Science fiction and fantasy                                            

The Visitor

by Sheri S. Tepper

The Visitor is set in a post-apocalyptic world like no other. Around a thousand years after The Happening which decimated the Earth's population and set civilisation back hundreds of years, the belief in magic is enjoying a resurgence.

Dismé Latimer lives in Bastion, the repressive city of The Spared which is ruled by the Regime. Un-Regimic thoughts soon lead to the punishments of chairing or bottling. According to the Regime a person can be bottled without dying, because provided a few cells are kept alive in a bottle, that person does not die. It's a claustrophobic and often baffling world, with more than a few echoes of Orwell's 1984.

Dismé lives with her step-mother Cora and step-sister Rashel, whilst all the other members of her family have died or disappeared one by one. It's Rashel who rules the roost, getting her own way and gaining power within the Regime at every opportunity. Rashel delights in making other people suffer, particularly Dismé. As for Dismé, she keeps quiet and concentrates on fading into the background. To begin with she behaves "like a dishrag, limp as a dead snake". She's hardly the most electrifying of characters, being far too passive to be interesting.

Dismé's ancestor is one Nell Latimer, and her story is told through the pages of a journal that has come into Dismé's possession. Before the Happening Nell was a scientist and one of the very first people to be aware of the disaster that was hurtling through space towards the Earth. She's a Scully type, always sceptical of religion and the supernatural. Nell is one of 200 who are given a place in an underground bunker and frozen in suspended animation. Due to be awakened for a few years each century, she is part of a team that is charged with safeguarding human knowledge for future generations. This is no simple meteor-impact armageddon. As well as earthquakes, cold and hunger, mankind had demons and monsters to deal with. The survivors in Bastion are searching for the lost art of magic whilst there is some evidence that true wizards, and a mysterious Guardian Council with magical powers, are starting to emerge. Until late in the book it's hard to figure out whether this is a straight science fiction story where forgotten technology is believed to be magical, or pure fantasy. This confusion holds some of The Visitor's appeal.

Sheri S. Tepper revels in detailed descriptions and rich language in this book. But whilst the atmosphere of places may be carefully painted, she has a more impersonal way of talking about people. There's a romance brewing, but it's uninvolving because it's not given long enough to develop, and we don't read a lot about it from the point of view of the characters.

Whilst the ending is not unoriginal, the sentiments expressed are trite, so ultimately it disappoints. The world of The Visitor is unusual, both oppressive and strange, but Tepper spends a long time building up to a climax that is weaker than the rest of the book. There's a large cast of characters but few of them really capture the imagination. This book promises an intelligent and fascinating journey, but falls somewhat short of delivering on that promise.

Book Details

Year: 2002

Categories: Books

  Science fiction
    Female Protagonist  

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2 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson.
More about Sheri S Tepper