Review: Raising the Stones by Sheri S. Tepper
Beside the ruined temple north of Settlement One, shallow in the soil lay Birrabat Shum. Shallow he lay, with fragments of roots and crumbs of leaves on his eyes…
Like Grass, which preceded it, and which I reviewed in December 2014, this novel is set on a human-settled world which already hosts a native life-form. The Owlbrit are already declining when humans arrive, and they soon die out, leaving behind their curiously shaped temples, one of which still boasts a sparkling, stony Owlbrit “god”. Some time after this, after the human settlements are already well-established, this remnant of Owlbrit life mysteriously dies.
Shallow under the soil, near the temple at Settlement One, straight fibers ramified into feathers, and the feather into lace, which reached beneath the houses and the storage yards, beneath the settlement buildings, beneath the old temples, out toward open country in a tenuous cottony web which enclosed in its fibrous reticulation all the land from the temples north of the community to the fields in the south…
Sam Girat, the Topman of Settlement One, is a genially efficient manager, capable and brave, but he’s not prepared for what happens next. The children of Settlement One set out to restore an older temple in the Owlbrit style, not as a religious practice, but “as a way, a convenience, a kindness.” Mysteriously, they acquire a new god to raise in the restored temple. Like his predecessor, the god Birrabat is a hard fibrous mass with evanescent sparkles running along just under the surface. Perhaps this god-stone is blasphemous, but Settlement One is suddenly running very well indeed, so the adults decide to let it go.
And the children prove to be very apt missionaries for their fibrous god. Elderly settlers, near death, are recruited to “lie shallow under the soil,” to be resurrected as helpful, intrusive Hobb’s Land gods. Gradually, this beneficently quiet infection spreads to fill the world. Everywhere the god-stones are raised, people are kinder to each other, readier to help, more attuned to each other’s needs.
But the infection has been noticed—unfortunately, by the Baidee, a culture that is obsessively opposed to “letting anyone mess with their heads.” This ukase from the mysterious Prophetess1 Morgori Oestrydingh, who arrived on their world through the long-inactive Arbai Gate, has been variously interpreted to mean “don’t cut your hair,” "never accept psychiatric help," and “don’t allow anyone to change your mind.”
Sam Girat, meanwhile, has himself begun to obsess about fatherhood, a concept that is not much honored in Hobb’s Land. In seeking his own father, he has raised a stone that hides a poisonous insect. Sam becomes ensnared by the life-negating Voorstoders2, a slave-owning group on another world, Ahabar, who assert their control over the pagan Gharm. Soon it is the Gharm, one or two at a time, who lie buried “shallow beneath the soil,” ready to provide a source on Ahabar for these very helpful gods. We encounter the slimy Porsa of Ninfadel (who scarcely qualify as sapient), bubbling and offensive, like physical manifestations of the Voorstoders’ hatred.
Tepper weaves these disparate cultures together to create an astounding tapestry of choice. The Baidee speak of preserving choice, but only for themselves; they act to quarantine the infected worlds, with disastrous unintended consequences. The Voorstoders preach choice, but only once; they believe their ancient contract with the Gharm has sway on a new world, and the Gharm may not chose again. The settlers on Hobb’s Land did not chose their gods, but would not chose to let them go now. Sam Girat chose his own myths and heroes in his father’s people, and now must make a better choice.
“What will you do without your books?” she asked again, worried about him… “Write new ones, China Wilm,” he told her… “Listen to the God and write new ones.”
Whenever I read this novel, I am reminded of a quote (I believe it is Spider Robinson’s, but I apologize if I am mistaken) to the effect that “cultural imperialism means you have a tasty culture in which others would like to partake.” When politics become contentious, when people get nasty, and progress is obstructed by the Baidee and Voorstoders of our own world, I wonder if, given the choice, we would accept the Hobb’s Land gods.
I must admit, the prospect entices. When my time comes, I would volunteer to lie shallow under the soil. It would be a way, a convenience, a kindness.
- It took me a long while after my first reading to translate the name of the mysterious Prophetess: Marjorie Westriding, the protagonist of Grass. Many characters in the Arbai Gate novels appear in wide-spread times and places due to the transportative powers of the Gates, which play a central part in this novel.
- The Voorstoders are obviously meant (in name and culture) to invoke the Afrikaaner Voortrekkers.