Where to begin with Sheri S Tepper’s The Waters Rising? Where to begin, indeed. I have yet to come across anyone with anything positive to say about this novel. It seems to have been universally panned by critics and readers, and its appearance on the Clarke Award shortlist was greeted with disbelief, not least because many people are convinced that it is fantasy rather than science fiction.
Certainly, as the novel opens, it does indeed look like a fantasy novel. Abasio, helpfully described in the ‘Cast of Characters’ as ‘a wanderer with a mysterious mission’ and his horse, ‘Big Blue’, described as ‘a horse with a history’, are travelling along a road, observed by a troop of supposedly hidden archers. Blue is the talking horse with a taste for bad puns whose presence seems to have exercised so many commentators; and yes, the puns are pretty awful, as is the arch backchat as he and Abasio make their escape from the troop of archers. We are presumably to understand that this is an old established relationship, a couple who are comfortable with one another. Talking horses also suggests Narnia, and one might think of Blue as a descendant of the vain and silly Bree in The Horse and His Boy. However, I found myself thinking about Christopher Stasheff’s The Warlock in Spite of Himself, Rod Gallowglass and his talking robot horse, Fess, and for much of the early part of the novel I waited for Blue to do something more … well, significant, because what is the point of creating a talking horse if you aren’t going to do something amazing with it?
Abasio and Blue are traversing a strange, empty semi-flooded landscape as they make their way to a place called Woldsgard. Their conversation suggests that water levels are rising fast, though the cause of this rising seems to be uncertain. (Indeed, I was never quite clear of the explanation for this flooding as it seemed to originate not with the melting of polar icecaps but had more to do with water deep underground being released, which made not a jot of geological sense so far as I could see, not least because water does find its level.) The wilderness is exchanged in short order for a bucolic landscape, a castle with grounds and a vegetable garden, and placenames that sound as though they’ve come from a William Morris fantasy, or indeed from Mirrlees Lud-in-the-Mist. The names of the people – Oldwife Gancer, Crampocket Cullen – do little to dispel this sense of having stumbled into a once and future England.
And then Abasio encounters a ‘small brown person’ sitting in a tree. Shades of Puck of Pook’s Hill, perhaps? Then comes an enigmatic paragraph.
He blinked, He saw a child. But he also saw something … as though the child stood within some larger, older embodiment, crystalline, barely visible … invisible. He blinked again. It was gone. One of those temporal twists that sometimes proved true? Or not? (4)
So, child with hidden secret suggests fantasy, while something larger, older, crystalline, suggests something more science-fictional reinforced by the mention of a ‘temporal twist’, which is not the kind of comment one expects in a fantasy novel. It positions Abasio as someone unusual, as if the presence of a talking horse and the comment in the Cast of Characters hadn’t already done that, yet this paragraph is followed by a lengthy sequence in which Abasio assists the small brown person, revealed as Xulai (and she goes to great lengths to explain to Abasio how her name is pronounced in ‘our language’, to establish herself as ‘other’, thus confirming that ‘brown’ does indeed refer to skin colour), as she carries out a task for her mistress, the Woman Upstairs, who is dying.
This task involves a journey from the castle into the woods, in the dark, to fetch something from a mysterious shrine. It is a dangerous task for a small child and Abasio determines to help Xulai, although not without first delivering a homily about overcoming one’s fears. Needless to say, with Abasio’s silent help, Xulai completes her task, and is then concealed by him when they encounter Alicia, Duchess of Altamont and her confidant, Jenger, searching the woods. And somewhere in all this, Xulai has suddenly acquired a talking chipmunk, which now resides in her pocket.
By this point it is already becoming difficult to take this novel seriously, but one perseveres as Xulai confidingly takes Abasio back to the castle with her and to her mistress’s room. There is the sense that Abasio already knows what is going on but the authorial focus has suddenly shifted to Xulai. This is the first instance of a trick that Tepper will pull several times during the novel, casually discarding a viewpoint character as her interest moves elsewhere. It leaves the reader gasping, feeling oddly cheated.
By this point it is, however, clear that there is something odd about Xulai, and something odd about the manner of Xu-i-Lok’s death. The assumption is that she has been cursed, but it would seem that her death has been willed by Alicia, Duchess of Altamont, for purposes that aren’t initially clear. Xulai was brought from Tingawa as a young child to take on the role of soul carrier when it became clear that Xu-i-Lok was dying, and now that Xu-i-Lok is dead, she must carry out her task. The suggestion too is that Abasio has not arrived by chance, not to judge from the ease with which he assimilates himself into the Duke’s household. It comes as no surprise, therefore, when almost immediately the Duke determines to send Xulai away from Woldsgard, first to Wilderbook Abbey, and then home to Tingawa. This reinforces the idea of The Waters Rising as a classic fantasy novel, with Xulai as the special child marked by a destiny, surrounded by a dedicated group of supporters, blessed with talking familiars and sought by her enemies.
However, it is also clear that this is not quite a classic fantasy world. There are many references to the Before Time, and to ease machines and manuals, to killing machines, to a belief that two of the moons are artificial satellites, and references to what is clearly genetic manipulation (which puts the business of the talking horse in a new light). And what about Abasio’s so-called library helmet? So is this novel a science fantasy, along the lines of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon books. It might be, or it might not be. And this is one of the novel’s major flaws. Tepper doesn’t seem to have been able to make up her mind whether this is a novel in which the characters gradually make discoveries about this mysterious ‘Before Time’ of which they seem only vaguely aware, or whether The Waters Rising is a novel in which the characters are well aware of what they have lost and are working to recover that knowledge. Instead, we have this uncomfortable halfway house in which characters intermittently use the language of complex technology without seeming to be fully aware of what they’re talking about while apparently also being very clear what it is they’re doing, even if they have cutesy names for the machines that no longer quite work. One is almost left with the sense that the characters have been playing dumb for the reader until, caught off guard, they suddenly slip out of their roles and start showing they know precisely what they’re about.
On top of this, and this becomes much more evident as the novel unfolds, the recovery of knowledge is placed mainly in the hands of one race, the Tingawa, who act for the good of all humanity, dealing with the dangerous technologies of the past. It doesn’t seem to occur to Tepper that she has effectively created a group of Magic Asians, skilled in technology, rescuing the ignorant white-skinned from their own technical follies. One can only presume that Tepper thinks she is sidestepping certain stereotypes by standing them on their head, so to speak, but in doing so she actually reinforces the othering she is apparently trying to avoid. Not that there was much chance of avoiding this as Xulai is already firmly positioned in the text as being different in almost every way you can think of.
If the racial element weren’t bad enough, there is the issue of just how old Xulai actually is. This has been a source of uncertainty since the beginning of the novel when the child appears to be variously four or five, seven or eight, nine or ten, and Abasio, when he comforts her, frequently comments for the benefit of the reader about the oddly inappropriate feelings he harbours towards her. One wondered quite why and indeed how Tepper would deal with this apparent latent paedophilia until it is revealed that Xulai is in fact much older but has been concealing this fact through some sort of unexplained magical skill in order to hide from her enemies. Thus, as she’s really twenty, it’s been fine for Abasio to feel as he does because he instinctively knows she is much older than she looks. Again, I am quite sure this is not what Tepper intended but it comes over as frankly very sleazy indeed.
The narrative is already struggling to keep itself together when the party is despatched to deliver Xulai to Wilderbook Abbey where she will supposedly continue her education. The journey is tedious, as is the account of the journey, with a complex series of separations and reunitings as the party seeks to avoid detection by Alicia, Duchess of Altamont. The problem for the reader is that it is so perfectly obvious what is going on one wonders why on earth Tepper needs to go through this elaborate charade to demonstrate the reality of it to the characters. Indeed, pacing will prove to be an issue throughout the novel as the narration becomes progressively slower and slower. The journey from Woldsgard to Wilderwood is also distressingly reminiscent of various lengthy journeys in Lord of the Rings, a similarity enhanced by the way in which Xulai’s protector, the Great Bear of Zol, is persuaded to betray her, only to redeem himself through death much later on.
Wilderwood Abbey is less a place of sanctuary than one might anticipate. The size of the place is extraordinary – supposedly, it houses 8,000 people, though where they all come from and how they are supported in a countryside populated with tiny hamlets and small towns, is anyone’s guess. There is a whole sub-plot in which it is revealed that the Prior is in cahoots with Alicia while the inevitably kindly Abbot is clueless as to what is happening but is protected and assisted by others among the Elders. It is here that Xulai is kidnapped by Jenger, Alicia’s confidant, but assumes her powers and escapes with Abasio, fleeing for Merhaven. By this time, however, the narrative viewpoint has shifted again, to Precious Wind, Xulai’s tutor, who is suddenly revealed to be a competent fighter and tactician, not to mention being cognisant of how some of the machines to which Alicia has access actually work. It is she who organises the removal of Prior Robert and Alicia’s other supporters before she leaves with the wolf pack she has meanwhile been training, also heading for Merhaven, where a Tingawan ship awaits.
Already, the novel has drifted a long way from its opening chapters. Although it is clear that Xulai is indeed special in some way she seems to be only one player in a vast web of conspiracy. Indeed, it is clear that Alicia and her mother Marimi are plotting to take control of the world, through a series of strategic marriages. The final part of the plan had been for Alicia to marry Justinian, although, anticipating trouble, he has already gone into hiding. Beyond that, Alicia seems to be hell-bent on derailing Mirami’s plans because she is obsessed with the presence of the Tingawa and is distracted into a sub-plot involving killing all Tingawa in Norland.
One might suppose that the Tingawa having escaped Norland, taking with them Abasio and Justinian, who suddenly reappears, the story is at an end. Xulai’s purpose will be revealed and everyone will live happily ever after within certain parameters involving the rising sea levels. However, Tepper seems unwilling to end the story, which now takes a sharp turn from the messy and disorganised towards the simply deranged. Tepper has been prone throughout the novel to have characters deliver lectures and homilies but this is taken to a whole new level when, having finally reached ‘home’, Xulai is summoned to meet the King of the Sea People, a kraken, who delivers a long and impassioned speech about the future of humanity once the sea levels rise, and how experimentation has been carried out to determine which animals might best survive surgery and genetic manipulation in order to take to the seas again (this apparently explains why Blue is a talking horse, though not so far a swimming horse), before revealing that Xulai has the ability to live on land or on sea, and can change herself into a cephalopod. More than that, as she produces sea eggs, she has the capacity to help others change too. I could go on but the science of this is so questionable as to be utterly risible. Is Tepper seriously suggesting this as a way forward if sea levels rise? God alone knows but it makes very little sense in either fictional or scientific terms.
This might also be the place to note that tweeness sets in irredeemably as the Sea king shows Xulai around his world. The cuteness burns, it does.
As if that weren’t enough, the party has to return to Norland in order to finally despatch the Old Dark Man, the mysterious mentor of both Mirami and Alicia, who turns out to be a relic of the Before Times, a slaugherer – and this incidentally involves another long moral tale about how the world fell apart in the Before Times. Will this novel never end? It does in fact finally draw to a close in a brave new world in which those who swallow sea eggs can sire merfolk, and one assumes everyone lives happily if soggily ever after.
It’s hard to find any redeeming features in this book. It’s too long and the prose is very poor. To take one sample near the beginning ‘a dilapidated ferry teetered on the wavelets’, leading one to wonder just what kind of water they have on this world. A little later, Abasio’s wagon is ‘hung all over with a jangle of ladles and vats that should have clanked like an armorer’s workshop as the wagon had come towards her if it hadn’t all been tied down’. It’s like this all the way through the novel.
Tepper seems to have only the haziest idea of how her world is put together. On the one hand we have the post-catastrophe bucolic Norland, with its place names drawn from Morris and Tolkien and other English fantasies, set against the faux-Asian Tingawa or Thousand Islands. But to confuse matters Abasio lets slip at one point that Norland was once composed of countries called things like Florda, leaving one to wonder exactly how the USA underwent this transformation. Is this a fantasy world or a far future Earth in denial?
As already noted, Tepper seems to have an equally hazy idea of plotting and storytelling. There is actually a story of sorts in here, one that deals with the survival of technology that is now being used and abused by trial and error, mainly abused, the result being that technology is bad, except when the good people use it, whereupon it is alright after all, but the villains mustn’t be allowed near it. There is a vague stab at portraying Alicia, Duchess of Altamont as a young woman who has herself been used and abused, more to be pitied and despised, but not so much that she can be offered redemption. Only the intrinscally good can receive that. The bad guys must and do die; the moral landscape is that crude and basic.
However, what comes over most strongly is a sense that Tepper is picking things up and putting them down when she gets bored with them. She wanders from character to character, telling a bit of their story and then moving on to something and someone else. The story’s pacing is so slow as to be unendurable. One longs for excitement. Even the big dramatic set-pieces, such as there are, continue at the same funereal pace, and more than once the story suddenly jumps over an event from beginning to aftermath, without dealing with the bit in the middle.
In the end, I am forced to conclude that with a good following wind, in a bright light, and if you squint in the right way, The Waters Rising is just about categorisable as an sf novel, if only because it is impossible to ignore the quantity of technology that turns up in it. But I’d be lying if I said it was a good sf novel, much as I’d be lying if I said it was a good fantasy novel. What it is doing on the Arthur C Clarke Award’s shortlist is anyone’s guess.