I can't remember where I read it, maybe at The Onion or maybe on Salon, but somewhere I heard that Sherri Tepper's The Margarets was a great book. That recommendation, and the boss illustrations by John Picacio (who did the covers for the collected works of James Tiptree, Jr./Alice Sheldon), was enough for me.
Now, I do remember seeing Star Trek: The Motion Picture during its original theatrical release, and I remember the sinking feeling that I got about 30 minutes into it that this movie was not quite what it was billed to be... that perhaps I had been deceived.
The Margarets is not a great book, sadly, nor even a mediocre one. It is the most heartbreaking kind of disappointing: a book that starts off good, works its way to great, falters, then spirals into the abyss of awfulness. A book that makes you hate yourself for having ever been attracted to it to begin with; that makes you think the good times experienced during the early pages might come back if you just give it a little more time, maybe until the end of the next chapter—
I should caution the reader that this review contains spoilers. It needs to have spoilers in order to illustrate the depth of the problems that this book has—
As the book's central keen idea is that of a young girl who splits into seven different people, I shall follow suit and hit the seven crippling flaws of The Margarets.
1. Should Have Seen It Coming
The opening chapter, weighing in at eight pages, is a microcosm of the book at large. Things start off promisingly enough when a group of pre-history humans slip aboard an exploration ship owned by a reptilian race called the Quaatar. The stowaways escape the vessel at the next planet it visits. The Quaatar are evil (the author prefers the term "vile") and would like nothing more than to destroy the stowaways. However, fear of a vaguely-alluded-to intergalactic court keeps them from exterminating the humans outright, so instead they use a mind-destroying device on them. Then, 'cause they're vile, they go back to Earth and use it on all the humans there. Not content to merely give the entire human race some form of brain damage, the Quaatar also harbor a looong and unreasonable hatred for humanity, a hatred that spurs them into nefarious action when, thousands of years later, we finally venture into space.
As with most abusive relationships, the hints of the book's flaws are there early on. The entire presentation of the Quaatar and of the idea that humans are somehow "deficient" smacks of a kind of Douglas Adams absurdity—
The clues! The clues are there that the author can drift into a realm of silliness and ludicrousness. Clues that a wiser reader than myself would have probably put more stock in.
2. The Heartbreak of Promises Unfulfilled.
Ms. Tepper is actually a very good writer, in spite of the paragraphs above. The fate of the humans on the alien planet basically saves chapter one. Although damaged somehow, they live the good life on a planet without predators and with lots of food. Of course they overpopulate and the slow process of evolution begins tampering with them. The story and the writing get better as we are introduced to the young titular character, Margaret. The only child on the space station/moon Phobos, Margaret takes refuge in books (or their electronic equivalent) and her own imagination, creating a fantasy world populated by characters of her own creation. Later, as political changes on earth lead to the cancellation of the Mars project, other versions of Margaret—
At times, Margaret has to make a big choice, sometimes a small one, and sometimes "she" makes one choice, while another "version" makes the other. It's a cunning trick that enables Ms. Tepper to illustrate how the complex interactions of Earth and the various races and organizations that deal with us are conducted.
Margaret's other versions are, or become, the characters she created in her childhood. Her various incarnations are spread out through the universe, eventually drawn together to walk the seven roads simultaneously, meet the Keeper of All Knowledge, and get back what humanity lost at the clawed hands of the Quaatar.
Sounds cool, doesn't it? Kind of far-fetched, sure, but the addition of a supernatural element (believing in deities causes them to exist and thus influence their believers) smoothes over some of the rough spots. And it is cool at first. When Margaret Prime has to return to earth when the Mars project is canceled, she is thrust into a bizarre, claustrophobic world, where overpopulation has caused human government to make some pretty horrible concessions to various alien factions—
But, like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, something begins to go horribly wrong about one-third of the way through The Margarets. The complexities of bondsmanship and post-bondage colonization? Never mentioned again. The Quaatar themselves? Hardly mentioned at all, and never actually seen. In fact, it is the promise of the early part of the book that truly makes the latter sections so brutally bad. Worse, Tepper gives you the occasional hint that things might get back to the good stuff, like they were in the halcyon days of pages 1-200ish, only to bounce an empty beer bottle of suck off your head when you least expect it.
3. Seven Versions, and None of Them Very Interesting
Woefully, much of the potential of having her main character split into seven versions is squandered by Tepper's habit of having them act as thinly veiled oracles of her own opinions. In fact, The Margarets is probably the perfect gift for the bitter librarian or incompetent teacher in your life, since that's the world-view that most of the Margarets have from the get-go. A sneering kind of arrogance exudes from Margaret Prime almost from the very beginning. Her thin skin is easily pricked by the adults around her who fail to live up to the potential of their communicative skills. A typical example:
"[The adults on Phobos] knew what they thought about everything, and didn't need to discuss anything anymore. They were used to exchanging the same greetings many times each day and hearing the same jokes told over and over. I didn't think they realized there were no ideas in anything they said or that every single day they said the same words over and over like birdcalls: chirrup, chirrup, tweet, tweet, chirrup; caw caw cwaup, caw cwaup."
This birdcall thing is repeated one too many times as Margaret(s) meet people and institutions who disappoint her. And, should a reader be so recalcitrant as to miss it, Tepper hammers the point home with the occasional mention of the poor descendants of the stowaways, overpopulated (a favored theme, it appears) and via the cruel logic of evolution turned into something resembling the naked mole rat:
"They had no names, each one was 'me.' At night all the 'mes' lay curled against the tunnel walls, in the warm, in the safe. Gradually words lost all meaning. They made sounds, as crickets do."
Add to that the fact that pretty much all of the Margarets, while fuming with righteous resentment, lack the spine to do much about their situations. Mostly they kind of hang around and watch things. Even the Queen and the Warrior don't really do much. The Shamaness, who has kick-ass magic powers (remember—
4. No Good Men
One thing that also grows increasingly clear as the pages pass is that there are no good men in this book. And, as there are many alien races thrown in, that statement can be expanded to say there are no good males. A particularly strong example is that of poor, poor, Bryan.
Young Margaret Prime and young Dr. Bryan are in the midst of an awkward love affair when an arbitrary change in an already arbitrary rule sends Margaret into bondsmanship. Bryan, however, hatches an alternate plan: if he volunteers to serve as a medical specialist for the bondsmen he can choose his destination planet and take his wife with him. Thus, if he and Margaret get hitched, they can be sure that she can get to a decent planet or colony instead of the various hellholes most people end up in.
This is early on, when the book is still cool, by the way. Margaret Prime chooses to go with him, another version chooses not to (and that version splits off other versions en route to her hellish destination).
Here's where it gets wonky: Margaret Prime NEVER FORGIVES Bryan for this. In fact, she kind of seethes that he enjoys his new life as a respected country doctor, except when she seethes that he should have known that conditions would be primitive and they would have to dip their hard workin' hands into the black market to get the drugs and equipment they need.
And speaking of hard workin' hands, some prefer to keep theirs clean:
[Bryan] told me I was a natural healer. Since virtually all of what Bryan called 'healing' I found intensely embarrassing and distasteful, I'd choked on that accolade... Doing it for sixteen years hadn't made it any easier, but the bargain I'd made with myself required that Bryan and the children never know how difficult and disgusting I found it. I'd kept that bargain!... I sometimes felt it would have been easier to labor in the Cantardene mine with a whip at my back than to do the things Bryan expected of me.
And that's pretty much how their relationship goes. Kind of a contest between who has sacrificed more, only I don't think Bryan knows that he's playing. Margaret's passive-aggressive take on life grows stunningly tiresome after several hundred pages.
Bryan, of course, dies. I suppose having someone, anyone, with any decisiveness would have presented unnecessary ripples in the narrative.
5. But There Are Good Cats
The book totally falls apart in the span of about 15 pages in a triple whammy of terrible. One of the races sympathetic to humankind is called the Gentherans. They are a mysterious lot, as none are ever seen outside of their spacesuits. Another race, the Gibbekot, are small cat-like humanoids. And, it turns out, this is what the Genterans look like outside of their spacesuits. They are the same race, just one is secret. Nobody in known space puts this together—
...Go ahead, read that last line again... I had to do a double-take when I read it in the book, too. And it's on pp. 298-299, in case you think I'm making it up.
Page 299... I should have stopped reading then, but Tepper's on a roll. Why do the Gentherans and the Gibbekot care so much about humanity? Why, it's 'cause it turns out that they are not cat-like at all. Earth cats are actually mutant Gentherans! And, although humanity is as dumb as a bag of hammers and barely-out-of-the-caves primitive, the Gentherans dump their mutant population off on us (because we like them and let them live in our wretched hovels) and they become the common housecat. No lie, it's on page 298.
Maybe you hope that at this point we're over the whole cat-thing. Oh no, my friends, we are most certainly not! You may want to fetch a good stiff drink for this next one. Go ahead, I'll wait...
6. Neither Science Nor Magic Can Explain It
...So, the Gentheran/Gibbekot have this thing called a "mother mind." Genetic memory isn't new to science fiction by any means, but coming up with a completely implausible/impossible way for it to happen is. Perhaps it is best to hear it from the horse's mouth:
"In early pregnancy, our females duplicate a certain part of their brain, and the duplicate moves down what's called an epispinal duct to the womb, and this mother-brain part connects to the baby's mind before the skull grows around it. Then, after the baby is born, that mother-mind gradually makes connections with the baby's brain, and when the child learns to speak our language, the words link up and open all the way to all that information."
Honestly, do I really need to go into the problems presented by this? Maybe, maybe, you can accept that a space-faring race of super-cats could have evolved this outlandish mechanism—
I'd like to say that this is the most egregious example, but that is not the case. The Quaatar's sexy new plan to destroy humanity involves the creation and dissemination of an overly-complicated kind of tick that is made via a complex religious sacrificial practice (remember—
Dude. DUDE! The immune system just doesn't work that way. How can you be a grown adult in this day and age and not know that? Double dumb-ass ditto on the reviewers who didn't catch it.
Okay, maybe science is hard. Maybe sneering librarians and incompetent teachers make more mistakes than they care to admit. Fact is, Ms. Tepper can't even seem to keep it together when she's dealing with a magic system of her own design.
At one point, one of the Margarets and one of the deities called the Gardener travel to "The Gathering," the place where all the various gods hang out and do whatever it is they do when not bullying their followers. Before we get into this let me point out that, via her characters, Ms. Tepper exudes a sneering hatred for religion that would make Christopher Hitchens blush.
Anyway, the Gardener disguises herself and the Margaret as a human deity called "Oh-Pity-Me"—
Now, it should be understood that the fundamental hatred the Quaatar feel toward humanity is coming from their god 'cause they've all forgotten about it (p. 5). The gods of not one but THREE races have nothing better to do than hang around and try to plot humanity's demise? Not, say, plotting the demise of the Galactic Court under whose just heel the Quaatar have been suffering since page two? Further, they do this while a human goddess walks right up to them and starts talking. They chat with her, laying out their plans, boasting about how any moment now they're gonna close the trap.
I want to be very clear on this: the scene is not done in any kind of mythic style—
And remember, the best these three gods can come up with is some kind of mega-tick thing.
7. I'm a Princess!
For all the sneering hatred of religion, government, and Quaatar, how do things wrap up? Naturally, the seven Margarets walk the seven-fold-road and talk to the Keeper and get humanity's genetic memory back (thanks to the testimony of some of the other non-vile races—
All the other Margarets? Their lives were apparently not worth salvaging, especially when there was royalty to be had, or when you can fantasize about how great the world(s) would be if it were run by a woman who thinks herself way smarter than everybody else.
I want it be known that I did a little research on Ms. Tepper before starting this review, to make sure she wasn't dying of cancer or something and this book was her last effort. I'm non-vile that way, I guess. She seems to be in good health. She is 79 years old, though, and that may contribute to the situation. I noticed that Jack William's Stonehenge Gates stories had the same kind of rushed feel to them at times.
For those online SF fiction and review fans, Strange Horizons conducted an interview (along with two kid-gloves-on-eggshells reviews of The Margarets) just last month. If you peruse that interview and find yourself thinking that you’d really like to see it and its tone expanded to a whopping 508 pages then The Margarets is for you.