Sheri Tepper has become renowned for writing intelligent science fiction with a definite message, and her new novel, The Family Tree is no exception. It is a lively, charming and intriguing novel about man, his environment and ill-conceived assumptions.
Dora lives with Jared, a cold, asexual and uncaring man, obsessed with neatness, respectable but stifling. As the eldest of a large family, Dora is terrified of pregnancy and has succumbed to Jared's wishes without argument, until Jared is rushed into hospital and she realises, finally, that she is wasting her life, and leaves him. Meanwhile, something extremely peculiar is happening: a weed that first appeared in Jared's garden has spread its spores all over the city, and everywhere trees are appearing and growing to full height within days; roads and houses are being overgrown and children -- always at least the third in each family -- are disappearing without a trace. Dora, a policewoman, must solve this mystery while trying to capture the killer of three geneticists apparently murdered without reason.
Far in the future, two princes and their entourage travel to the mysterious monastery of St Weel, where they hope to find the answers to two prophesies which signal the end of their own world: on the way they meet Lucy Low and her family; the evil Prince Fasadh and a forest of very upset and angry trees. Who are the mysterious keepers of St Weel and can they help them to avoid catastrophe?
The story in The Family Tree is interesting, involving and effective at getting across Tepper's message while rarely appearing as polemic. There are several twists and, despite many clues, there are some genuine surprises along the way. The two strands, which initially occupy alternating chapters, are brought together with aplomb and the whole reaches a surprising, moving conclusion, the tension maintained through to the end. Technically, Tepper has gone from strength to strength with each of her novels, and the structure of this novel is no exception. She also uses language playfully and with care and intelligence, and her prose is clean and fresh and moves along at a cracking pace.
There are a lot of characters in The Family Tree and while the illustration of the central characters -- especially Dora -- is effective, many in the novel are broadly drawn, though colourful, caricatures. In this novel, however, these characters seem painted in such a way quite deliberately and often for knowing, and sometimes darkly, comical effect. Dora of all the properly 'fleshed-out' characters is the most sympathetic, as we can see her blossoming from repressed wife and housekeeper to independent and resourceful woman. A common theme among many of Tepper's novels of the spiritual and emotional growth of women, is strongly represented her with Dora, but with a lightness that sometimes has been lacking previously. Again, perhaps this is deliberate and is more in keeping with the lighter tone of the novel.
Indeed, the overall effect of The Family Tree is lighter than some of her recent work, including Gibbon's Decline and Fall and Shadow's End and contains more humour which softens the, often intense, message behind this novel. This increased subtlety makes the novel more accessible to those who may otherwise shy away from 'message' science fiction but could also perhaps blunt the message she is trying to make. The Family Tree is an enjoyable, engaging and charming book, and well worth the read, but it feels less substantial than some of her recent work, and on that score, a little disappointing.