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.
SHERI S. TEPPER:
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.