In August 2010, I wrote about Sheri S. Tepper’s novel Grass and the haunting effect it had on me. For over a year, that novel haunted every other book I read, but I feared returning to Tepper’s work…until now. At a big end-of-year sale at Uncle Hugo’s Bookstore in Minneapolis, I picked up a used copy of Tepper’s novel Six Moon Dance. The title struck me as being as alien as the cover artwork, which took reading the novel to understand. Not really the way to entice readers to a story full of daring speculations about life, sexuality, social constructs and a living planet.
As in Grass, Tepper’s use of language can be lyrical as well as challenging. Her “voice” tends toward the impersonal because she rarely takes the reader closer to a character by inhabiting his or her point of view. The impersonal voice and the distance serve her purposes of creating a sense of a historical document or report that goes well beyond something official.
Although the story opens with a young boy named Mouche, he is not the protagonist. Tepper pursues an ensemble story in this novel, moving from Mouche to the Questioner to a group of early settlers and to others. By giving the reader many different perspectives on the same thing, she broadens the story but sacrifices any kind of reader identification or relationship with one character. I actually enjoyed the Questioner’s sections the most because this character has an unusual make-up that reminded me a bit of the Borg without the drive to assimilate in the “Star Trek” universe. She is also one of the best developed characters. Another aspect of the story, Haraldson’s Edicts that the Questioner enforces, reminded me strongly of “Star Trek’s” Prime Directive.
I loved the setting of this novel. A planet, Newholme, that has been sparsely developed my humans who live in a quasi-medieval-wild-west kind of society, upside-down from modern civilization on earth. This planet, however, is not as colorful or distinctive in its landscape as the planet Grass was, but geologically, it’s far more interesting. Earthquakes tremble the world so often that the people have begun to worry about it. The nearby volcanoes have also awakened, several erupting and destroying their surrounding valleys, including all the residents. These geological symptoms have a cause that could destroy the planet and everything on it if not stopped, and eventually all the characters in the story play a role in that endeavor. The flora and fauna, however, haven’t the prominent role Tepper gave them in Grass. Geology and the planet’s six moons, yes, six, propel this story.
Secrets also drive the story. Newholme’s religion rules life and the clerics have one BIG secret they are trying to keep from the Questioner when she finally arrives. That secret turns out to also have a relationship to the geological aspects of the story in a wonderfully satisfying way, making the multiple ethical dilemmas that arise enough to twist any mind into a pretzel of thoughts. Then there are the more mundane secrets of familial relationships…and lies, of course. Tepper juggles many story threads in this novel and does it effortlessly.
One thing about this novel I didn’t like was the character names, including some titles. For example, the Hagion refers to the gallery of female saints and goddesses of the religion. The clerics are called “Hags.” I wondered if Tepper was having some fun with this at first, but after awhile, this title only irritated me as did the acronym for the Council of Worlds: COW. I saw the humor in some of the names, but I found myself often wishing Tepper had followed a more mundane path in naming her characters. She does supply a cast of characters list at the beginning which was extremely helpful at times.
One of the interesting questions for me concerned who the antagonist(s) was (were). One woman, Marool Mantelby, by her evil nature provides some obstacles and conflicts, but her reign is far too short and over the top. Several other characters behave badly in the way of villains, but Tepper identifies no one antagonist which leaves that question open for the ethical dilemmas.
Another question for me concerned the dramatic momentum. Usually a protagonist drives a story through his or her desire to achieve a goal or solve a problem. In Six Moon Dance, Tepper spends almost the entire first half establishing her ensemble cast, building the world in the reader’s mind, and establishing the “threat” the Questioner presents to Newholme and its residents. Tepper uses some characters to do all this, but also spends whole chapters laying out Haraldson’s edicts and where Newholme and its history fit into the history of the Council of Worlds. This made for slow reading at times. But this information is also important to understanding the action in the last half of the novel.
I can’t say I’m as enthusiastic about this novel as I was about Grass. Would I recommend it? Yes. Tepper’s writing is well worth the effort, and she raises interesting questions and dilemmas in this novel worth contemplation. I look forward to reading more of Tepper’s work….