Sheri S. Tepper

The science fiction and fantasy author Sheri S. Tepper died last Saturday. I never met her, but I began reading her work in mid to late 1980s. Locus magazine, often considered one of the principal news source of the professional F&SF community, ran her obituary, and that obituary is one of the reasons for this blog, because of what it did not say about Tepper and her work. While the obituary cited a great number of her books and the numerous awards that she received over her career as a writer, there wasn’t a single word about what was important about her writing.

Because I did not know her, I can’t speak to her as a person, only as a writer. Her writing could be absolutely devastating in its perspectives on the macho side of men, about the strength of women, and even their necessary coldness, and about the hubris of the male-dominated political systems, especially in dealing with or failing to deal with environmental and ecological issues. I’ve always had the feeling that the SF&F field felt a certain embarrassment about Sheri Tepper and what I [and some others] saw and see as her unapologetic ‘eco-feminism.’

The strongest and most direct of her novels in attacking the male propensity to resort to violence in addressing anything disagreeable was The Gate to Women’s Country, first published in 1988. Especially for men or more “traditional” women, it can be a very disturbing book, because it points out the worst in male behavior and nature as well as some of the worst in female nature – carried to extremes in a cold and very orderly fashion. It also contains a brutal depiction of the absolute worse of the overt misogyny of patriarchal fundamentalist Christianity. Unsurprisingly, the Locus obituary omitted any mention of The Gate to Women’s Country.

Tepper could be indirect in some of her work, or brutally strident, but the underlying themes of everything of hers that I read, some ten or so of her novels, centered on the fundamental issues of biology and ecology and how they impacted people, history, and government… and, of course, how far too many men, and even some women, seemed so involved with power and power games to the detriment of society and the environment.

Through works with various degrees of entertainment, she raised issues that are still relevant, sometimes disturbingly, sometimes indirectly, but their relevance remains, and she deserves recognition and appreciation for that, and not just a polite listing of her jobs, published works, and awards. This is my effort to point that out.

10 thoughts on “Sheri S. Tepper”

  1. JakeB says:

    I think a book of hers that might be even more brutal as an indictment of the evils that religion can generate is _Raising the Stones_. It also has a great example of the terrible consequences that the self-centered worldview of teenagers can bring about.

    I loved her writing. I thought she was a good example of that phenomenon you’ve often mentioned, that women have to be much better than men are in a discipline to even get close to the same recognition.

    I’ll also just mention that a great field linguist I know once observed that her book _After Long Silence_ had a terrific depiction of field research.

  2. Daze says:

    At least two of her books contain truly gobsmacking twists at the halfway point, in which you change PoV and suddenly realise that everything you’ve read so far is dramatically wrong in an unexpected way.

    That point in The Family Tree is the only time in my life that I have literally jumped out of my chair saying “what ??? … no …” – and then had to go back and reread the first half again to check that she has not cheated, but told you in straightforward words what you haven’t seen at all because of your assumptions about what you’re being told.

  3. Meran niCuill says:

    I already feel her loss. I’m a long time fan, even wrote her a letter once, which she kindly answered with relative quickness.

    AND she signed the huge box of books I sent her (with her permission).

    She was kind, hard in all the right places, and so very smart!

  4. Kristina says:

    Thank you for writing this pertinent and thoughtful article. I didn’t even find out until today, reading. It feels like a great author has dropped out of this world with hardly a ripple.

    As another long time fan, I’ve been recently considering shooting a film juxtaposing her and Margaret Atwood, as two important feminist sf&f writers and thinkers, but that will be rather challenging now… I’m a bit in shock…

    If anyone has suggestions for people to talk to about her, or put me in touch with likely interviewees, I’d really appreciate it.

    ConstanceJBrodie -at- gmail dot com

  5. Karen Cleary says:

    Thank you for this. She was one of the most unjustly ignored writers, and what she wrote was so thought provoking – perhaps why she was so often ignored, she showed up so many uncomfortable consequences to where we’re headed. Just reading all the eulogies for Ursula Le Guin, who deserves them all, & wishing Sheri Tepper had been accorded that much recognition.

    1. Ursula Le Guin was, shall we say, a bit more “gentle” in her fiction than was Sheri S. Tepper. Frankly, I owe much more to Tepper than Le Guin.

  6. beth hector says:

    I think it said it all when I saw the LeGuin comment about Tepper’s work – that this is the heart and soul of science fiction. She was a writer’s writer. And if she was uncomfortable for some people, well… read The Family Tree. Enjoy. She will be sorely missed. I think I have every book she ever wrote.

  7. Carla Szczuka says:

    I have read all her books and loved them all. I have given The Gateway to Women’s Country to many of my family and friends as presents. I will miss not having any new books from her.

  8. Janna Presley says:

    Please, I am trying to recall the name of Tepper’s book that involved the sacrifice of young women for a certain mushroom(?)of immortality. Young women were drugged and taken to the desert for this “ceremony.” NOT Awakeners” tears of Virenel. A different book. Thanx!

    1. I’ve read a fair amount of Tepper, but I don’t recall the book you mention.

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