Filler content with Bill Clinton

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #28:-

Sheri Tepper
Gollancz pbo, 406pp, £10.99

Benita Alvarez, an ordinary woman with a poor self-image, is thrust into the global limelight when, seemingly at random, she is picked to act as go-between for mankind and an alien race. The Pistach represent a federation of planets which Earth is being invited to join, but to qualify we must demonstrate the quality of ‘neighbourliness’. Fortunately the aliens have their own methods to foster this virtue, which they will implement whether we like it or not, and let it be noted that most of us like it very much. There is a penalty for failure. Outside the umbrella of the federation Earth will be at the mercy of other alien races, predators who will hunt and eat human beings. Unfortunately some of these creatures are already here and going about their business, given a spurious legitimacy by politicians who’d rather rule in Hell than see anyone else bring about Heaven on Earth. Worse still there is a crisis on the Pistach home world. Their holy mission statement, The Fresco of the title, has been reinterpreted with far reaching consequences. They may abandon their embassy to Earth, leaving us at the mercy of the predators. It’s up to Benita Alvarez, housewife superstar, to come up with a solution.

This is my third book by Tepper, a writer about whom I’m still undecided. The story is superficial, almost a compendium of clichés from all those Hollywood films of the 40s and 50s, The Day the Earth Stood Still through I Married a Monster from Outer Space, with pit stops along the way at such modern ‘classics’ as Predator. The Pistach are holy fools dressed up as ET’s mum and dad. The bad guy aliens are serial killers in monster suits and given unpronounceable names.

And, like most product churned out by the Hollywood dream factory, it has a strong American bias. The Pistach make the good old US of A their first point of call because it has ‘a tasty culture that other peoples really enjoy’ (it may be true, but don’t you just hate to hear them say it). The American President is wise enough to let them take control, suggesting he isn’t a politician at all but an imposter, and when the chips are down he is the one who implements Benita’s plan to save the Pistach from their own folly. In fact you could make a case for retitling this book Bill Clinton Saves the Universe. The Pres is never named, but the identikit fit isn’t hard to make (he’s a Democrat, can’t be left alone with a woman without causing scandal, has been unfairly hounded by gossipmongers on Capitol Hill, among them a nasty prosecutor guy, and he has a wife who enters politics when he retires to write a book). Is Tepper putting out for a White House dinner date under the next administration, or simply Bushwhacking by implication? The Republicans come over badly; apparently their main man once made a pass at the First Lady and was rejected, so has held a grudge ever since (you knew it had to be something like that).

The author puts a lot of work into creating a believably alien culture for the Pistach, one in which everyone has a place and there is a place for everyone, though I didn’t find it quite as appealing as she obviously intended. Members are tested to find the role for which they are best suited, and if it happens to be a role they don’t necessarily want, then tough titty. Me, I want to write, and never mind that I score higher on the aptitude test for sewer maintenance. Nor is it believable that this advanced and deeply ethical society will change direction overnight because a ten thousand year-old painting has been scrubbed up and revealed to be slightly different from what it says on the bill of fare, any more than it’s reasonable to think Christians will go on a murder spree if we discover the word ‘not’ in the Ten Commandments was an interpolation by some later hand.

Having said all that, this is a book that so shamelessly wears its heart on its sleeve you end up wanting to like it more than you actually do. It’s the feel good factor. You can’t help but applaud as Benita puts one over on her worthless husband and son, or cheer at the elegant solutions the Pistach offer to some of mankind’s more onerous problems. These won’t go down big in downtown Kabul or the Medellin compound in Bogota, but the rest of us can crack a smile, and a broad one at that. In particular the Pistach response to the Pro-Life lobby is a masterpiece of poetic justice, and deftly exploits another of those old sf clichés. Tepper is riding several hobbyhorses here. The result is not especially good sf, but for all its faults The Fresco is an engaging read, like a large dollop of your favourite ice cream on a summer day (curiously the Pistach don’t tackle our weather, showing some things are beyond even their ingenuity) and great fun to boot.

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