reasons. A question for the Tepper fans here, is this piece indicative of the writing in her books? I can handle having political disagreements with an author, but I don’t think I could handle reading a book written like this.

  24. I’d have to agree, this piece sort of turned me off to the book, but I do appreciate the writer taking on an interesting topic. I don’t know the population statistics, but either way it seems like a dated topic.

  25. I don’t agree that overpopulation is a dated topic. The numbers are still rising; the fact that they are rising in parts of the world least able to sustain them doesn’t strike me as an effective argument against the problem. But aside from that, if Tepper can work her usual (to me) magic with the issue, I will be happy.

    For those wondering, she doesn’t write fiction AT ALL the way she writes in this article. This sounds more like the way she talks, shooting from the hip, trying to keep up with how fast her thoughts move. She tells a fabulous story, and if she gets too didactic for some readers, I think that’s a side effect of tackling (really tackline, not just alluding to) the tough questions.

    I had missed that she had a new book out. Thanks, Scalzi!

  26. Tepper is one of my two or three favorite authors. I have read everything she’s released back unto the Eberhart shorts. “Plague of Angels” was the one title of all of them I could not get into. I tried several times and always gave up…so she went and wrote this sequel & thus forced me to read it. Having finished it, I can’t number it among my favorites. (Those would be “Raising the Stones” “Awakeners” and “Gate to Women’s Country”–and hey, I am a gay…didn’t bother me).

    I bought this for myself for Christmas & now must wait to read it (I’m a Children’s Librarian & on an award committee for ALA which will occupy all my reading time until next January-big pout).

    Thank you John (neighbor!) for hosting this, just makes me want to read it all the more. Can’t believe I missed this post when it was new!

  27. I have tried to read everything from this author since first reading ‘The Chronicles of Mavin Manyshaped’ over 17 years ago. I even paid 1000 South African Rands for an old copy of the trilogy. (In hindsight, I was shopping on too many sites and mixed up Amazon UK and Amazon US. The UK pound and US dollar are on very different levels to the South African Rand. Ooops! But still worth it)

    I don’t ‘love’ all her work but love the message she sends in a way that makes me say ‘AHAH!!!!’. She is not always preachy and the writing is so clever and interesting that the resultant lecture is all worth it.

    Don’t be put off. Read for yourself and make a choice after.

  28. To dunmurderin, who said “…I found it insulting when I read it and finding out that she added stuff like that at editorial demand doesn’t make me any less insulted by it.”

    Well, if you’re going to let your personal sense of pique (at a third party’s decision) keep you from reading an author most everyone agrees is brilliant…suit yourself. We’ll enjoy reading an author of rare talent and skill; you can enjoy nursing your outrage.

    Everybody wins!

  29. I’ve read all of Tepper’s SF/F and she’s one of the people I pre-order automatically. In terms of the “Big Idea”, overpopulation is the consequence of her portrayal of a lack of respect for other species and those humans not like oneself. Biodiversity, genetics, the Gaia Hypothesis, technology without ethics, a deity that has no interest in individuals of a species… these are all Big Ideas explored in her work. I just finished re-reading The Visitor. I wonder if that is the same world, earlier, than Plague of Angels. She’s a very humane writer – if something leads to cruelty, intolerance, that’s a pretty good indication it’s not a good idea. I don’t think she’s didactic – in The Enigma Score, for example, no one has a monopoly on the way things are. Each contributes their own version of what’s happened, people’s motives, with greater understanding as a result.

  30. I am so late to the party here. I had to weigh in on the homophobia label wrt “The Gate to Women’s Country”. And, before I start, straight cis white female. There are two reasons I feel it was necessary: 1 The story required absolute gender binary. 2 “Warrior Culture” almost always includes “mentoring”, which was a euphamism for raping little boys. I don’t want to read a story and wonder about the raping of little boys, and I think it was important to acknowledge and remove that part of Warrior Culture so that the story could be effectively told.

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