the Little Red Reviewer

Review: Sideshow, by Sheri S Tepper

Posted on: August 10, 2011

Sideshow, by Sheri S Tepper

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.


17 Responses to "Review: Sideshow, by Sheri S Tepper"

My friend told me I really need to read her. I was curious how the trilogy worked. I will have to see about getting a copy of her books. 🙂


It is hard when you really like an author’s work and feel somehow compelled to recommend what you think is their best because you desperately want the recommendee to like the author, but knowing that they might not enjoy the other work as much if they get the best first.

I often feel that way about Gaiman. Some of my favorites from his works thus far are ones that I think some see as lesser works and I want people to love them like I do.

I am in the camp who has yet to read Tepper, but every time I see the cover for her book The Water’s Rising I want to own it.


Kailana – you really can read any of these as a stand alone. Whichever one you run into first, give it a try. Tepper was never promoted much, which is too bad. She’s really worth reading.

Carl – Gaiman is a great example of this! I’m already recommending his American Gods, because I think it’s his best work, but then if people read that, they’ll be dissapointed in his other stuff. 😦 Re: Waters Rising, apparently it’s a psuedo-sequel to A Plague of Angels, which I haven’t read. maybe that’s why entire chunks of Waters Rising were lost on me. . . I too was seduced by the cover art!


Yes, and the problem I have with recommending American Gods to some people is that it is far too adult in places for some to whom I would recommend it. The Graveyard Book has become my go-to with him unless I know the person really well, because I think it is every bit as well crafted as American Gods.


Far too adult…now I’m really curious about this book 🙂


Your curiosity won’t last long, you’ll see what I mean in the first section. Most of the book isn’t like that, but when those moments are there, Gaiman doesn’t shy away from stepping over into adult language and situations, sometimes unnecessarily so in my opinion (and keep in mind I love the guy’s work).


LOL…so I should stick with the Graveyard Book?


I haven’t read much science fiction. Would you recommend this author for a newbie? Or do you have some authors in mind for a newcomer?


Hi TBM! I hosted a discussion on this very topic a while ago,
and Sideshow did make my “start here” list, along with a handful of others. Buckets of other folks chimed in with their thoughts too. Lots of goodies there to dive right into!


Thanks so much. And yay I actually read one: Dune! I’ve read Tim Powers On Stranger Tides but I haven’t read Last Call. I’ll add these books to my list. Thanks for the help!


Absolutely not, you should read everything Gaiman wrote (except for Interworld which was co-written and not very good).

If you are in the mood for a sprawling, road book filled with American and other mythology and folklore wrapped up in a good suspenseful mystery with some really great characters then American Gods is the way to go. Might be a perfect book to read when you are in England feeling homesick for America.

The Graveyard Book needs to be close to the top of your list for books to read this fall when you are in England. It is a beautiful multiple-award winning YA novel.


LOL…how many books did you just add to my list Carl? Let me know if you want to reread any of them with me. I’ll put Gaiman on my list.


Would happily re-read (or perhaps re-listen as I love the audio) The Graveyard Book with you for this year’s RIP Challenge.


RIP challenge? yikes, how many challenges and read alongs do you keep up with? you’re like a whirlwind! 🙂


Dune was actually my first ever group read, hosting or participating in.

I host two challenges annually: the Once Upon a Time Challenge in the spring and the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril (RIP) Challenge Sept 1-Oct 31. This will be the 6th year in a row for RIP.

And of course I host the non-challenge Sci Fi Experience Jan-Feb each year.


Having been convinced by recent reviews of your impeccable taste in books I must now read this one! Nice report.


lol, i do have impeccable tastes, don’t I? 😉


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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