Sheri S. Tepper has never shied from a feminist perspective in her
fantasty and science fiction. The Gate to Women's Country
especially stands out as a gender study focussing on the relative high worth
of the female half of humanity. Tepper's work resonates deeply with
classics like Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and
Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Her vehemence on women's
rights has ranged from the fairly subtle to the plainly spoken. With
Gibbon's Decline and Fall, she makes her boldest, most
outright statement yet.
In the year 2000, the United States is reaching a peak of fundamentalism.
Millenial hysteria is rising, fueled by the paranoia of anti-government
militias and by the preachings and teachings of an ultra-right wing
men's movement called the American Alliance. The aims of the Alliance
as publicly stated closely mirror those of the real-life Promise
Keepers, a group whose goals and methods are being scrutinized and
criticized in the media today. Man as unquestioned head-of-household
seems to be their main rallying cry, distasteful to many without being
overtly threatening. Behind the scenes, though, in halls of power all
over the globe, a much more dangerous agenda is being pursued. Both
secret and avowed members of the Alliance are planning an ultimate
takeover of the world. Alliance members will survive to repopulate the
planet, ecology and women both be damned.
Carolyn Crespin is a retired New Mexico lawyer living on a small
ranch with her husband. Estranged from her blue-blood family for having
refused to marry her Cousin Albert years ago, she has found family in
a close-knit group of friends from her college years. The DFC (Decline
and Fall Club) came together to buttress Carolyn in her rebellion against
her long-arranged engagement and ended up bound for life, a network of
support and chastisement wired together by love and friendship. When
Carolyn's daughter begs her to defend a functionally illiterate teenager
charged with murder in the death of her newborn baby, Carolyn reluctantly
agrees. With her acceptance of the counsel for defense position, Carolyn
finds herself pitted against her old nemesis, Jake Jagger. Jagger is a
ruthless and ambitious prosecutor whom Carolyn believes is responsible
for the death of his own sister- and parents-in-law.
As a member of the Alliance, Jagger can bring considerable resources
to bear on the trial. Carolyn must marshal the members of the DFC
to come to her aid much as they supported her all those years ago. As
an horrifying conspiracy begins to reveal itself, Carolyn and her disparate
friends will have to confront an unbelievable truth. That truth will
reveal itself only when they discover what really happened to their mysterious
friend, Sophy, an unfathomable woman who seems to be haunting them all.
The truth they discover, and the cure for humanity's apparent need for
self-destruction, may be more than anyone should be asked to bear responsibility
Gibbon's Decline and Fall is Sheri S. Tepper's most
blatant fictional feminist statement to date. Her other novels provide
more escapism along with the morals; they take place on other worlds,
or at least on a familiar world so far from our when as to render it remote.
This novel, for all intents and purposes, is talking about right now,
and talking about a conspiracy against women so insidious and unbelievable
as to be true. Who believed during World War II that Nazi death camps
could really be more than an overblown figment of someone's imagination?
Tepper allows men some room for forgiveness here, though. There are as
many sympathetic secondary male characters as there are despicable ones,
although the base of power for the former is smaller. And the true root
of misogyny she more or less attributes to a devil-figure, a timeless
dark entity that thrives on the pain of sentient beings without a care
as to the seeds of ultimate annihilation it sows. Gibbon's Decline
and Fall succeeds in directing your attention to painful truths,
if it succeeds in nothing else. You will find yourself noticing more
stories of female subjugation, where Middle Eastern men stab their daughters
or douse them with gasoline and set them alight for taking jobs. This
novel is disturbing and thought-provoking. A compelling mystery lies
buried within it once you make peace with its didactic tone.