Sheri S. Tepper

HarperCollins / 432 pages / November 2000

ISBN: 0380978792

The arrival of any new Tepper novel is a cause for some excitement; she’s just so damn talented! In The Fresco there is even more to be thrilled about. Tepper’s work is always stimulating, intriguing, and enticing, but in this novel she has allowed more of her own wry sense of humour to emerge. The result is what may well be her most accessible story to date. The Fresco is a tale for all ages and all appetites — here is a novel that even people who turn their nose up at speculative fiction can embrace.

As most first contact stories go, The Fresco doesn’t. Starting from the aliens’ choice of a battered, bookish hispanic mother to be their liaison, nothing from here on out is going to be quite what you expect. The Pistach have come to Earth to start making some changes to prepare humans for acceptance by the other space-faring civilisations. Although they are promising wonderful things, there is always some part of the population that is ready to wreck things for everybody. Unfortunately, the disgruntled have some powerful “allies” in their battle to thwart the path to peace.

Tepper’s aliens are a delightful, if sometimes deadly mix. The Pistach, our “sponsors” are intelligent, determined, and pragmatic to a fault. Some of their solutions to the world’s problems are a bit more drastic than we are used to, but we had just better get used to it. We are going to be frog marched into behaving ourselves, or we will have to get used to being prey for some of the Confederation’s less gentle members.

It’s a choice of enlightenment or ingestion. Along the way, is something more stunning than culture shock in store for humans.

Benita, the chosen liaison, is a memorable character, and seeing her change and grow is one of the joys of The Fresco. All of Tepper’s characters — human, Pistach, Inkleozese, Wulivery, etc. — are distinct and credible. Well, not all of the humans, especially some of the politicians, are trustworthy, but every quality and characteristic comes out in 3D. That hardly comes as a shock to anyone, I’m certain, to anyone who has read Tepper’s work. She employs no flat, cardboard characters to inhabit her worlds.

Clever creatures, Tepper’s creations. Their plans and the plot move forward at a heady and sometimes dumbfounding pace. There is little time to stop and catch a mental breath as the action rockets on. The ways Benita and her cohorts find to circumvent the endless obstacles thrown in their path are constantly surprising and often sharply amusing. If everyone could think on their feet (or whatever relevant appendage) like these folks, the Earth would be a much different place.

If we were to take the aliens’ teachings to heart and learn by their example, what a world this would be. Just how do we go about contacting them, before it’s too late?