After the disappointment of Beauty I approached Tepper's new novel, Shadow's End with some caution, and was rewarded with a considerably better book. Where Beauty was rather dull fantasy, Shadow's End is science fiction with a fantastic touch; a novel about women in shadow, of aliens, humanity and their meeting in a remote sector of a galaxy in peril.
Shadow's End is predominantly the story of three women: Saluez, a young woman of an isolated and isolationist planet; Snark, a young criminal with a lost past; and Lutha, a woman ravaged by the worry of a severely disabled son, Leely. Much of the novel is narrated by Saluez as she meets first Lutha and later Snark and, through her experiences, begins to realise the truth about the planet she lives on and the gods she worships.
Tepper speculates that at the time of Shadow's End, the galaxy is dominated by mankind: dominated utterly, so that planets that want to colonise others are only allowed to do so after their own planet is 'homo-normed': all animal life that is not directly of use to man is destroyed, only their patterns kept on computer. 'Firstism,' the belief that the universe is made for man, is the prime belief system. Fecundity is encouraged and women's prime role is as mothers. While this setting is not entirely convincing it is an extreme conclusion to a course that Earth already seems set on, that Firstism is only a logical end to the casual disregard for the environment that governments on Earth still show. In effect, Shadow's End is an allegory, a cautionary tale, before it becomes too late.
For in Shadow's End, mankind is threatened by the mysterious Ularians: no-one has ever seen them or lived to report, except one: who went to ground and died on the planet Dinadh. Dinadh: whose people weren't affected by the Ularians; who resisted Firstism and homo-norming; whose closed culture was a mystery to outsiders. Dinadh: home to Saluez the songfathers, and the 'beautiful ones', where Lutha Tallstaff is sent with her son to try and discover the secret of the Ularians, to save mankind. But the events on Dinadh, Lutha's meeting with Saluez, make both women realise terrible truths: about their children, about the 'beautiful people', about their faiths and man's inhumanity to woman, so that when the action shifts to the frontier planet of Perdur Alas and they finally encounter the 'Ularians', they have to decide whether mankind is worth saving after all.
The end itself is a little disappointing, as it is here that the allegorical side to this novel is most evident and it all seems a little overblown and just a little silly. Much of the rest of the novel, however, is beautifully written. The characterisation is surprisingly good, especially of Saluez and Lutha, and the others are written with sympathy and flair. Dinadh is stunningly described and, unlike Cherryh (see Review of Foreigner, p?), Tepper's aliens - the 'beautiful people' and the Ularians - do seem alien and it is horror that I realised their true nature.
Shadow's End might not be everyone's cup of tea. I can imagine that some readers will not be comfortable with either the allegorical feel or Tepper's brand of feminism. Nevertheless, it kept me rapt and, though flawed, is a fine example of science fiction with a message.