Sheri S Tepper - and questions of innate worth

Mary Ann Dimand amaebi at iwon.com
Fri Jul 7 20:39:43 EDT 2000


Elise said:

> It's been several years since I've read Tepper, but I do think
> in Plague of Angels particularly, she gets vehement about over
> population.  Do you recall her anarchic cities and their fate
> as they stumble toward extinction?

I certainly do. And I apologize for my lack of clarity-- Tepper is certainly
concerned about overpopulation. In my view, though, it's part of an entire
system of environmental concerns.

> And what's that other one on the odd planet where a very
> fundamentalist society of human colonists lives with harsh
> local flora/fauna population controls?  Drat my vague memory!

Do you mean Shadow's End?

> Someone once opined to me that the difference between a
> liberal and a radical is that a liberal wants changes in the
> existing structure, and a radical wants to trash the existing
> structure and replace it with their own. I've always thought
> Tepper, or at least her imagination, seems to find a home in
> the latter category.

I think that, in practice, drawing the line between wanting change and
wanting an entirely new system can be very difficult! But I tend to agree
with you that Tepper is radical, if only in terms of the uncommonness of
many of her positions in American society.

> I find an uneasy and suspicious response within me.  In short,
> I suspect that desiring to impose your own way on something
> may be more about desiring to impose your own way on something
> than it is about right, or good or any other motive, stated or
> unstated.

Again, I agree, and I think that this is a problem every individual who
wishes to behave well must torture herself or himself about constantly.
Viewing other people's actions, I don't particularly care about their
motives (unless I want to predict their future behaviour)-- I care about the
actions they're taking! :D

Tepper addresses questions of ability-to-change and election-not-to-change
in a number of her novels. The Jinian novels, Grass and Sideshow in
particular spring to mind. She is more concerned about inaction than about
action, it seems. And I'm not that comfortable with her stance, though I
can't say more about it than that. She does, however, specifically depict a
complexity of moral decision fairly often. Absolute principles don't fair
too well in her fiction.

> In fiction, a writer can imagine that the way she sees and
> wants to explore, play out and/or impose - has the backing of
> nature, or of whatever imperative force one wants to apply. hmm

This is a really interesting point. Writers get to make things be the way
they want. I noticed this quite late in life, I think, but I'm not sure that
it is generally noticed at all. I was reading Rex Stout's The Black
Mountain, and I was terribly impressed at Nero Wolfe relating a conversation
to Archie Goodwin, in just the tape-recorderish way Archie did for him so
often. And then I suddenly realized, "Wait! It's just written that way!" :D
And now quite often when Sheeyun and I are puzzled by some logical or
emotional curiosity in a movie and ask "why did...", the other one says,
"Because it's written that way".

And of course actual life is much trickier. Bother. :D And what's worse,
people I've known who anticipate being able to determine the reactions of
others lead exceedingly cranky and dissatisfying existences!

> ...there is this see-saw action where something else, usually
> the wrong-thinking people, is revealed as worthless and
> demeaned, or even cursed and damned, by very nature, through
> their own wrongness.

That certainly appears in Tepper sometimes, though it's not universal to my
mind. Tepper's use in the Jinian books of the concept of "baolessness" as
necessary and sufficient justification for snuffing folks bothers me a good
deal. Her view of a desire to profit-maximize also strikes me as kind of
unconsidered.

> Mostly, I'm astonished by things.  Like when I read about
> people who have/had a reverence for all life and believe(d)
> that everything in the world is ensouled - that they practic
>(ed) "primitive animism."  That people approach life this way
> amazes me, as does the "primitive animism" description of that
> approach in various 20th century text and scholarly books I've
> read. Or nature being there for human use & exploitation.  Or
> when I read Puritan writing where nature is a snare of satan.
> Or that strain in european christian writing that body and
> soul are enemies and the body must be mortified. Or the many
> times individuals, genders and peoples have been stripped of
> meaning to justify some act perpetrated on them.  Or the
> trajectory of Troilus and Cresside, where she is worshipped
> and then cast down viciously.  It's as if the tides of
> meaning, as perceived through various eyes, are always
> fluctuating.  I was just thinking about this last week, that
> it was like the cursed torque in Power of Three -
> beautiful/ugly/beautiful/ugly - pulsing away.  In fact, Power
> of Three is a story very much about this, isn't it?

I'm with you, except that a belief that other natural object and creatures
are sentient or ensouled always seemed to me pretty natural, and (at least
by definitions of sentience or soul which occur to me) irrefutable. I very
much like your comparison with the torque of Power of Three, which I think
cuts to the heart of something about human analytic tendencies I think
applicable to a lot of your examples. People seem to tend to be quite
binary. Things must be utterly good or utterly bad. This leads to some
strange arguments-- castigating a law or other social rule as Bad because it
has or may have some undesirable results, for instance. (I don't think there
are many rules which have no negative consequences, though it's mighty nice
when they're found. I think that in general it's preferable to address and
evaluate the full effects of each rule considered-- and of course people
disagree about the evaluations a good deal.)

Congratulations on escaping law school!

Mary Ann


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