Monday, March 16, 2009

The Family Tree

Sorry for my absence, dear readers. My dad passed away on February 28th, and I'm still getting myself back up to speed. If you are interested, you can follow the link to see some photos and some of my memories. I miss him very much.

I've spent more time in my childhood bedroom in the past few months than I have in many years. While most of my junk precious possessions were moved out long ago, I did find a variety of paperbacks - some I recognize as mine, others not so much. There was a really bad SF novel1 that I'm sure my brother purchased (I refuse to take any responsibility for it, anyway).

I also came across my copy of Sheri Tepper's novel The Family Tree. It's actually one of the first SF novels I selected specifically because of its biological themes. There are actually two parallel plots: in a world very much like our present day, police officer Dora Henry investigates the murder of several geneticists, tries to figure out why rapidly growing trees and weeds seem to be taking over, while recovering from the breakup of her loveless marriage. The second plot takes place in a fantasy-like world, with royal families, limited technology, working magic, and sentient trees. There an unlikely band of travelers finds themselves on a quest that they believe will save the world. As you would expect, the two seemingly separate tales eventually become one.
"Dr. Winston was always getting himself in trouble with the boss, but he used to say every time he isolated a particular combination of genetic instructions and saw what the effect was, he'd filled in a bit of knowledge. [...] Winnie really opened our eyes to the possibilities. He was working on clusters, you see. Discrete genetic items that added up to more than the sum of the parts. One change in skull structure plus one change in hormonal tissue, plus or minus some other odds and ends, gave us horns on a pig. [...] Some brain modifications, other change in skull structure to make it curved instead of flat, and a change in throat and tongue structure should theoretically give us a sheepdog that could talk to the shepherd."
~ The Family Tree, Sheri S. Tepper, 1998
I have mixed feelings about the story. I found the fantasy part of the novel a bit too cute for my tastes, and the message - that man is destroying the environment and that genetic engineering may have long term consequences - a bit heavy handed.

If you've read Tepper's other novels, that environmental message shouldn't come as any surprise, since it's a recurring theme in her novels. As she told Locus in 1998:
''I happen to be obsessed by some subjects. There's the whole card of environmental issues, the extinction of species after species. To my mind, the expression of divinity is in variety, and the more variable the creation, the more variable the creatures that surround us, botanical and zoological, the more chance we have to learn and to see into life itself, nature itself. If we were just human beings, living in a spaceship, with an algae farm to give us food, we would not be moved to learn nearly as many things as we are moved by living on a world, surrounded by all kinds of variety. And when I see that variety being first decimated, and then halved – and I imagine in another hundred years it may be down by 90% and there'll be only 10% of what we had when I was a child – that makes me very sad, and very despairing, because we need variety. We came from that, we were born from that, it's our world, the world in which we became what we have become."
The science isn't described in much detail and I don't think it's particularly plausible. All that having been said, I did find most of it entertaining, an the way she brought the two story lines together was clever. It was definitely worth rereading.

1. The author writes in the postscript that the novel was rejected many times, and that it wasn't until he was famous that he found a publisher for it. I'm not at all surprised.



Athena Andreadis said...

I'm very, very sorry about your dad, Peggy. I adore mine, and dread thinking of the world without him.

As for the bad novel that you mention, the distressing point is that it did get published, even though everyone involved knew that it shouldn't have.

Peggy said...

Thanks, Athena.

As for the novel getting published, I guess that's one of the perks of having multiple best-sellers.