Novel * Sheri S. Tepper * Fantasy Post-Post-Apocalypse * 2002
I enjoy stories which take place after a hard reset of humanity. The immediate aftermath of an apocalyptic disaster are always going to be the more visceral experiences – they’re survival stories, after all – while pre-apocalypse stories are sort of the slow-motion car accident you can’t avoid kind of deal. The idea of visiting a society which has not only risen up out of the ashes but has followed its own history to its own identity outside of the nation-states we’re familiar with can be fascinating. Often, these stories turn into fantasy, which is fun but maybe not exactly what I’m looking for when I want to ruminate what Earth will be like a thousand years after a near-extinction level event. These stories, be it the unbridled goofiness of Adventure Time, or the inscrutable weirdness of a Gene Wolfe novel, take some major liberties with the physics of reality. The Visitor is the same kind of story.
The conceit of the the book is that once upon a time in the 21st century, a large celestial object smashed into Earth and ruined everything. This aspect of the story is told from the journal entries of a scientist who ended up hiding from the effects of the errant asteroid in a big science-bunker for a thousand years or so. There’s cryogenic freezing involved, if you’re asking. Anyway, these flashbacks provide a context for what the story is actually about, which is the post-post-apocalyptic society of Bastion. This society has some problems. The first is population, which is still recovering from the near-extinction of humanity some thousand years after the apocalyptic event. Bastion is small, and it is purposely isolated. However, it is growing, slowly but surely, which is putting pressure on its pseudo-totalitarian state to keep up. Bastion has a strange, fascinating structure. There’s a dictator who does awful things, and a deep, intransigent bureaucracy that is slowly rotting the society out from the inside.
It becomes quickly obvious that Bastion needs something to shake it up. The state is fixated on rediscovering “magic,” which they think is a supernatural power source that will bring everlasting power to the chosen people, which of course they think they are. There are still vestiges of “magic” in this world, you see, because people still discover artifacts of great power. Like matches. And if you’re thinking “oh, I see what’s happening here,” well no you don’t because I made the same assumption and was surprised/disappointed in the direction the novel takes. There are a lot of fun surprises throughout The Visitor, which I’d rather not spoil here so I’ll get into them after the break. Suffice to say, if you’re cool with sci-fi/fantasy mash-ups you’ll be fine. If you’re looking for a hard look at a post-apocalyptic society a thousand years after the event, maybe roll on. You’ll be missing out on a good time, though. The characters are well-drawn and fun to root for/against. Tepper’s style is almost story-bookish, although from time to time there’s a lack of intensity where you might expect a more visceral experience. Like, horrific things happen and you barely feel it as a reader. That said, it’s still worth your time. Just adjust your expectations.
The Visitor is one of those novels where I enjoy the story but spend the entire time wishing it were something else, which it turns out is not a great way to read a book. Some of this is on the author. As I mentioned above, Tepper’s style is relaxed and evocative, almost as if she’s telling a long-form fairy tale. Horrible things happen but they don’t really register because they’re told from an emotional distance. The principal character for the first two thirds of the novel, Dismé, doesn’t help matters. Her life is not great, and she’s definitely cast from the oppressed Cinderella mold, evil stepmother and stepsister and all. Quite frankly, Dismé doesn’t have much of a personality. Part of this is due to narrative reasons. She has to keep her intelligence and personality to herself to avoid further verbal and emotional abuse from her stepmother and sociopathic stepsister Rashel. That’s all well and good, but we don’t get a terribly detailed look into Dismé’s internal life. Since the entire narrative is told from an emotional remove, her detachment from her own life means she’s always at a distance from the reader. There’s just not much to hold onto.
That detachment and distance applies to pretty much the entire story, now that I think about it. In addition to the fairy tale-ish quality to the writing, there is an overall lack of menace to the entire situation. It’s frustrating because the pieces are all there. I mean, you’ve got this weird pseudo-medieval totalitarian police state, which is a fascinating concept, but The Visitor never really captures the oppressed sense of menace you get in a 1984-like dystopia. The dictator overlord is clearly an evil man, and in case you were confused it’s made obvious when he sacrifices his own daughter in a dark rite to further his prestige. That said, he’s never really presented as a threat. Instead of exercising absolute power over his society, he’s just a bumbling social climber with no real understanding of the wider world. And I get this is part of reason why Bastion is on the precipice of collapse. A closed society has no real chance of growth and progression, and Bastion has made it part of their religion to disavow the entirety of the outside world. Bastion is supposed to seem limited and doomed. That said, it’s all most of the characters know, and as such it should feel more dangerous when these characters start pushing to escape.
As for the story, I spent most of the time wishing something else was happening. This is on me, or rather on my expectations. Early on we’re introduced to Nell Latimer. She’s a scientist who works on an observatory crew that eventually discovers a fat comet or asteroid or whatever making a beeline for Earth. Obviously it’s going to hit, that’s rather the whole point. Nell separates from her husband, who has gone all in on the idea that Jesus is going to be riding said comet to save the believers from discomfort. Nell, the scientist, basically resigns to the fact that he’s a nutbar and joins some fellow scientists in a fancy bunker to restart society on the other side of the immediate post-apocalypse. So far, this is all rad. Nell wakes up every hundred years or so and checks up on her descendants and guides the rebuilding of various human societies. Her group makes the questionable decision to do this via mystical constructs, creating various mythologies to help as to not give themselves away. As the centuries pass, they turn into legend. That’s a very cool concept, but here’s where I wish the book was different. I was hoping for a further exploration of the concepts of myths and legends and how these reconcile with lost technology. Nope! Instead it’s actually magic.
Or aliens. But probably magic. See, the comet or asteroid was actually neither. It was a sentient being sent down from her superiors to shake things up on Earth. By “shake things up” I mean literally scramble the continents and kill billions of individual life forms and also whole species of animals. The visitor refers to herself as a little god. Not really omnipotent and omnipresent but you know, close enough. This visitor has been pulling strings this whole time, and turned myth and legend into reality. Dismé and her friends aren’t just themselves, you see, but they’re hosts to their mythical counterparts who show up to defeat the similarly mythical Baal or whoever. The story turns into some good versus evil plot about two-thirds of the way in and we kind of lose sight of the smaller, frankly more interesting story about Bastion. I’m not really convinced that some of the late-story developments were fully earned, and in a similar fashion early story threads were just kind of dropped without fanfare. Rashel was the principal villain for most of the book, her storyline just kind of peters out. She gets turned into a cyborg murder machine? But then even Dismé’s story feels like it takes a backseat once all the mythological figures take over. Like I’ve said, I just wanted a different book, I think. That’s maybe not fair to the author. After all, she had a story she wanted to tell. However, I do think it’s fair to say that even if I was down for the story she was telling, The Visitor loses focus about two-thirds of the way through. I still enjoyed it, though, and I’d recommend it just so long as you know what you’re getting into.