Fish Tails – Sheri S. Tepper

Plague of Angels #3

With the world slowly flooding, Abasio, his wife Xulai, and their two amphibian children travel the world promoting preparation for eventual submersion. They encounter both enemies and friends from unexpected places – including another Tepper series.

Fish Tails comes with an Author’s Note, to be read after digesting the 600+ pages of the book. It’s a mildly interesting Note, in that it clearly delineates the sequence and links between the True Game and Plague of Angels series. What surprised me most about the Note, though, is what it doesn’t do, which is to give any indication at all that this book was written by someone other than Sheri Tepper. By page 300, I’d have put money on that idea.

I’m a big fan of Tepper’s work. She’s heavy-handed with her philosophy, and monotonous in her politics, but I agree with a lot of what she says, and the rest is at least interesting. Her books are low on humor, but intelligent. She’s such a good writer that, despite their drawbacks, the books are usually very good – The Revenants and the Awakener series are exceptions. Sadly, the entire Plague of Angels series has been another exception, and this book tops (bottoms?) the lot.

First, this is one of Tepper’s most unabashedly message-driven books. For the uninitiated, here’s a primer on the Tepperian outlook:

  1. Humans are screwing up the world very badly because they are foolish and lack foresight.
  2. Religion is foolish.
  3. a. Men are inherently violent and led by their genitals , but can be redeemed.

    b. Women are inherently gentle and thoughtful, but can be corrupted.

Don’t worry if you don’t commit the concepts to memory right away. If you read this book, you’ll be hit over the head with them several times per chapter – usually at length, and most often repeating comments made earlier – several times.

The philosophy is (in my view) often correct, but also inconsistent – for example, it’s important to take the long view, to consider consequences, and to adapt to the environment, but a key ‘good’ character at one point paves a road by mistake, and essentially says ‘oh well’, completely disregarding the impact on the environment; also, religion is essentially a delusion perpetuated by men, but there is a Creator indifferent to humans, and we should just take that on faith; men should respect and share equally with women, and should restrain their coarse and brutish impulses, but infant boys need ‘more masculine’ clothing than girls; when a community has done evil, we can assume the men have done it, and the women should be rescued; evil is essentially genetic – eugenics is a good thing; evil people cannot create beauty; and, drawing on a scene in Plague of Angels referenced in this book, rape is a disgusting crime, but use drugs to do it to a man, and … eh.

Repetition is a problem with the book as a whole. The book starts with a long prologue that is, in essence, an alternate historical excerpt from a later chapter. There’s no rhyme or reason for repeating so very much of the text, or for the fact that the excerpt differs in small details from the later text. I hoped against hope that this would at least be made clear at the end, but [anti-spoiler] it’s not. Another scene from Chapter 11 is repeated word for word in Chapter 12. This pattern recurs throughout the book – not at such length, thank goodness, but the amount of repetition her is both incredible and basically indigestible, especially because so much of the book is focused on such small details. Repetition of the message is one thing – that seems to be the book’s raison d’etre. However, there’s barely a camp-making move our protagonists make that isn’t described in detail, and then described to other characters in detail, so that they can describe it to other characters in detail. At some points, it felt to me less a novel than a travelogue with folk tales. That worked for Robert Silverberg; it doesn’t work here.

The repetition problem is exacerbated by careless (perhaps no?) editing. Sometimes logistics just don’t make sense. Characters who’ve never met are fast friends, or hint at relationships that never existed. There are a lot of characters; it’s not surprising that there’s a little confusion – but usually it’s the reader who’s confused, not the author. That’s what editing is for.

Tepper introduces all-powerful magic (in the form of)advanced technology not once, but three times, but fails to explain even once why the characters don’t just wave their magic wands to solve all ills.

I’ve always seen Tepper as a feminist with a twist (her distrust of relations between men and women). But feminism to me is about equal rights – it’s the opposite of sexism. Here, Tepper stakes out very different ground. In the world of the book, at least, not only are men and women best off apart, it’s because of innate features that affect not only phenotype, but their basic outlook. In other word, sexism at its most pernicious. While I’m on board with some of Tepper’s ideas, I can’t go along with this one, and it pervades the book without (as in The Gate to Women’s Country) being a core theme or plot point. After a while, it moves from curious to intensely irritating.

The writing is often awkward, convoluted, or tedious. The logic is poor. The plot and actions are both repetitive and inconsistent. The point of view shifts unpredictably and without warning. The sequencing is confusing for no particular reason. Characters tell long stories that appear to exist only to use up Tepper’s stock of ideas. While Tepper’s books are usually near humor-free, this book abounds in puns (e.g., reference to an Oracle database) – so much so that it has the feel of a Sheri Tepper-Piers Anthony collaboration – and not in a good way.

This book is heavily reliant on A Plague of Angels, but inconsistent with it. Plague‘s main problem, though, was that it simply failed to answer a number of key questions. Fish Tails poses and answers a number of new questions, but not many of the old ones – specifically, who/what the thrones were.

The tie-in to the True Game series is entirely gratuitous, and risks cheapening that very good series. Perhaps Tepper simply wanted to revisit old characters, or link to her earliest books. I wish she hadn’t.

Just in case you missed it, let me follow Tepper’s lead and repeat my point explicitly. I didn’t like this book. It’s a bad book by a good author. It’s so bad that I suggest you not read it even if – especially if – you’re a Tepper fan. The book has so many problems that it’s clear it wasn’t properly edited. Maybe there was a deadline. Maybe the editor was afraid of upsetting Ms. Tepper. Maybe the wrong draft got published. Whatever the reason, this is not the book it could and should have been. It’s a case study in the need for serious and thorough review before publishing. This feels like a very early draft – perhaps the first complete draft. I suggest you pass it by, and come back in a few years when they issue a revised (read ‘edited’) version.

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