Review: Sideshow, by Sheri S Tepper
Posted August 10, 2011on:
published in 1992
where I got it: purchased used
why I read it: This is my favorite Tepper, and one of my all time favorite SF novels.
Sheri Tepper’s Sideshow is one of my all time favorite science fiction novels. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve read this book. Technically, it is the third book in her loosely related trilogy that starts with Grass and Raising the Stones. I’ve read all three, and I believe they can easily be read as stand alones, or even better, in backwards order for a different, yet very satisfying experience.
Taking place many many generations after Raising the Stones (reviewed here), the remnants of humanity have fled to the hidden planet of Elsewhere, the only planet in the galaxy that is free of the Hobbs Land Gods. On Elsewhere, diversity is prized above everything else, all cultures are respected and allowed to live their lives as they wish, and the two Arbai doors are guarded day and night. The citizens of Elsewhere may all belong to different cultures and tribes, but everyone celebrates on Great Question Day, when they celebrate the founding of Elsewhere and jokingly attempt to answer the great question of the age old galactic university: what is the ultimate destiny of man?
Meanwhile, back on Earth, in our time, a very important set of siamese twins are born. Nela and Bertan are as loved by their doting parents as any children could hope to be. And then, well, things go very badly with their parents and the twins quite literally end up joining the circus. Actually, it couldn’t have worked out better. If they’d never joined the circus, they would have never met the alien, and our story would never have happened.
If I got much more into the plot you’d be reading for ages, and even worse I know I’d inadvertently give away some great spoilers. The plot is subtle, engrossing, at times hilarious and at times truly tragic. Strong characters abound, along side aliens, orphans, ghosts, and names you might recognize from other Tepper novels.
Sideshow is a book about free will, control, beliefs, fears and good intentions. It’s not about Elsewhere, or the police-state of Tolerance. It’s about giving up all of that, and what you gain when you give it up. Intrigued? Confused? I hope enough so that you think about reading it.
The blurb on the back describes it as “Tepper’s most controversial novel yet”. Other than getting a bit heavy handed at the end, the story never struck me as controversial. I suppose some people might find her feminist scifi style unsettling? Or perhaps some would be taken aback by the socio-cultural-political undertones? Perhaps this just isn’t a book for narrow minded folks, as I imagine the ending could be quite disconcerting. Ahh, yes, now I see why this book was controversial! And it’s got nothing to do with the feminism. or at least, not much.
I’m suddenly reminded of my favorite line in the book, one that has really stuck with me through the years:
“Always be sure where you are standing before you draw a line and dare another to cross it”
In a way, that line neatly sums up the philosophy of the book, although the story isn’t quite that melodramatic. Tepper, she’s tricksy subtle, she is.
Ok, so the book gets a bit heavy handed at the end. It’s Sheri S Tepper, she does that, it’s not a big deal. Sideshow isn’t one of my favorite books because it’s a great example of feminist scifi, nor is it a favorite because of the socio-cultural-political undertones, but those are two great reasons to read it. It’s one of my favorite scifi books of all the time because the science fictional aspects of it, Jory and her protectors, what the Hobbs Land Gods really are, is in my opinion, Tepper’s best work and pure SF brilliance.
I almost don’t want to recommend Sideshow to people who have never read Tepper before. Sure, most of her books are good to great, but this one is just incredible, it could easily spoil you for the rest of her oeuvre.