Godhood, free will, isolationism, sexism, tolerance and basic human rights are packed into Sheri S. Tepper's Sideshow like philosophical sardines. This novel, the third in the loosely related trio made up of itself, Grass, and Raising the Stones, is an enlightening blend of scathing satire and heart-stopping adventure. Tepper,
thoughtful as ever, takes somewhat of a different tone with this novel, her imaginative extremism reaching levels of farce where in her other works the mood remains doggedly serious.
Near the end of the twentieth century, a pair of conjoined twins are born to a rigidly conservative and religious couple. The twins share too much internally to be separated safely, and their sexual identities are maddeningly ambiguous. Their mother wants a girl; their father wants a boy. The doctors make it so, and Nela and Bertran become a girl and a boy. The twins' birth knocks something loose at their father's core of faith, and he eventually abandons his little family. His wife lives for only a few months after his departure, and the twins are taken in by their Aunt Sizzy. They become a sideshow act in Mulhollan's Marvelous Circus, where their lives settle into a routine freakishness. That routine is rudely interrupted by an alien who looks like a giant stalk of celery, an alien who tells them what they must do to save the earth from an accidental plague. What it doesn't tell them is that in saving the earth, they will fall into a gap in space and time that will carry them years and light-years away from their home planet and own time.
At the other extreme of the spiral arm of the galaxy and far off in the fourth dimension lies the planet Elsewhere, the last human defense against the Hobbs Land gods, a fungus imbued with consciousness that fundamentally changes any living thing it encounters. The humans on Elsewhere fled there to preserve humanity's free will against the enslavement of the Hobbs Land gods. As a testament to their dedication to the notion of free will, each province on Elsewhere respects its neighbors' right to their customs -- even those customs that are inhumane. No one is allowed to cross province borders, a strictly enforced law that maintains the integrity of the individual cultures packed onto the planet.
The only people who have open run of the planet are the Enforcers -- the keepers of the rigidly relative cultural structure on Elsewhere. When Enforcer Zasper Ertigon finds a toddler child stowed away on his ship, an obvious attempt to save the boy from ritual sacrifice in the province of Molock, he breaks the rules he lives by and smuggles the boy home to the planetary capital of Tolerance. That single defiant act starts Zasper down a road of doubt and searching, and he can't bring himself back to that absolute belief that the laws he's enforcing are good ones. When Danivon Luze (the boy he saved from sacrifice) and his almost-daughter Fringe (Dorwalk) Owldark both choose careers as Enforcers, Zasper finds himself pulled back into the politics of a planet as government leaders try to quietly save Elsewhere from an internal threat far more ominous than the Hobbs Land gods.
The Gate to Women's Country or Grass might be better introductions to Sheri S. Tepper and her works, but Sideshow holds its own among her novels. Its timbre may diverge from that of her other stories, but its examination of the human condition and its message of hope do not. Sideshow's got a little different flavor, but it was definitely cooked in the same pot.