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Gibbon's Decline and Fall, Sheri S. Tepper, Bantam Spectra, 1996, 465 pp.

If Gibbon's Decline and Fall had any subtlety or ambiguity, it was much too cleverly concealed for me to find it. Tepper has always been a writer with a mission: to write about the struggles and triumphs of women. This is a worthy goal, to be certain, and I plan to moderate my remarks with some respect for this aim in the context of history (ie, male structures of power, male science fiction writers, male reviewers of science fiction, and so on). But the Pope is conspiring with Islamic leaders to subjugate women? Really? And other cosmic forces begin their conquest of Earth by brainwashing men into subjugating women? A review of this book has to be also situated in the debate about didacticism and ideology. Does ideology precede culture, or vice versa? It is difficult to argue successfully that a work of art can be free of all ideology (and any claim otherwise is likely part of another ideological framework), but how far does or should ideology intrude on culture? Perhaps "intrude" is a misleading construction, and the debate should be centred around words like "permeate" or "saturate." If all works of art portray or convey ideology of some kind (as with Tepper's fight against the suppression of women), then I suspect the discussion should concern how to talk about conflicting ideologies (since neither "ideology" nor "culture" are monolithic entities). How do we talk across boundaries (if in fact we do)? Society does change, so ideas must enter a society's self-awareness and affect people somehow. And isn't looking at the mechanism of change one of the fundamental concerns, or even responsibilities, of science fiction? I think that these issues bear directly on my problem here -- how to talk about Gibbon's Decline and Fall in terms of theories of excellence. I want to say that Gibbon's Decline and Fall had too much of Tepper's didacticism in it to be a worthwhile book. But where's the line, and who draws it? To say that any didacticism is bad is the worst kind of didacticism of all. Clearly Tepper has a passion for this subject, and who's to label that passion as out of place? And will that passion change us, the readers? Or will we censure Tepper for not writing as she "should"? Which would likely entail that she ignore her lifetime's experience (she worked for Planned Parenthood until retirement, when she began writing). I think that I will leave this theoretical discussion and talk about the specifics of the book for a moment.

The Prologue of Gibbon's Decline and Fall is set in 1959 and introduces the character of Carolyn. To escape a nasty family situation, she goes off to college, where she meets a group of girls who will become the centre of the novel. Tepper works hard to try and characterize all of them -- Carolyn, Agnes, Bettiann, Faye, Ophelia, Jessamine, and Sovawanea aTesuawane (Sophy) -- but it takes quite some time for them to become distinct in the reader's mind. The main part of the novel skips ahead to Spring: The Year 2000, and we soon begin to find out what has happened to these seven women in the intervening forty years. Not all of it good. The plot proper of the novel begins with a visit to Carolyn from her daughter, Stace. Stace wants Carolyn to come out of retirement to defend in court the Dumpster Mom -- a young woman who was impregnated by a brutal gang rape and later left the baby to die. From that starting point, the plot spirals out to include various male conspiracies and other brutalities, some of which include attempts on Carolyn's life. There's the mystery of Sophy's true nature, a woman who has always seemed somewhat unearthly, and this becomes entangled in the plot as well. Ophelia has become a doctor and Jessamine a respected scientific researcher, and they are forced to deal with an action of Sophy's that affects everyone on the planet.

Tepper is quite ambitious to put a group of seven women at the heart of her book, and, as I've stated, this takes quite a while to work properly. Each woman has her own profession -- Carolyn is in law, Agnes has become a nun, and so on -- and each profession affects the plot in some way. But Tepper is probably more concerned with creating a group of credible female characters as friends in their own right, rather than trying to fulfil the necessities of plot mechanics. And she generally succeeds with that element of the book. But Gibbon's Decline and Fall has very little in the way of believable male characters. Men fall into two categories: evil predators or bumbling good guys, with the first category being heavily favoured. Jessamine's husband Patrick, Jake Jagger, Mr. Webster -- all of these are evil, and the people like Carolyn's husband Hal, nice yet ineffectual, fade into the background. Of course, how many books written by men in the past had women slotted into two categories (generally the two stereotypes of whores or mothers)? Perhaps Tepper's reaction is a valid one, but it does not seem qualitatively different to me than what it reacts against (more on that in a minute). Tepper also has problems writing any believable characters who are not from a middle- or upper-class, well-educated background. See for example the conversation with a guard on pages 237-8, where Tepper has a painfully condescending tin ear for the guard's dialogue.

Sex is evil! Or more properly, the love of sex is the root of all evil. If you didn't know this "fact" before, Gibbon's Decline and Fall shoves it in your face. Sophy releases a type of gene-altering virus (the details are a little blurry) that removes the desire for sex from everybody in the world. And, rather magically, most of the world's problems are resolved. Here are a few of the changes:

"Individual sports equipment was in big demand; team competitive sports were sagging. The baseball season was in full swing, but stadiums were uncrowded and TV coverage went largely unwatched. Advertising was in chaos. Barbie and G.I. Joe had suffered a fatal decline; teddy bears, building blocks, roller blades, and bicycles went on as ever." (259)

It would almost be amusing if it were not meant in such deadly seriousness. Later on the same page, we find out the effect on religion:

"For millennia religious power and prestige had been built on a foundation of sexual proscription. Now the sudden absence of sex came like a surgeon's knife, abbreviating both doctrine and doctrinaire. What were sin fighters to do without the favorite sin? Without traditional lusts, what good were traditional values?" (259).

Later on, we find out Sophy's reasons for wanting to make this vast change: "The battle that's coming isn't between a good male force and an evil male force. It's more basic than that. It's between balance and dominion" (322). Unfortunately, Tepper's method of writing does not seem to put her unequivocally on the side of balance, with men as evil and sex as evil. Tepper's skewed view of men and sex is a response to the (favourably) skewed view of these things in the past. But this is just one orthodoxy in place of another. There is no escaping orthodoxy perhaps, but Tepper's response is not much help. More interesting, more balanced would be an examination of how to live with what we have. Of course, Gibbon's Decline and Fall gets classified as science fiction because of how it heightens certain issues in a what-if scenario. This makes the book an interesting thought experiment -- what if sex were eliminated. And so I have come full circle to a point where I cannot fully justify my unease with this book. Perhaps I can only close by saying that, while Tepper identifies many pressing problems with our current society, I would be just as frightened if she were in charge instead of some of the people she spends her time condemning. Gibbon's Decline and Fall has an odd ending, where we don't know if Tepper decides to back down from her extreme position. But that does not change what has come before, and how earnestly it was meant.

Last modified: November 12, 1998

Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (

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