This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
This is the worst novel I have ever reviewed for Ferretbrain. That’s a big claim, but I am confident it is true. I am confident it will remain true for a long, long time. I got an e-mail out of the blue from someone I thought I could trust, asking if I was interested in reviewing a fantasy novel, I said yes, I read this book, it changed my definition of what “terrible” is because my previous conception of awfulness wasn’t sufficient to encompass just what a disaster this is.
Trigger warnings for rape and pedophilia by the way, gang.
The Waters Rising is, in principle, a sequel to A Plague of Angels from way back in 1993. It came out in 2010 in the States and 2011 in the UK, making it eligible for the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke award, which it was shortlisted for. Christopher Priest got very angry about this on the basis that the book feels more like fantasy than SF, and the Clarke is supposed to be a SF award. Then again, China Mieville won the Clarke with The Iron Council, which is fairly clearly fantasy, and the SF/fantasy borderline isn’t as clear as some people might like. Then again, Priest was angry at the Clarke judges not just because he thought the books they picked weren’t SFy enough – he also thought they were shit and should never have been in the running. I haven’t read all of them because I have no particular desire to stay current with every single book which is currently making waves. But I have read this one. Dear God, I have read this one until I was sick to the back teeth. I can confirm that it shouldn’t have won an award. I can also confirm that in its present state it probably shouldn’t have been published. There’s trash authors who self-publish because no publishing house in its right mind would release their bilge who, despite their utter lack of anything resembling authorial skill, effortlessly manage to outwrite this crap. The book is terrible in both conception and execution.
The thing about Tepper is that her books are polemics. She makes no bones about this. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, she has a following anyway. I’d never read any of her work before this and am unlikely to in the future; I was mainly aware of her because Beauty was honoured with a spot in the Fantasy Masterworks series, but based on valse’s assessment this seems to have been a mistake. Of course, it’s possible to do polemic without being tedious or preachy, but on the evidence of this book Tepper seems to be completely incapable of doing so; on top of that, a lot of what she preaches here is reprehensible (there’s a nasty eugenics spin to the story) or actually counterproductive to the various causes she espouses. She’s known as an eco-feminist, yes, but she’s the sort of eco-feminist that embarrassess all the other ecologists in the room by behaving almost exactly like the sort of total cartoon that climate change deniers like to paint ecologists as.
Premises & Pedophilia
I should tell you what the story is about, shouldn’t I? Abasio and his talking horse Blue are two best pals who wind up in the region of Woldsgard because someone said they would find something interesting there. What they find is Xulai, a plucky 8 year old Tingawan girl. The Tingawans are fantasy-Asians; I actually can’t get more specific than that. At first I thought they were meant to be pseudo-Chinese because Romanisations of Chinese tend to be heavy on the X’s and there were vague hints that the Tingawans have a big empire. Then there was mention of having traditional Japanese bathing habits. Then late in the book we encounter a Tingawan sea-captain whose name reads like someone who doesn’t speak any Asian languages tried to make up an Indian-sounding name. At this point I realised that it was best just to assume that Tingawa is fantasy-Asia.
Or, actually, just plain Asia: it rapidly develops that the land Abasio and Blue live in is what is left of the USA, following an apocalyptic period known as the Big Kill and a highly radioactive period known as the Time When No One Moved Around, in the wake of which a pseudo-Medieval society arose because… Well, just because. On top of all this, the sea level is rising rapidly – oh , not because of the icecaps melting for anthropogenic reasons, that happened already and wasn’t so serious. This time, it’s because ice comets which were trapped deep inside the Earth when it was still forming are melting and the water is seeping upwards, raising the sea levels to a point where only tall mountains will survive. Xulai, however, has more immediate concerns. She’s the Xakixa or soul carrier for Princess Xu-i-lok, daughter of a mighty Tingawan noble who married Justinian, the Duke of Woldsgard, but was cursed and fell into a deep coma shortly after they married. Xulai is to stay with her and carry her soul back to her clan in Tingawa when she dies – but Xulai is also in telepathic contact with the Princess, who is urging her to go on a scary nighttime errand to retrieve an item of some importance. Helped to accomplish this errand by Abasio, Xulai is heartbroken when Xu-i-lok almost immediately dies, and soon discovers changes occurring within her and powers being untapped that she never knew she had. Accompanied both by Bear and Precious Wind, two fellow Tingawans from Princess Xu-i-lok’s retinue, and various friends from Woldsgard – including Abasio and Blue, who are able to quickly befriend Justinian and convince him to send them along with the others, Xulai begins the journey to Tingawa, not realising that she is going to end up not only being imperilled by the same evil forces that did for her mother but also coming face to face with the truth behind the mysterious Sea King and his war with the drylanders – as well as the incredible solution to the problem of the waters rising which she is an unwitting part of.
Also, Abasio has a raging boner for 8-year-old Xulai and wants to fuck her hard.
That part needs a little context. Tepper has gone out of her way to build in a fair amount of plausible deniability on this score. The thing is, it turns out that Xulai isn’t actually 8 chronologically speaking; according to Precious Wind, she’s actually around 18-20 years old, but had unconsciously remained at around 7-8 years of development as a sort of camouflage against the dangers posed by Alicia, Duchess of Altamont, who had used forbidden technology to kill Princess Xu-i-lok and may wish to kill Xulai, partly because she just likes killing people (especially Tingawans) but also because Xulai is secretly Princess Xu-i-lok and Justinian’s daughter. Overnight, after arriving at the Abbey of Wilderbrook where she is to study until the Sea King’s war ceases and she can go back to Tingawa, Xulai spontaneously adopts her true adult form, and it is only at this point when she becomes sexually active with Abasio, who got all horny over her 8-year-old form solely because on some level he could see through the disguise. So, not pedophilia after all, right?
Well, wrong. Really kind of badly wrong.
Firstly and foremostly, if you find yourself in a position of trying to come up with a long and involved explanation of why something isn’t really pedophilia, you have already fucked up. Regardless of how good the explanation is, the fact that it’s in question in the first place is kind of a major problem. It’s a problem when Jacob falls in love with a tiny baby in Twilight, and it’s a problem when Abasio gets horny over Xulai when she looks like an 8-year-old here. Maybe he did subconsciously perceive her adult form, but he absolutely definitely did perceive her child form too, and usually if the presence of a small child isn’t a bonerkill then you’re into lumberjack territory.
Secondly, although a physical transition does occur in Xulai, it isn’t accompanied by much of a mental transition in the way she behaves or is treated by others. Oh, she’s somewhat more assertive and her mood is more variable (insta-puberty must be really harsh on the emotions in that way), but on the whole it still feels like she’s talking like a curious child (or rather, talking like an adult author who isn’t good at doing realistic-sounding child’s dialogue thinks a curious and rather precocious child talks), and when Abasio is explaining stuff to her he still sounds like he is explaining something to a small child. Take this, from a completely tangential and irrelevant rant Tepper has Abasio go on about the subject of, of all things, reform schools:
“The people in the Before Time preferred easy myths to rigorous analysis. Belief instead of reality. That’s why things so often went wrong.”
“Couldn’t they tell the difference?”
“People can’t tell the difference if they start with an ‘if’ statement. Myths always have an ‘if’ in them. ‘If people believed in Whifflepop, then we wouldn’t have Gloop.'”
And the conversation goes on from there, littered with whimsical Whifflepops and Gloops. Tepper ranting here about people prioritising belief over reality is really fucking rich, for reasons which will hopefully become clear soon. But to get back on topic: structurally The Waters Rising is still, like an awful lot of fantasy fiction, a bildungsroman; Xulai begins it as a little girl and ends it as a mother. She starts having sex with Abasio almost immediately after she stops being a little girl, which is really rather soon. Abasio starts yearning to have sex with her whilst she still has the appearance, personality, mannerisms and thought processes of a little girl, which is really fucking wrong.
Obligatory Minority Warrior Gubbins (including the triumphant return of Fantasy Rape Watch!)
Tepper is often cited as being an eco-feminist author. I don’t feel comfortable tackling whether she does or doesn’t manage to succeed at writing feminist fantasy here, because there are few things uglier in Internet discourse than a man telling a woman she is doing feminism wrong. However, at the same time there are some things which I just don’t feel comfortable staying silent about, and Tepper deals directly with one of those subjects and handles it in a way which is massively inconsistent and, at points, actually kind of reprehensible. Valse has raised this point already, I want to speak up here to confirm that yes, I see this shit too.
The issue is the book’s treatment of rape, which earns the Fantasy Rape Watch tag several times over. The talking horse Blue, in quotes valse has kindly reproduced on her article, talks about how horse sex often involves a lack of consent on the part of the lady horse, and when Abasio points out this is rape Blue shames him into shutting up about this. Nothing in the narration subsequent to this suggests that Blue was wrong to do this. This is deeply disturbing on many levels – firstly, the whole “friends don’t call friends rapists” bit is basically saying that when a pal of yours tries to justify rape you should let it slide because they are your pal. Secondly, the attempt to apply sexual morality to animals shows up the incoherence of the novel. In real life we accept that some mating processes between animals would amount to rape in human beings; that doesn’t mean we’re condoning rape, but it does mean we are holding ourselves to higher moral standards than animals when it comes to sexual activity. In Tepper’s world, where some animals are capable of talking and having a conversation on a human level, we could actually do something about that – discuss it with our horses, talk about why consent is important, perhaps suggest that talking horses capable of considering ethical points might have more of an ethical duty to seek consent than mute animals who can’t really talk about this sort of thing and, so far as we know, don’t have any developed philosophy surrounding it.
In short, it would be lunacy to expect animals to abide by human standards of sexual morality in our world because we can’t talk to them on that level, and whilst we can stop our pets and farm animals and zoo collections from being rotters to each other there’s no policing the wild. All we can do is shudder and be glad that we are not animals and at least have the potential to use our more nuanced and powerful means of communication to properly establish relationships based on consent (even if some of us aren’t very good about that). However, Tepper consistently takes the stance in the book that humans and animals exist in a state of ethical parity, so for her it would be wrong of us to hold a horse responsible for rape even if it could talk and understand what rape is, because humans shouldn’t tell animals what to do. I will get back to Tepper’s attitude to animals later.
The other thing about rape in the book is how often women are threatened with it. Xulai is threatened with it. Thugs sent to assassinate Precious Wind debate the merits of raping her. The Old Dark Man (who I’ll be chatting about more later) is implied to have physically abused Duchess Alicia, her mother, and her maternal line several generations back, and in their ultimate confrontation threatens to impregnate her. In fact, every time a man turns out to be flat-out evil in the book (in terms of just deeply ethically confused), he is depicted as being a nasty rapeman – right down to Prince Runciter, who never does anything of significance beyond existing as part of Alicia and her mother and the Old Dark Man’s plot to conquer the region and launch a genocidal war against Tingawa, but who we are nonetheless informed is a horrible rapeman. (But only of women! The worst thing that happens to any men here is that they are subjected to some offscreen violence, and this is vanishingly rare.)
I don’t intend to be all “what about the mens’ here, but I have to say that this evinces a rather limited conception of evil, if you really want to include characters who are irredeemably evil in your stories at all. Call me crazy, but I think it is perfectly possible for a man to be a reprehensible piece of shit who reduces the net worth of the planet by his very existence without rape coming into the equation at all. (For instance, if a man was involved in the decision-making process which led to a major publishing house releasing this novel, then that’s a hideous atrocity he has to bear some responsibility for.) This doesn’t seem to be the case in Tepper-land, any more than it’s almost possible for any threat to be brought to bear against Xulai or the other women on Team Nice which doesn’t involve rape, or things defined as being worse than rape. I appreciate that rape and the fact that women are on the receiving end of it to an appallingly disproportionate extent is an issue which is of extreme importance in feminist discourse for obvious reasons, but I can’t help but think that telling us that rape is bad, very bad, really very bad over the course of the whole novel only to at the end give Blue a free pass because he’s a horsie (who, remember, can talk and understand that rape is bad) takes the conversation into, to put it mildly, a bit of a weird area.
Fantasy Rape Watch rundown, because it’s high time this shit was resurrected:
Women threatened with rape/actually raped: 3 humans on-camera, an unspecified number of horses and women off-camera.
Cartoonish villains who are rapists: Many.
Horses who are rapists: 1.
Rapist cartoonish villains who get some form of comeuppance: All.
Rapist horses who get a pass because they get upset and yell at you if you call them a rapist: 1
Probability that Tepper thinks the horse isn’t actually a rapist: Uncomfortably high.
Women whose lives revolve around either their capacity to make babies or their participation in the upbringing of children: All of them, sooner or later.
There’s also the race issues to consider. The Tingawans are fundamentally the good guys here, and the overwhelmingly white folk of Norland are not meant to be villains or anything, but the thing is Asian people are not, to my knowledge, magic elves or Vulcans or anything like that. As well as loading them down with various stereotypical attributes (they’re so subtle and clever and good at technical stuff and espionage and assassination and they’re so elegant and inscrutable!) Tepper makes the Tingawans overwhelmingly superior to anyone they run into and gives them so many qualities and abilities which no Asian individual of my acquaintance has ever displayed that the Tingawans seem basically inhuman. Not only do they enjoy a massive secret technological superiority, but they can control people’s moods and behaviour through the medium of backrubs (the quality of which I have never found to have any correlation with the ethnicity of the provider) and go through puberty at 18-20 or thereabouts. Like I said: elves, or Vulcans. Not really very much like people at all.
Water Doesn’t Work That Way, Sheri
“Well, that’s a shame,” you might think, “but at least it has a positive ecological message, right?’
Well, now. There’s the thing. Tepper’s ecological angle in this book is so incoherent, irrational, and at points objectively inaccurate that she does more damage to her own side than she ever manages to do to the anti-ecology lobby. To pick this apart, we need to tackle the genre of the book. I think Christopher Priest is broadly correct when he says that the book isn’t straight-up science fiction; despite many of the fantastic elements having technical explanations, it’s really best described as science fantasy, and science fantasy which tries to cleave to the tone of traditional mass market fantasy as closely as possible. There’s a map at the beginning, and a cast of characters, just like every Tolkien imitator in the fantasy market for the past few decades. There’s a whimsical song which bookends the story. As Priest points out, there are talking animals in this, and whilst it turns out late in the day that this is mostly due to the secret Tingawan eugenics program genetically tampering with animals to allow them to speak, the various talking creatures are at first presented as something whimsical and fantastical and fairy tale-y, which causes some mild tone whiplash when it turns out they are the result of genetic experiments. Moreover, not all of the things which speak actually have a technical explanation at all: the polymorphing chipmunk/fisher/hawk who acts as Xulai’s little familiar for most of the story turns out to be a fragment of Princess Xu-i-lok’s soul. No technical explanation is offered for this, or for Xulai’s telepathic contact with the Princess, or for that matter for the objective reality of souls as demonstrated by the Tingawan soul traditions. Likewise, there’s the “mirror curse”; whilst technological and pseudo-technological feats are often accomplished with mirrors, or flatscreens which look like mirrors, as it turns out the actual mirror curse itself is none of these things – it’s basically ye olde Wiccan Threefold Law of Return mashed up with cosmic ordering:
[Precious Wind] had also laid a mirror curse upon Alicia, upon Mirami, to reflect the evil they did back upon them. So far as she knew, the duchess was as yet untouched, her mother was as yet untouched. Mirror curses were not magical or supernatural in any way. They were merely statements of intention, communicated to the universe. This person has done great evil. Let evil return upon them. If they hunger, do not feed them. If they are drowning, let them drown. If they thirst, let them go dry. Though the duchess and her mother had not yet been repaid, so far they had been robbed of their prey! Xulai was in hiding. Justinian had gone so quickly they could not track him.
So, to recap: not magical, not supernatural, not even slightly. But you ask the universe for bad shit to happen to bad people and it obliges. Riiiiiiiiiight.
It is this weird mashing up of things which definitely have technical explanations and those which really don’t that makes the genre of the book such an uncomfortable mashup of science fiction and fantasy. First the book presents us with with something that appears fantastic. Then it gives us a technological explanation for it. Then it throws in exceptions to that which really have to be fantastic, like cosmic ordering and the objective existence of souls, neither of which are things you’d really put in a technically rigorous science fiction novel unless you personally were absolutely convinced those things were objectively real and don’t especially care that some people don’t share your spiritual beliefs.
How does this feed into the ecological side of the story? Well, the ecological disasters befalling the world in the book are consistently given clear technical explanations, prompting the reader to treat them under the sciencey part of the science fantasy mashup Tepper has got going here. Unfortunately, whilst Tepper is willing to blame a lot on humanity, she seems perfectly happy to hand ammunition to those people who are willing to deny that climate change happens. First off, the flooding in this story is non-anthropogenic, which is precisely what climate change deniers claim about current climate trends – sure, she mentions that the ice caps melted in the past, but the narration never talks about human activities causing the melting of the ice caps and specifically depicts a world where eventually the ice caps re-formed and everything turned out OK. When environmentalists are screaming out for people to take anthropogenic climate change seriously, they really don’t need people who are ostensibly on their side minimising its impact.
The bigger problem, though, is that the mechanism for the incredible global flood Tepper proposes is utter bunk.
The fact is, there’s not enough water on the planet to raise the sea level by miles and miles, to the point where only the highest mountains aren’t submerged. Tepper, to her credit, at least seems to be aware of this. What she proposes is that ages ago, whilst the Earth was forming, ice comets slammed into the planet and were buried deep underground, and that now they are melting and releasing the water stored within them, which is seeping up through the ground and causing the sea levels to rise.
This is nonsense on so many levels it isn’t even funny. First off, if these comets slammed into the planet whilst it was forming, then that’d place the impacts within the geological period known as the Hadean – known as such because the Earth was as hot as hell and had plenty of volcanic activity going down at the same time. And you know what they say about snowballs’ chances in Hell, right? (Namely, they’re not very good.) That, of course, isn’t even accounting for melting as a result of the trip through the atmosphere, or the fact that an ice comet hitting the earth would almost certainly shatter into tiny pieces as a result of the energy of impact even as it does a serious number on the planet.
Let’s assume, though, that we have a comet which hits the Earth, stays as one large body, and doesn’t fall into any lava. Well, unless it happened to land on one of the ice caps or in a glacial area, you’d expect it to sit in its crater melting until you end up with a perfectly circular lake where the crater was. Even the comets which landed in freezing cold regions of the Earth would most likely end up sat on the surface at the centre of its impact crater, or at most buried under a thin layer of loose debris thrown up by the impact. And that, of course, is assuming the comets landed on land; around two out of every three comets you shoot at the Earth would end up plopping into the ocean, at which point they would probably end up becoming floating icebergs (ice floats in water, remember?) and would most likely melt unless they ended up floating into the polar regions.
You can’t have it two ways: either the comets hit when the earth wasn’t yet solid, in which case they would have already melted, or the comets hit when the world was good and solid, in which case they’ve probably either already melted or been incorporated into the existing icecaps. Any comet which hit with sufficient force to bury itself deep under the earth without creating a conventional impact crater would probably impact with such force that it would be instantly vaporised, as well as everything else in a wide radius.
On top of that, even if you did have these big comets which had somehow stayed frozen for millions and millions of years buried deep underground, exactly what would happen when they start to melt? Well, their volume would decrease by about 10% – ice takes up more volume than water. If the cavities they were inside were airtight and watertight, I guess you would have a vacuum forming which might eventually cause a collapse of the land immediately above them, but that isn’t the case – the cavities can’t be watertight because according to Tepper the water is seeping up through them. However, in that case the vacuum made by the contracting iceball is more likely to suck down air or water, rather than pushing water up out through the porous rock. In other words, the creation of such underground cavities would be more likely to cause the sea level to drop than rise.
The explanation we are offered for the flooding in the book is, in short, completely impossible. Although impossible things are meant to happen in fantasy fiction, the flooding is presented to us here in technical terms and so we can only conclude that it’s meant to be taken as one of the more science fictional elements of the story, but it completely fails as plausible ecological science fiction. (Granted, the theory presented is just a theory proposed by some characters in the book, but every technically astute character accepts it as being plausible despite the very serious problems with it.)
Why is this a problem? Simply because climate change deniers love scientific nitpicking. Their position hinges on attacking the scientific credibility of the evidence for climate change, or for the anthropogenic causes of climate change. When as an ecological campaigner you start making technical statements you need to be really rigorous about it, because climate change deniers would ideally like to be able to discredit you as a source by painting you as a clueless scientific illiterate who doesn’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. On the strength of The Waters Rising, Tepper fits that description to the core. She could not do any more damage to her credibility as an environmentalist if she made a video of herself drowning seabirds in a lake of crude oil.
Tree-Hugging Hippies Who Love Eugenics
The heroic Tingawans do not consider humanity to be uniquely special, and feel that other animals should be considered as having the same rights to self-determination as human beings. (This is apparently a recurring thing in Tepper’s fiction.) This position gives rise to some interesting ethical hypocrisies over the course of the novel.
For instance, I suppose you were wondering why the talking animals exist in the first place. Well, as I mentioned, it’s part of a massive Tingawan breeding project, which Xulai herself is also a part of. See, because land-based life is soon going to cease to be an option, the Tingawans are collaborating with the Sea King in order to breed a race of human beings who can polymorph between land-based and sea-based form, and whose children will be able to live happy lives in the world-ocean of the future. But it’s not just humanity who get to be in on the deal – they want to save as many land-based life forms as they can! That said, they don’t want to infringe on the animals’ right to choose what sort of weird genetic experiments are perpetrated on them, so they bred the animals to talk so that they could consent to being turned into ocean creatures. After all, you have to seek consent from them, otherwise you’re treating the animals as though they are lesser forms of life that exist for the sake of human beings, and that’s not an ethical position Tepper wants to take here.
Except, of course, the taboo on doing things to animals without the consent has already been violated here. At what point did they consent to being tampered with so that they could talk? Oh, sure, I guess you could say that you can assume they’re OK with being taught to talk because there’s no reason why they wouldn’t want to be able to clearly express their preferences on such matters, but there’s an equivalent argument that you can happily assume they would want to not drown so you can do genetic tampering with them in order to enable them to not drown. Does Sheri Tepper think that you shouldn’t step in and save the life of a person or animal unless you can understand them giving their consent to be saved? (“If you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand… unless you spoke English”?)
(Don’t even get me started on how the various sea creatures like the Sea King learned to speak human languages all by themselves without any genetic tampering. Apparently they peeped into language lessons conducted below decks on cruise ships.)
It gets worse. Tepper dislikes the idea of eating meat but also has trouble tackling the idea that some animals kind of need to eat meat if they’re going to get proper nutrition. There’s bits towards the end of the book where the characters talk about only eating intelligent animals but at the same time end up conceding that all animals are intelligent on some level, even ants and bees, and at one point you hear about Tingawans theorising that even trees are able to think and feel, just on a very slow scale. The Sea King says that in the seas you only eat creatures which have no real higher thoughts (what’s left? Plankton?) or evil sea creatures, who are sometimes ritually eaten by the good sea creatures. That, right there, teases out one of the major problems with Tepper’s ethical premises here: she genuinely seems to believe (or proposes for the purposes of this story at least) that there is such a thing as objectively evil people and creatures whose deaths are necessary so that everyone else can live a sustainable lifestyle.
This is the dark side of the Tingawan’s eugenics project. I mean, the lighter side of the project is kind of dark enough when you think about it. Xulai, Princess Xu-i-lok, Justinian, Abasio and countless others have been carefully paired up through the behind-the-scenes manipulations of the Tingawans and the Sea King, in a plot going generations back, to essentially breed them like cattle until finally you arrive at human beings who can metamorphose into squid. This is done without getting the consent of any of them, which makes the process of making animals talk so that their consent can be obtained seem extra-absurd. There’s a bit towards the end where Xulqi says that she feels bad that she never had a choice, but in the long run it’s OK because she wouldn’t have chosen differently anyway, which along with the whole “Blue isn’t a rapist, you cranky old geezer” deal I suppose is a compelling reason why Sheri Tepper should never be listened to again when she philosophises about issues of consent.
All of that – all of it – pales in comparison with the book’s attitude to evil.
First off, Tepper takes an extremely deterministic attitude to genetics. In the world she portrays here, DNA is destiny. Princess Xu-i-lok and Justinian and Xulai and Abasio all fall in love with each other more or less automatically because they are just that compatible. Meanwhile, the Old Dark Man’s own breeding project creates people who automatically hate all Tingawans and take pleasure out of killing because of their genetic inheritance from him. They are literally described as having “evil blood” and the good guys, the characters we are expected to root for and support, want to see this evil blood absolutely exterminated, because there’s really no possibility of reform for any of them.
Secondly, there’s the ideological demands of the eugenics program. The offspring of humans who get given Sea Eggs to allow them to transform into squid at will aren’t squid babies – they’re merbabies, who will grow up into happily humanoid mermen and mermaids. But they can’t tell people that before they accept the Eggs! You see, they have to be willing to transform into a form they will find alien and, quite often, kind of hideous in order to survive, because if they aren’t willing to do that penance for the evil humanity has done to the ocean they can’t be expected to be good oceanic citizens – the Tingawans and the Sea King are intent on making sure that humanity do not bring warfare, hatred, and murmaider (video NSFW and amazingly violent) with them into the oceans. So, they make sure the Sea Eggs only go to the right sort of people, and keep an eye on them to make sure they only breed with the right sort of people, and don’t give eggs to people who would use them selfishly, and threaten to brutally murder anyone caught selling Sea Eggs.
This is both repulsive and nonsensical. I will deal with the nonsensicality first: Sea Eggs are produced by women with squid powers as part of their menstrual cycle. The Tingawans are aware that this will lead to an exponential increase of Sea Egg availability as they distribute more Sea Eggs to the population, so you’ll fairly quickly hit a point where unauthorised people could get their hands on Sea Eggs fairly trivially because not all women are going to go out and seek out a suitable squid candidate every time they lay an egg and sooner or later this exponentially increasing stockpile of Sea Eggs is going to become impossible to keep track of. There will be losses. Some people may sell their Sea Eggs. Others may steal Sea Eggs from women they know possess them. People will do desperate, savage things when survival is on the line, and if that includes kidnapping and murder, well, if the alternative is drowning then many will consider that a fair price to pay. The Tingawan’s plan is going to have all sorts of ghastly, horrifying consequences for any woman fool enough to accept their Sea Eggs, because by doing so those women turn themselves into a resource to be harvested – either by the Tingawans and their co-conspirators, or by anyone terrified enough of death and heedless enough of causing pain to others to take matters into their own hands.
But even setting that aside, there’s a basically repugnant undertone to the program: essentially, to survive the drowning of the world and ensure a future for your children, you have to personally accept that humanity are bad and need to be punished by being turned into squids to prove worthy of survival. If you think that’s crap and people shouldn’t be forced to abase themselves like that for stuff their ancestors did, or if you don’t agree with the Tingawan plan and want to work on an alternative, well, fuck you, the land might not disappear in your lifetime but all of your descendents are going to drown. Everyone who thinks unacceptable thoughts like “this can’t be the only way” or “I refuse to be degraded in order to atone for something I bear no personal responsibility for” is going to die.
So when the Tingawans moralise about how the Old Dark Man and other cyborg killing machines were cooked up in the era of the Big Kill were invented by terribly evil people who wanted to exterminate everyone who thought wrong thoughts, they are being the biggest hypocrites I have ever encountered in fiction, and by asking us to show a shred of sympathy for them Tepper is making herself an enormous hypocrite too. The Tingawans are basically designing a program in which everyone who thinks wrongthoughts – at least to the extent of not accepting the sea-change – will go extinct, if not now then in the long run. How is this different in any significant respect from what the Old Dark Man and his creators were trying to do, except the Tingawans prefer drowning to direct violence when it comes to methods of execution?
Again, anti-ecologists like to accuse environmentalists of being “eco-fascists”. Usually when they say this they are being crazy. When Sheri S. Tepper shows up, suddenly they have a point, like the stopped clock which tells the correct time twice a day. For someone who is sufficiently technophobic that she basically blames the ecological apocalypse on humanity’s reliance on “ease machines” (related to saviour machines?) – because living should be hard work, damnit! – Tepper sure likes the idea of hypertechnological conspiracies using genetic magic to provide an oceanic Rapture for the chosen ones whilst everyone she doesn’t like drowns. (Apparently this isn’t new for her – for instance, in The Gate to Women’s Country the benign feminist elders use genetic engineering to completely exterminate homosexuality on the basis that it’s a neurological disorder. In retrospect, the SF and fantasy scene should be kind of ashamed of harbouring her for as long as it has, but then again this is the same scene which defends Howard to the death and embraced S.M. Stirling.)
Who Needs Basic Competence When You’re a Well-Respected Fantasy Author?
“But Arthur,” you may be saying at this point, “you don’t understand! I am a complete moral vacuum who doesn’t care how odious the opinions put forth by a novel on ecology, rape, mass drowning and eugenics are. Surely I can at least enjoy this novel as an ethically reprehensible but competently written science fantasy saga?”
Nope, ‘fraid not. The miserable failure of The Waters Rising as a novel is something which we can all agree on. Come back, Steve Stirling! Take up your axes and ride out with me, oh hordes of Robert E. Howard fans! We can all find something we hate with this novel! Reactionaries will hate the eco-feminism, ecologists and feminists will yell “Get the fuck off my side!”, and all of us can be united in one common experience: the fact that reading this book is an incredibly tedious process.
The action of the novel essentially unfolds in Socratic dialogues – long, tedious, redundant, over-long Socratic dialogues, so lacking in wit, insight and philosophical rigour that it’s a mild insult to Plato and Socrates to use the term “Socratic dialogue” in relation to them. A large proportion of these agonisingly long conversations between characters whose personalities are often so similar that it’s hard to keep track of who’s talking concern matters of interest to nobody, but are dredged up from Tepper’s worldbuilding notes anyway because for some reason I can’t account for she seems to have believed that the novel calls for a little padding. One of the longest conversations in the novel relates to, I shit you not, the meal arrangements at the cafeterias at the abbey of Wilderbrook, explaining how breakfast, lunch and dinner arrangements differ, how many hours the cooks work, how you go about getting your meals, the etiquette surrounding the use of the dinner trays, and so on and so forth ad nauseum. It’s the most pointless exchange in a fantasy novel I’ve ever laid eyes on and it was probably at that point when I realised the book was trying to kill me.
Tepper shows an unerring ability to focus on the aspects of worldbuilding the reader leasts wants to hear about. Waffling about the meal trays and geographical minutae and what meals people are eating and so on and so forth far outweighs the bits of worldbuilding we actually need to hear about to follow the story and get a grip on what sort of setting we are dealing with. In fact, important aspects of the worldbuilding – stuff we really actually would kind of like to know – are completely spurned. For instance, we spend a ridiculous amount of time at the abbey, but at no point do we learn anything at all about the religion that is practiced there. A character makes a gesture for “holy work” (a pair of fingers of one hand “walking” along a little road you make with the other hand, which seems rather goofy as far as religious gestures go), but all that does is establish that the abbey definitely is a religious institution without telling us the first thing about their religious views.
I’m no fan of fantasy novels which exist mainly for the author to show how fantastically detailed their worldbuilding is, but if you’re going to detail the abbey right down to the level of meal tray etiquette, I’d have thought at some point the religious underpinnings of the abbey’s philosophy would be discussed. They never are. Xulai never shows any curiosity about it, we are told about the technological basis of their achievements and their internal politics and their custodianship of a cemetery and a whole bunch of other stuff but their theological ideas or basic philosophy never get a look-in. I get the impression that Tepper isn’t thrilled with the idea of organised religion – at any rate, monotheists tend to be blamed for the creation of the death cyborgs back in the Big Kill – but if you don’t want your utopian little community to have a religious angle to it, then calling it anything other than an abbey might be a smart move.
The focus on long-winded conversations which tend to become Socratic dialogues doesn’t leave much space in the novel for actual action, and indeed a lot of the more interesting-sounding action sequences like the fate of Bear take place offscreen. Based on valse’s review of Beauty I get the impression that Tepper isn’t keen on horror (in which case I wonder how she explains Xulai’s horrific first transformation into squid form, which involves her ramming her squid-beak through a man’s skull) and wants to write about beautiful things, and therefore is disinclined to include thrilling action or violent sequences. Then again, it might be that she doesn’t include this stuff because she’s just bad at it. The few action sequences we do get are entirely devoid of tension; aside from Bear, who due to his betrayal of Xulai (thanks to genetically-invoked dreams, of all things – yes, Tepper really does think DNA is basically magic) comes to a bad end, most of the good guys end up having things basically their own way all the time. More or less the only really serious setback the side of good suffers is the brief kidnapping of Xulai, a problem which solves itself when she turns into a squid and slays her kidnapper. (Hey, gang, here’s a thing: apparently Xulai killing her kidnapper was perfectly justified because she instinctively had to do it in order to prevent him raping her and disrupting the eugenics program. That’s right: being directly threatened with rape isn’t a good enough reason on its own to resort to violence to protect yourself in this world.) In all other cases, things go more or less according to plan aside from very occasional wrinkles which are ironed out as soon as they show up, and generally there’s no interesting tension or back-and-forth.
To illustrate how bad Tepper is at the whole “tension” thing, as well as how sloppy the pacing of the novel is, the means of the death of Duchess Alicia are all arranged and put in place about 50% of the way into the book, leaving the reader waiting interminably for the other shoe to drop. This isn’t really Chekov’s Gun because rather than the means of Alicia’s destruction being sat in the background, it’s placed in the foreground and waved about in front of us in such a way that we can’t possibly fail to work out what’s going on with it, we understand precisely how the gene-specific super-disease works, we basically know how it’s going to go down, there’s no tension involved here. Essentially, Alicia points a gun at her own head and pulls the trigger halfway through the novel and it’s not until the final act that the bullet actually hits her. This is just one example of how Tepper turns tension into tedium.
A failure to judge pacing characterises the novel as a whole. The pace of the story is as slow as molasses for the first half, with a massive page count being devoted to the journey from Woldsgard to the abbey. (An awful lot of Tolkien-imitating fantasy is really fond of the idea that narrating travel arrangements and processes in excruciating detail is interesting. It rarely is.) Then there’s the interminable abbey section. Then Xulai is kidnapped and escapes and suddenly the pace accelerates to the point where we whiz by events, which regular interruptions so that the characters can have long, dull conversations in which it is carefully explained to the reader what just happened. Imagine if The Lord of the Rings had its pacing cocked up so that the hobbits don’t get to Bree until the end of The Two Towers, then the rest of the events of the story are crammed into the half of The Return of the King which comes before the appendices: that’s how badly paced The Waters Rising is, and Tolkien himself wasn’t always brilliant at the whole “pacing” thing.
Another author Tepper seems to want to imitate here is my beloved sweetie-pie Gene Wolfe, in the sense that – for the first half of the novel anyway – the presentation of events and the world is often extremely oblique, and a lot of incomprehensible stuff happens which will only make sense when you go back and take another look after the first read-through, and you have a setting which looks fantastical but, like Wolfe’s Urth in The Book of the New Sun, is actually Earth in the far future with the fantastical events actually having technical explanations. However, Gene Wolfe is the Blessed Walrus of Obliqueness, whose books are a pleasure to read even when you haven’t the first clue as to what is going on, and Tepper… well, Tepper’s no walrus. The irritating thing about a lot of the Socratic dialogues in the last act or so of the book is that they explain in exacting, minute detail, a whole bunch of shit that readers will have probably worked out anyway if they paid attention, because funnily enough Tepper isn’t very good at writing oblique SF. The trick, see, is to not get too repetitive and redundant and to not assume the reader is a dribbling idiot; Tepper does, and so makes sure we are told over and over again, repeatedly, sometimes multiple times in the same conversation, exactly what everything in the novel actually means, otherwise people might come up with disapproved interpretations of the novel and that would be terrible, wouldn’t it?
Additionally, the book just plain contradicts itself. It turns out that the war against the Sea King is a complete sham, a front to discourage shipping from passing freely between the continents to prevent the Old Dark Man or his forces from getting to Tingawa. Precious Wind seems to be aware of this, and indeed the librarian at the abbey has sussed out that wooden Tingawan ships won’t be subject to the Sea King’s blockade. So, why the stopover in the abbey in the first place? Why do Bear and Precious Wind plan on staying in the abbey for a long time potentially if they could just take the boat at any time? They should have been planning with Xulai to smuggle her out of the abbey secretly to continue the journey to the port their ship is waiting at as soon as they reached the abbey.
Apparently, even Tepper fans think this one stinks compares to her earlier work. Given some of the stuff people have raised about her other books this should give you an idea of how dire this is. Imagine what happens when an author who at the best of times is an acquired taste and has had a long-running tendency to occasionally say daft or genuinely morally repugnant things loses what little competence as an author they have and just vomits words endlessly onto the page until you would rather jump out of a window than read another page. That’s what you’re dealing with here.
Not Even a Good Sequel
As I mentioned, the book is a sequel to A Plague of Angels, another story featuring Abasio and Blue set in the same world. Or is it? I suspect anyone who liked A Plague of Angels will be disappointed with this.
First off, you have the issue of Abasio and Blue, two heroes who fans of A Plague of Angels will probably have some affection for, turning out to be a pedophile and a rapist respectively. That’s going to leave a bad taste in your mouth for starters. (I mean, it should leave a bad taste in your mouth anyway. But it adds insult to injury to do this to a pair of characters your fans presumably have a certain level of affection for.)
Secondly, the background for the world given late in the day when the matter of the Old Dark Man is laid out once and for all actually contradicts the background given in A Plague of Angels. How do I know that when I haven’t read A Plague of Angels? Because Abasio points the contradictions out, and then Tepper just fudges it so that the eco-apocalypse of A Plague of Angels and the cyborg intolerance apocalypse of this book both happened without offering any explanation of how they are in any way compatible. Yeah.
Thirdly, Abasio actually does fuck all in this book which couldn’t have been trivially achieved by anyone else, or nobody at all. He inspires Xulai to fulfill the Princess’ errand and force-feeds her the Sea Egg, but Xulai could have just plucked up the courage on her own and then swallowed the Sea Egg consensually. He travels with the party to the abbey, but a lot of people do that and his presence doesn’t seem to add much value. He does a little spying along the way to keep an eye out for the Duchess’ machinations, but several other characters help out with that and they could have done the job on their own. He goes to find Xulai after she’s been kidnapped and escorts her to the ship to Tingawa waiting for her at Merhaven, but Xulai rescues herself from her kidnapper and if she really needed an escort to the town of Merhaven, Precious Wind could have done the job more than adequately (not least because she’s travelling in the same direction and ends up meeting Xulai and Abasio there). More or less his only contribution to the novel which couldn’t have been handled by any other character is fucking Xulai, and he has no other reason to be here.
Blue, for his part, does sweet fuck all aside from out himself as a rapist.
It’s almost as though Tepper wrote this as a standalone, had it rejected, then convinced her publisher to accept it if she rewrote it as a sequel to one of her more successful novels and consequently inserted Abasio and screwed up the backstory in the process.
Again: I haven’t even read A Plague of Angels and I can still identify ways in which the book can’t possibly be a satisfying sequel to A Plague of Angels. Goodness knows how many a Plague of Angels fan would be able to find.
Beware Pears Bearing Books
This novel really did a number on me. I’m lying on the floor broken and twitching with fury. The primary targets of my fury are this book and Tepper herself, but there’s a sizable dose of rage left over reserved for the editors who greenlit this. The Waters Rising is a miserably incompetent and morally reprehensible science fantasy novel which demeans science fiction, fantasy, the political causes Tepper supposedly espouses and literature as a whole by its existence.
I don’t believe in censorship – pointing out the flaws with shitty, substandard, ethically bankrupt material and urging people to shun it is vastly preferable – but The Waters Rising doesn’t help me stick to that position. Certainly, I think any credible SF or fantasy publisher who put out her work would lose their credibility in my eyes as discerning publishers of quality books unless she issued some kind of apology for foisting this mess on the general public. Not only is it morally nauseating, but it also lacks the basic level of competence you’d expect of any professional author, let alone one of Tepper’s stature.
It shouldn’t be hard to take the premise of an awesome Dethklok song and turn it into an exciting story, but Tepper and excitement do not exist in the same universe. If my thorough root-and-branch rejection of Tepper’s ethical position means that I and my descendents deserve to drown, then so be it. At least we won’t have to read this drivel when we are dead.
The Waters Rising goes directly to the Axis of Awful – displacing Robert E. Howard, who I genuinely expected to keep in there longer before relenting – and I sincerely doubt I’ll ever remove it.
“Thanks” – if that’s the right word – to Pear, who provided the review copy.