Sheri S. Tepper passed away over a week ago, at age 87. Many people came out immediately with eulogies and remarks on the influence she had on science fiction, and personally, but it’s taken me this long while to reconcile my thoughts on the matter. For your perusal, here they are.
Sheri Tepper was one of a handful of authors for whom simply seeing their name on a book’s cover made me buy/read it. She could have written the account of a day in the life of a common slug, and I’ve read it, and probably have been mesmerized by the accounting. By modern terms, that makes me “a true fan.”
But as a burgeoning writer myself, Ms Tepper was so much more. Her slim novel, The Gate to Women’s Country, was my formal introduction to hiding the key information in plain sight. Literally, I got to the end, read the big reveal, and thought to myself–no! you never did! You only implied that. So I skipped back to that section, and right there, plain as day, were the exact words spelled out so simply that a middle schooler could understand them. And my little brain exploded. Just a little, like a mini-nova in my synapses. Those echoes still linger, today.
(This isn’t to say that I can mimic such things. No, indeed not. It’s a skill I’m still trying to hone and accomplish even half as well as that early Tepper novel did. I’m a work in progress, at all times.)
After Gate, I found Grass. This novel was another revelation to me. While Gate could be conceived of–in my mind, at least–as a fantasy (yes, now we have the category of “post-apocalyptic” all too handy, but when I read it, I didn’t. So I filed it into my own mental bookshelf of “possible future Earth with a cool, fantasy vibe.” I wasn’t so much into SF at the time, so this made it “okay”), Grass made no bones about it: this was science fiction. And I’d thought I didn’t care much for science fiction.
But Grass revealed that I actually loved SF, even if I didn’t love most of the stuff I’d been finding before that. I loved the “soft SF” aspect, dealing with not just tech whiz-bangs, but how people and culture reacted to their environments, and all that tech stuff. And it had female protagonists who were smart, and accomplished, not simply window dressing, or leaning on the guys to save her.
Then the follow-up novel came along. Raising the Stones upped the ante even further, and cemented in my mind that Hey, that science fictions stuff sure is good, and Where can I get more like this? This led me to Joan D. Vinge, and to Anne McCaffrey’s Crystal Singer series. And about that time as well, McCaffrey’s Pern novels showed their SF roots, wowing me completely all over again. And–yes, Tepper showed me that I loved not just a couple SF books here and there, but the whole thing. Science Fiction was all shades of awesome! That’s a debt that one can simply never repay. I can only hope that one day, I’ll pay it forward by encouraging and empowering someone else who reads my work.
In the wake of her death, Sheri Tepper has once again become a role model, in that I learned only now that her first novel was published when she was 54. That didn’t hold her back though, because at the time of her death, she had 40 novels to her name! These two facts are helping me counter the persistent, insistent brain weasel that’s constantly telling me that it’s too late, I’m too old, and I’ll never manage a decent body of work before I’m dead. Take that, brain weasel! Ha!
I never met Ms Tepper. That makes me a little sad (but not too much because I’m a terrible introvert and I’m sure I’d have said something utterly ridiculous and sounded embarrassingly feeble-minded). There is much you can tell about a writer from their works, though, and in my mind, we had much in common. We could, conceivably, have been friends–or at least friendly acquaintances–had we met. But her words? They were my friends and companions, and they still are. Her persistence will guide me, and her success encourage me, even though she herself is no longer with us. Thank you, Ms Tepper, for lighting that fire inside me, and so many others. May you rest in peace.