Review: The Margarets

Happy Halloween, if that is a thing you celebrate! Having thought up a tenuous thematic link this morning on the Tube, today I will be writing about monstrosity in Sherri S. Tepper’s The Margarets.

This review contains spoilers.

The Margarets is set at the end of the twenty-first century. Overpopulation has destroyed the biosphere: pretty much the only living things left on Earth are humans. The Interstellar Trade Organisation, which consists of a number of intelligent alien races of varying degrees of sympathy (more on which later), has given Earth an ultimatum: reduce the population drastically, or be destroyed. As a result, Earth’s governments enact brutal population control measures: excess children, defined as such under retroactively applied laws, are sold into bondage on other planets, probably never to return to their families on Earth.

Our Heroine is (surprisingly enough) Margaret. As a child growing up on Mars, she invents for herself six imaginary friends: a warrior, a shaman, a healer, a telepath, a queen and a spy. She eventually returns to an overcrowded Earth; and in times of stress or at important decision points in her life, these imaginary friends split from her, to become Margarets of their own (although they’re not all called Margaret, thank goodness). The novel follows these seven selves through the inhabited universe, as they experience slavery, diplomacy, domestic life, loneliness and military service among other things. It becomes clear that they’ve been created, seven selves who are one, by the benign, inscrutable, alien Gentherans, to save humanity from itself by restoring its racial memory and thus its sense of the importance of its natural environment.

So it’s a novel that’s about, among other things, humanity’s monstrosity: whether humans are monstrous or just flawed, whether humanity is redeemable, whether its mistakes are inevitable. In that sense, at least, its concerns are similar to those of quite a few liberal space operas I’ve read recently (Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 both come to mind); as well as in the sense that it sees humanity’s hope in communality, in shared experience and memory. But the way it constructs that monstrosity is kind of deeply troubling. If it’s progressive in outlook, in actual detail and content it feels weirdly 1950s.

Firstly and most obviously, those alien races. There are two kinds of alien races in the universe, apparently: good and evil. So the example Tepper gives us of true monstrosity is the reptilian Quataar race, slavers, torturers, murderers. Humanity is not like the Quataar. But neither is it like the Gentherans and similar races: high-minded, wise, protective of their environments.

This good/evil binary smacks of high fantasy racism; it is, at best, very tedious.

But, I mean, it’s not like Tepper stereotypes any human communities, right?

Oh, wait…

One of the Margarets encounters a tribe that’s essentially a Native American analogue. They speak in fractured English. They are violent kidnappers. They steal each other’s women. They are, in fact, not unlike the Quataar. This is a failure to imagine complexly how other cultures might live, a denial of exactly the kind of shared experience that Tepper insists is the only way humanity can be saved. This is making a monster out of something we don’t understand – that we haven’t done the work to understand. This is an extension of the kind of logic that divides fictional alien races into “good” and “bad”.

There are other examples. One of the Margarets, Naumi, is male, so that, the Gentherans say, the seven selves can experience as much of humanity as possible. This feels like a slightly essentialist way of looking at things, but okay! Except Naumi falls in love with his male best friend, and the novel again reads this as monstrous; fallout from his female origins; inadmissible in the order of the world; and he has to see his friend fall in love with another Margaret, a female one. Naumi’s queerness, Tepper’s telling us, is wrong, a mistake.

PSA: The Margarets was published in two thousand and fucking seven. I’d expect this kind of thing in a 1970s novel, maybe, but not in something published this side of 2000, and not in something shortlisted for the Clarke Award.

Another failure of empathy, another monster created by privilege: we find out near the end of the novel where cats come from. They are the brain-damaged children of the Gentherans. Yes: Sherri S. Tepper compares neurodiverse people to actual animals.

The Margarets gives us a seemingly hopeful answer to the problem of monstrosity: we’re not inherently monsters; we can, with time and cooperation, become as high-minded as the Gentherans. But so much seems to be lumped in with what Tepper sees as monstrous that her imagined future looks dystopically conformist rather than triumphant. I’d heard good things about Tepper’s work, especially Beauty, which was why I picked this up; but I won’t be reading any of her other novels.

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