Sunday, June 30, 2002

Review: "The Visitor" by Sheri S. Tepper

Killer meteors hurtling toward the Earth were big at the theater a few years ago, but with her latest, "The Visitor" (EOS), Sheri S. Tepper puts a new spin on the tale.

In a society not much more advanced than our own, astronomers spot a strange object sailing through space, on a collision course with our own world. Scientific minds prepare for survival, thinking they can preserve the human race. The religious turn to prayer, thinking Armageddon is at hand. They're both wrong.

While the world changes and millions upon millions die in what comes to be known as the Happening, the human race survives - but it's greatly changed.

The result is a future that neither the coldly scientific nor the faithful religious could have predicted. A new mythology is born with tales of rebel angels and a Guardian Council - both of which will soon return to the world. Many have heard the story, but few suspect they're real.

Disme Latimer is a descendant of one of the scientists that sheltered in hopes of preserving humanity. Since her brother and father died, she's lived with a wicked stepsister who takes pleasure in causing her pain and anguish. But her stepsister Rashel has her own secret to keep.

Disme lives in Bastion, a society of the Spared, who believe they are the only true humans. She knows she's different from the others around her, but even she can't guess the destiny that awaits her when the Visitor begins to move from its perch at the top of the world.

"The Visitor" is part "Armageddon"-style sci-fi thriller and part "Cinderella" story. It's a book that merges magic and science effortlessly into a new kind of post-apocalyptic world.

Tepper has created a place where magic and science are almost indistinguishable from each other - and both do exist. A place where concepts from our own world are skewed to fit this new frontier. A place as intriguing as it is horrifying.

The story in "The Visitor" is another incarnation of the age-old science vs. religion argument. The difference is that in Tepper's world, neither side is truly right. The reader is forced to face some facts with a cold, analytical mind, while at the same time taking other facets of the story on faith.

Even though I suspected the true nature of the Visitor, the revelation of the mystery was a bit disappointing. Not because of its identity, but because, after a long and thought-provoking novel, Tepper didn't let the readers draw their own conclusions. Instead, she takes the soap box for a few pages - in the guise of the Visitor, of course - and tells us exactly what we should get out of the book. It's a heavy-handed approach that didn't do much for me.

That being said, it's not enough to ruin the book. The story up to that point and the conflict that follow are more than enough to make up for a little bit of preachiness.

In the end, "The Visitor" is an excellent tale, one of the best post-apocalyptic novels I've ever read. Tepper has created a world of endless possibilities, a world that I wouldn't mind visiting again.

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