Thursday, August 09, 2007

Sheri S. Tepper: The Fresco

Sheri Tepper's The Fresco wasn't very satisfying. The plot is simple: the aliens arrive, promise to solve many of our problems, and cause a few minor disasters before resolving most social issues and welcoming us to apply for membership in the galactic brotherhood. The science is inconsistent, and other than the protagonist, the characters are fairly one-dimensional. Tepper makes a few attempts to show that some of the abilities of the ETs could be explained by nanotech or other sufficiently advanced technology, but she feels free to introduce new tools and powers whenever it suits her fancy. The solutions to social problems (which include unexplained psychological adjustments) are mostly in the too-complex-to-explain-to-the-reader category.

The conflict and action are split between the disasters on Earth caused by the conflicts among ETs about their rules of engagement with us and an exploration of the psychology of the aliens. The local disasters are side-show; the real action concerns the eponymous fresco. The society of the race of ETs that makes first contact is based on wisdom drawn from a set of ancient murals produced by a distant progenitor. The murals are holy enough that they haven't been touched—or cleaned—in many generations. The standard interpretation of their meaning comes from a revered scribe several generations removed from the drawings' creation, and there are clear indications that the murals were already illegible at that point.

The analogy to religions based on frozen interpretations of an ancient text are obvious, though Tepper doesn't dwell on them. In this case, we're merely shown that the ETs have lost any sense of the original meaning, that their society is unstable if they suddenly have to figure things out for themselves, and that an external agent (benevolent humans) can fix everything by ensuring that the accepted interpretation is a benign update of the interpretation everyone is used to.

Unsatisfying morality, unsatisfying epistemology, unsatisfying story-telling.

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