Out of the six finalists for this year's Arthur C. Clarke Award for SF published in the UK, Sherri S. Tepper's The Waters Rising perhaps has drawn the most flak. Beginning with Christopher Priest's succinct dismissal of the novel's qualification to be considered a SF novel, "For fuck’s sake, it is a quest saga and it has a talking horse. There are puns on the word ‘neigh.'", most of the discussion revolving around The Waters Rising have dealt with that issue of what precisely is a "SF" novel in relation to what constitutes a quest or epic fantasy. The novel certainly supports interpretations of both, although the far future, nanotechnology-based underpinning of a post-apocalyptic, quasi-medieval society is largely subsumed by the traditional characteristics of a quest story, replete with what some might pejoratively label as "travel porn," as well as cartoonishly-evil antagonists. It is only near the end of the novel that the quest narrative fades into a slightly more plausible SF plot, with a strong emphasis on "slightly.""Neigh, neigh," offered the horse, "ti-i-idewise."
The Waters Rising is a sequel to Tepper's 1993 novel, A Plague of Angels, which I have not read. Apparently all the two novels share in common is a single human character, Abasio, and his talking horse, Big Blue. Why Big Blue is a talking horse, I have no clue, except maybe he exists to make horrid puns such as the one quoted at the beginning of this review. If Big Blue were the only talking animal in this novel, perhaps I could dismiss it as an anomaly, but the later addition of a talking chipmunk (even if the reason for its talking is explained within a quasi-mystical origin) makes it difficult to not parse this novel as a straight-up quest fantasy.
The story's plot is relatively straightforward. There are a group of people, including Abasio and a seemingly young "soul bearer" named Xulai, are charged with returning to Xulai's eastern homeland of Tingawa (apparently a vague amalgamation of China and Japan), ostensibly to bear the soul of a dead Tingawan princess to her resting place. Yet along the way, after numerous pages devoted to the niceties of travel and legendary quasi-histories, the troupe struggles against the wicked Duchess Alicia, who unleashes remnants of long-lost machines to try and end their quest. All of this is standard-issue Quest 101 plot, with very little in the way of narrative innovation to keep this from devolving into a turgid, plodding affair.
The characterizations are very shallow, as most of the characters remain relatively static, with very little development in terms of motivation or reaction to plot developments. Tepper has divided her characters into nice, neat "good" and "evil" sections, with virtually no hint as to why either should remain so. Although there certainly can be well-constructed fictions that possess such stark contrasts between "good' and "evil" personages, The Waters Rising lacks any sense of real depth. Perhaps part of the problem lies in how characters such as Xulai are portrayed:
Xulai set her feet on the path, noticing with some surprise that she was not trembling. Her feet moved solidly and steadily. Indeed, she felt...what? not quite cheerfulness. But the stone had been approving! Approval was good. Even better was being reminded of Precious Wind! No one in the whole world was more calm and poised and well mannered than Precious Wind. And, thinking about it, as the wagon man had bid her, if the stone knew Precious Wind, then the stone knew about Princess Xu-i-lok, who had advised her to make the obeisance but had forgotten to say anything about stones that talked, though, again, if Xulai had thought about it at the time, she would have noticed that she was to ask permission. Well, if one asked permission, presumably permission would have to be granted, and if not in speech, then how? So it was clear, if one thought about it, that the Woman Upstairs had implied that the stones would speak.
Faulknerian prose this passage most certainly is not. In most novels, there are passages that when taken out of context can mislead readers into thinking that the entire work is clunky. In this case, however, that is a representative passage. Leaving aside the "precious" nomenclature for a moment, the internal monologue feels stilted, artificial; I suspect very few people think in such a fashion. In her attempt to flesh out the characters' thoughts, Tepper has only succeeding to reducing them to mere vehicles of expression, devoid of anything that feels "human." Tepper's tendency to force issues can be seen in another passage, where Abasio is conversing with Xulai:
"Will I be homesick?" he had repeated in a thoughtful voice. Well, would he? "Home was a farm I had been eager to leave from the time I was old enough to walk. Home was a city so filthy, so violent, and so torture ridden that I sometimes shudder when I remember it. Home was a few good friends or, rather, good fellows who could be depended upon if one were under attack, though – for the most part – if they had shared one thoughtful new idea among them, it would have surprised me greatly. Home was a long journey into new lands to the south while people died all around me, cut down like a harvest of grain. Home was one woman, one woman I loved, love, gone now, leaving only her speaking, thinking spirit behind. Home held another woman I had been with but never met, but who, I was assured, would raise my son to heroic stature by sheer force of will. Home was that son, not yet born when I left, a son I unintentionally fathered though I was unconscious before, during, and for some time after the act. Home was a war in which too many good men and creatures died, irreplaceable men, irreplaceable creatures, irreplaceable love."
Although admittedly, such sentiments are often expressed in such a fashion in many speculative fictions, it is a laborious effort that attempts to provide a backstory for readers who have not read the earlier novel in lieu of actually writing dialogue that sounds "natural." The entire middle portions of the novel contain dialogue that is similarly stilted, making it difficult to do a close reading, since the entire affair bogs down into a series of narrations of past and current threatening events, such as the one that gives rise to the true conflict of the novel, that of humanity versus nature:
Abasio shrugged, "The Edgers told me the waters will keep coming. They said that when the earth was formed, the aggregation included several huge ice comets. They were mixed and surrounded by a lot of stone, so there were reservoirs of water deep inside the planet that nobody knew were there. Recently, they've found a way out. There's a country called Artemisia, south of the mountains. The Big River used to run through there and the land went on south a long way before it came to a part of the ocean they called the Gulf. Now over half that land is gone. Of course, it was lowland to begin with. I haven't been to the East End of this continent, but I've heard about it. All the cities that used to be along the eastern shore are underwater now, or with their tops sticking out. There's people living in the tops of the old buildings. They go back and forth in boats. Down below, in the parts below water, they farm oysters and mussels."
This premise is hard to buy, especially if anyone knows much about the Earth's geology. With global warming, yes, some lowlands can be flooded, but to have this concept of having a vast subterranean waterworks main bursting and sending sea waters high enough to overtop lands thousands of feet above current sea level? It is preposterous. Leaving aside the unnecessary repetition ("down below, in the parts below water"), the amount of info-dumping would perhaps give even WoT fans pause.
Tepper certainly is not subtle in discussing gender issues. Although her Sleeping Beauty tale, Beauty, had detractors noting its stark depiction of gender inequalities, it is much more subtle in comparison to The Waters Rising, where, for some unknown reason, post-disaster Earth has somehow reverted back to a near-exact analogue of the European Middle Ages, including even the issue of dowries:
"On Wold's side: dowry. On Tingawa's side: wife-price. That's another of our differences. In Norland, women are so little valued, a man must be paid to take a wife; in Tingawa, women are so greatly treasured, a man must pay dearly to get one, as I have good reason to know!" Bear still owed a large part of the bride-price for his own betrothed, and getting it by wagering had proven unprofitable.
As a discussion of gender issues, this scene felt shoehorned in, as Tepper is not as much deconstructing the very real and problematic issue of gender portrayals in epic fantasies as she is bolting this onto a narrative without integrating it in a suitable fashion into the narrative world. The overall effect is diversion from narrative development rather than deepening it, as perhaps could have been the case.
After hundreds of pages wasted in following a travelogue/quest, The Waters Rising finally reaches the end game, when the troupe reaches the cephalopod Sea King. Tepper arrives at a magico-mystical solution to the inexplicable water increase by having the terrestrial species, humans included, be genetically altered so they could be hybrid cephalopod/human, etc. species that would live underwater. Of course, permission would need to be sought from the various animals, some of which seem to have been altered to permit human-style speech. This concluding section felt so hippy-drippy that I thought I was experiencing one of those old environmentalist commercials where a mute Native American was looking forlornly at forest/environmental damage and pollution. When this is contrasted with a fuller explanation as to what caused a long-ago disaster (hint: "Oog" equals the Abrahamic faiths), Tepper could not telegraph her eco-religious beliefs in a more bald fashion.
Tepper's refusal to be subtle or at least nuanced in presenting these elements makes it difficult to take anything away from her thematic treatments other than "she makes a strong case for the opposing side to her views." When viewed as a whole, the constituent elements, especially concerning the environmental factors, are risible. The humans feel like constructs, the talking animals seem like stereotypical stand-ins for "pure," "more primitive" human societies, and when this is introduced to a setting that has a questionable cause of crisis in the first place, it makes the resulting novel a dull, dreary mess. While I could (eventually) see how The Waters Rising could be considered "science fiction," I still am baffled how this very weak and disjointed novel was chosen by a panel of judges to be the "best" SF published in the UK in 2011. It easily is the worst of the four Clarke Award nominees that I have read to date.