So, I’ve covered quite a lot of ground in this series on fantasy books or series that I think deserve more attention. This week, I’ve picked another book that’s got more than its share of sci-fi elements, like many a 1980s fantasy did, but for all intents and purposes can be read as a fantasy. However, the sci-fi elements and approach give it a scope that most fantasies don’t even attempt.
The late Sherri S. Tepper is widely accounted an underrated author – prolific and well-respected, but never a top-drawer commercial success. Part of this may be her, from what I can tell, usual brand of mixed speculative fiction – fantasy-like stories set on worlds so different than they could also be science fiction. The exact definition of each genre is a debate we won’t get into, but I consider one element of good sci-fi to be the presence of an experimental hypothesis to be explored. Many fantasies also have this ‘what if?’ factor, though often it is less explicit, disguised in a more historical setting, and confounded by magic.
In the case of the The Awakeners – a duology I read in omnibus – the action is set in the far future, on a once-colonised exoplanet where the human colonists now live in a roughly-medieval society. This is by no means a unique trope (though often the far-future fantasy seeing is a post-apocalyptic earth), but rather than just being an excuse to replay the middle ages, the setting here, and discovering the suppressed truths about it, are central to the story.
The first remarkable thing about the planet in The Awakeners is the River, a huge equatorial ocean that flows strongly in one direction. The North Shore of this river is where the main settlements of the humans live, and the river influences everything from commerce to theology. Going against the flow – even on land – is proscribed by the ruling religion, and the boats that ply the current float continually downstream, visiting village by village in a seven-year cycle. This unidirectionality even fuels their faith in a sort of immortality resurrection.
So far, so fantasy, and to be fair the other “sci-fi” element also has fantastical consequences: the presence of aliens natives. Many fantasies feature oppressive and/or exotic non-human “races” (which are actually species), though often they are of a magical or mythological origin. The difference here is that it is these creatures who are the natives, not humans, and while the struggle is one for ultimate survival, there’s the underlying tension of who really has the right to be there. Still, as these aliens are avian near-humanoids with primitive technology, they fit into the fantasy without any difficulty.
It is the way these factors are used to determine the whole story that lends this book such a distinct sci-fi air, for all its fantasy trappings. The plot revolves around a young boy and girl – one a river-boatman, the other a novice priestess – who learn dark and dangerous secrets about their world and religion that rules it. Naturally, this involves the river and the alien natives, as well as the distant colonial past and the fragile equilibrium that has been established since.
The book is strikingly mature, not in terms of rating, but in terms of the strong themes and the way they play out. It has a lot to say about religion, colonialism, and the dark truths that societies accept. There is more tragedy than triumph, almost no “action” in the normal fantasy sense, but an absorbing story woven with consummate skill – and with a sharp point. This is no “escapist” fiction, no pulp adventure. I’m not even sure it’s “enjoyable”, but it is an amazing, absorbing read: a book at times very hard to put down, and one that stays with you.
The Awakeners is neither Tepper’s most celebrated or popular book(s), but it happens to be the only one I’ve read, revisiting it makes me wonder why I haven’t read more. It helped that it is self-contained (albeit two books at once), but she has other stand-alones that I’ve added to my ever-expanding TBR. If this is the standard she sets, I look forward to reading them, expecting them to be just as vivid, absorbing, and thought-provoking…but perhaps knowing they are not something to be undertaken lightly (as well as the sci-fi aspects) has kept me from rushing straight to them.
I’d love to hear from anyone who’s read The Awakeners, or Tepper’s other books. I’d also love to hear of anyone else’s Hidden Gems – I’d be happy to host a guest blog for anyone who wanted to talk about one. The criteria is only that it’s a fantasy book that you feel is unfairly overlooked, whether that’s a newer book not getting enough attention, or an older one that’s fallen out of sight. Let me know!