The Fresco by Sheri S. Tepper
Hardcover - 432 pages 1 Ed edition (November 7, 2000) Harpercollins; ISBN: 0380978792
Review by Ernest Lilley
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When aliens come to Earth and want to make contact, they quite reasonably follow the traditional form - pick out a lone individual in the Southwest, give them a message for their leaders and disappear in a silver spaceship.

Benit Alvarez-Shipton is the loner, a reclusive woman in her mid thirties who works in a bookstore to surround herself with the insulation books provide between her and the word of people. Sure, she thought, she'd wanted to get away form home, but an alien abduction was ridiculous.

The Aliens appear on a canyon road in front of her while he's out gathering mushrooms, wistfully neglecting the poisonous ones...and by the time its sunk in that she is handling humanity's first contact with extraterrestrials, a completely familiar situation on both sides thanks to SF movies, she's agreed to take their message cube to the authorities and vouch for their presence. 

Benita is Hispanic, self educated or the most part, from years of learning her job at the bookstore and reading when he had nothing else to do. She's got an abusive husband who barely works, was once an attractive older man but is now an aging drunk. An artist of minor talents and major resentments. A man beyond Benita's ability to understand or to cope with, only to endure, once for her children's sake, but now out of habit, until habit gives way and she leaves him, a she knows she will.

But when she meets the aliens, something inside her changes, she sees things in a way he never saw them before, she realizes she has the power to be her own person.

But it's not the money that has changed her. Also in the tried and true protocol of Alien contact, the visitors have reached into her mind and taken away the ghosts that have haunted her all her life.

But it's not all friendly aliens giving out trinkets and Prozac. Up in the Northeast something is killing loggers, and a rancher in New Mexico disappears with only tattered shreds of clothing left behind, or something in the swamps along the gulf something lurks that wil give a gator a fair fight.

The Fresco is a blend of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Predator. Plus it goes on long enough to be a full story arc on its own, without the need for endless sequels. Just room for them.

It all takes place against the backdrop of contemporary America, full dysfunctional marriages, eco-terrorists, ACLU lawyers protecting the rights of pushers over the safety of the community. And the aliens are "ethical".

To solve humanities greatest problems, Tepper as dropped a Deus Ex Machina on us to sweep pieces off the board and proclaim that the game has new rules. Be neighborly. Control yourselves. Don't let desire overrun reason. Or else.

Once the Pistach establish their presence, they prefer not to talk directly to those in power, who invariably want to argue. This bit is reminiscent of Childhood's End, by Arthur Clarke, who does much the same thing with his Overlords.

Whether they've read Clarke or not, the aliens have seen a bit too much TV. They steal ideas from old episodes of Mission Impossible and form and expression from dead actors. Thankfully the author does not play this for laughs, though maybe for a grin or two, but just as a way of getting things done. In fact, she plays no one for a fool, though there are good and bad, smart and slow. 

But who are the real monsters? The Pastich are Utopians who select the appropriate role in life for each "undifferentiated" child, but they only do this as well as the selectors are able, and occasionally they err...even by their own standards. As one of the Pastich comments about what they do for people who don't fit into their society, " They scream so when their memories are being drained." 

This also evokes Heinlein's images of orderly society, complete with  world that is the equivalent to his "Coventry", a land where those who don't fit in can be anything they choose, though typically with poorer results than had they accepted their life assignments.

These aliens are the ultimate in Liberal thought, comfortable and confident in rewriting the rules of other societies, or erasing the memories of a lifetime so that a trouble person can go back and try again, this time with a little more help from their friends.

Ultimately the aliens suffer a crisis of confidence and stop to ask themselves what right they have to be the galaxy's conscience?

 For better of worse, the author has Benita step up to plate and give them an answer.

This is a very political book, and it plays the right as evil and selfish all the way to the end. At one point aliens impregnate a group of human males, in the classic manner, by seeding them with larva that will chew its way out, though usually not killing the host in the process. The Democratic president notes with amusement that no Democrats were included, the selection having been kept to only Pro-Lifers on the grounds that they would respect the life-forms and bring them to term. Handy since removal is immediately fatal.

I sympathize with about 80% of the goals and reforms the author comes up with. What I can't sympathize with is the naiveté with which she applies them. The Pastich are utopian totalitarians, though they have their own problems, and don't hesitate to seed the Earths atmosphere with behavior modifying nanobots or rewiring a persons mind.

This is exactly the same sort of thing that Doc Smith did in Lensman novels, where his main character would perform telepathic mind surgery to reform a zwilnik, that is a drug addict. Only the mores have changed, and though I like Ms. Tepper's mores a bit better, her tools are no different and her justification even weaker.

There is some interesting discussion of the life cycle of a civilization's beliefs. The author notes that a civilization creates its gods in its own image, while that image is fairy crude full of violence and wrath. Later on when civilization ahs evolved to a level of higher accord its saddled with gods that no longer show they way forward, only back to dead ends. 

So, all in all I found the book engaging and interesting. Occasionally I found it frustrating and painful to read. Depending on who you are, you'll love it or hate it. There's food for thought in here though, even if you have to put it through a sieve to separate the dross. Sheri Tepper is certainly a talented author with a strong voice...but I'm not sure about her message.