Tepper, Sheri S. 1998. Six Moon Dance. New York: Avon Eos.
Reviewed 03 August 1998
Sheri Tepper is known primarily as a thinking writer, not a sheer entertainer. Her latest novel shows that emphasis to some advantage--and to some annoyance. She asks many of the "right" questions, but provides only easy answers to those questions. This is an archly feminist book that will probably receive considerable acclaim from hard-core feminists who prefer not to examine the premises too closely, as long as the "female" viewpoint seems to win in the end. It's far from a bad book, but just not what it could be.
John Clute called Six Moon Dance a "shaggy egg story" in his review on Science Fiction Weekly. (As we'll see below, this description is all too apt.) Newholme is beset by serious geological instability. It is also beset by serious cultural instability. Newholme has twice as many males as females, a mysterious indigenous race that isn't what it seems, and the threat of sterilization for failure to follow the Council of Worlds' strictures that all societies must strive for Justice and Civility. The COW's instrument of "justice" is the Questioner, a device constructed using the brains of dead humans and some interesting technology.
As a Quest, Six Moon Dance works very well. The characters are generally nicely drawn, and the Questioner is an intriguing narrative device. The plot, while a bit obvious, retains enough mystery in its details to retain interest. At least this book questions why an alien would lay an egg in a planet, and how. Ms. Tepper hasn't told a story this well since Grass () (naturally, out of print). Unfortunately, looking clearly at the overall structure of Six Moon Dance does not obtain a similar reward.
We have the egg, that's clear. The major problem with this novel is that there's no real thought for the chicken. Yes, Ms. Tepper plays some interesting games with quasi-inversions of sex roles, but they're still just binary inversions. She misses the chance to truly exploit the Questioner as a nonsexual intelligent lifeform that must relate to, and eventually dominate, the sexual lifeforms around it. Perhaps it was a mistake to give the Questioner the brains of three abused women; having one happy female or abused male brain would both set up significant narrative tension and keep the ending from being so forced.
The other missing "chicken" is the two roosters making out behind the chicken coop: all sexual relationships are heterosexual. The consort system is one example of the missed possibilities here. Supposedly, a set of cultural historians established the consort system on Newholme as a way of ensuring the happiness and value of females. Why, then, were there no female consorts to ensure the happiness of women who prefer women? Conversely, in a society with a substantial excess of males to females, why aren't there more signs of male-male relationships as a way of relieving sexual tension? A "cultural historian" would take these into account and provide for them. Further, sexual sadism like Marool Mantelby's would also have been well known, and at least considered (hopefully in a less-destructive manner).
I wish that speculative fiction writers would stop transferring supposed biological imperatives through some warped pseudo-Darwinian system to individual behavior. Biological imperatives certainly affect mass behavior, but only dysfunction seems to translate to individual behavior (such as schizophrenia). One cannot explain the nonviolence of Mohatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr., the sacrifice against self-interest of Nathan Hale, or the altruism of Mother Teresa and Oskar Schindler with some Bell Curve-ish pseudobiological hypothesis that holds water only because the data have been cooked. Good fiction can't do the same. Individual characters are interesting because they don't act in the ways that their circumstances seemingly require them to act.
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