Vanessa's Reviews > The Fresco

The Fresco by Sheri S. Tepper
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's review
Jul 20, 2010

it was ok
bookshelves: fantasy

It's in the forest of the New Mexico mountains where Benita Alvarez-Shipman meets the first aliens to visit the Earth. They ask her to bring their communication device to her 'leaders', give her money, and disappear, leaving her flabbergasted and reeling. Afraid to tell anyone what happened, she leaves her abusive husband (her children are off to college), and flies across the country to Washington DC where she hands off the package to her congressman.

From there things take off as Benita finds herself unwittingly pulled into the political maelstrom that ensues. Unfortunately, her new friends the Pistach aren't the only aliens recently in contact with the humans, but the other aliens aren't nearly so benevolent and some of the politicians in DC are in league with them.

As a story about what an alien first contact could be like, The Fresco entertains, expounding for us the political, cultural, and religious issues a federation of aliens would bring with it. But Tepper, true to form as in her other books (take for instance Gate to Women's Country), the story is flavored with her political leanings as well as her distaste for religion.

We learn early on that the Pistach aliens are intelligent and advanced, and the designated 'ambassadors' in bringing new races into their federation. However, they have an obvious inconsistency: the fresco.

The fresco is a mural in a temple on their home world, and their entire culture and religious experience is based on what the fresco teaches. Unfortunately, it has been covered with soot and grime for a long time, and no one in the present-day has seen it in its entirety--they base all their knowledge on it from past sketches and commentaries. Important to note: the Pistach aren't particularly good artists.

But what does the fresco have to do with bringing Earth and its inhabitants into the alien federation? Well, everything, as you will learn, but I don't dare spoil it for you.

Tepper's writing is clean and crisp, moving forward at a steady pace, descriptive yet uninhibited. Her side characters suffer from being stereotypical, yet the main characters have more interesting depth. Benita in particular is fascinating as we watch a victim of domestic abuse struggle to escape it and let her true character grow and live up to her full potential.

Tepper rather likes social commentary in her writing, and The Fresco is riddled with it. She explores what it means to interfere for the sake of improving another person's life. For example, the Pistach have a very rigid caste system: artists become artists, but those who love art yet have no artistic skill will teach it instead of becoming artists. Tepper superimposes this over Benita's husband, who's an artist, but spends his life with no success for lack of direction and talent. So the question is, should we guide and 'force' people (the Pistach use drugs and other methods to mold people toward certain behavior) toward their real strengths, convinced they will be happy doing that, or should we allow freedom of choice and risk misery?

The story does make you think, and there are some political and religious ideas I wouldn't mind discussing with another reader, particularly Tepper's version of utopia.
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