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The Fresco    by Sheri S. Tepper order for
by Sheri S. Tepper
Order:  USA  Can
Eos, 2002 (2000)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Aliens make first contact with Earth. These apparently highly ethical beings are Pistach, a people who carefully social engineer their own society, so that individuals only take on roles, for which they are well suited. Chiddy and Vess are athyco. They have come to Earth to assess its suitability, and to prepare it if possible, to meet the principles of Tassifoduma (Neighborliness) in order to achieve membership in the Confederation. Unfortunately, less ethical and highly predatory alien hunters have also discovered Earth and are sampling humanity in their own fashion.

The Pistach select Benita as their intermediary to the American government. She is an abused wife, who has struggled to raise and educate her two children while working at a bookstore to support her drunkard of a husband. The tale alternates between Chiddy's journal, written for Benita, and her own point of view. The Pistach make careful interventions on Earth, with a strong flavor of 'let the punishment fit the crime.' For example, they remove Jerusalem from the factions fighting over it, and make the appearance of repressed women in Afghanistan totally repugnant to their husbands.

As the Pistach social engineering of Earth begins to have positive outcomes, politicians in opposition to the current government plot with the alien predators, with somewhat predictable results. What I found most interesting in The Fresco was its social commentary - as in some of Heinlein's works, the author's own reflections on our society often take over the tale with engaging sentences like 'After O. J. Simpson's trial and Ken Starr's investigation and the constant stench from Trash TV, what's a dead Fluiquosm or two?'

Though Sheri S. Tepper is one of the top writers of speculative fiction today, The Fresco is not her best effort. Despite bright threads of detail (as in the descriptions of alien societies and the use made of plotting Senators and their allies by female alien peacekeepers) the story's pattern is overall a little flat. However, anything written by this author is still a must read for all SF fans.

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