Last year, I discovered Sherri S. Tepper’s novel “Singer From the Sea.” It was one of the most bizarre books that I’ve ever read, and I described it in my review as a amalgamation of Dune, Fern Gully, and A Handmaid’s Tale. When I saw more Sherri Tepper books at the used book store, I couldn’t help myself. I knew that at the very least, I’d be in for something different. “Six Moon Dance” is exactly what I expected–strange, beautifully written, imaginative, and yet vaguely disappointing.
The basic setup of the universe of “Six Moon Dance” reminded me a bit of Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. Space travel and colonization raised a host of questions about the meaning of intelligent life, and war and conflict became commonplace. However, a wise man named Haraldson came up with a series of edicts in order to create an atmosphere of interstellar peace and cooperation. One such rule is that one can’t set up a colony on a planet that has already has indigenous intelligent life. In order to enforce Haraldson’s edicts, an intelligent robot called the Questioner was created to travel to different worlds and to destroy those civilizations that refused to comply.
The main story arc of “Six Moon Dance:” is set on the planet of Newholme. Newholme has one seriously fucked up social structure, which is due to a gender imbalance. Because women are scarce, they are given special treatment within Newholme’s society. After high-class women have produced children, which is seen as their social duty, they are allowed the service of hunk, a courtesan who’s had a vasectomy. Meanwhile, men are required to wear veils in public and have limited rights. Think of Western stereotypes about the Middle East, and reverse them.
Mouche, our protagonist, is in training to be such a courtesan. He was born in a poor family that didn’t produce any girls, and so his family sold him to a brothel to make ends meet. However, Mouche’s world is about to change, as a visit from the Questioner reveals dark secrets about Newholme’s past. Meanwhile, an unprecedented increase in volcanic activity threatens to make the Questioner’s visit a moot point and to destroy all civilization on the planet.
To be quite frank, Newholme’s social structure made me a bit queasy. I realize that’s the effect that Tepper was going for–to make readers uncomfortable to point out flaws in our own perception of gender roles–but I think that Tepper’s commentary on gender overshadowed an otherwise fantastic story. The exposition of Newholme’s history and secrets was absolutely brilliant (I’d say more, but that would be going into extreme spoiler territory), but the blatant treatment of gender roles was distracting. A more subtle approach would have gotten the point across without coming off as preachy. I was also unsatisfied with the way that the story ended.
While “Six Moon Dance” doesn’t fulfill its full potential, it is still an enjoyable read. Tepper is able to craft a story filled with intrigue and imagination, and the creatures that she creates are captivating and complex. Just be warned that the eco-feminist message is pronounced, blunt, and at times overwhelming.
I read this book as part of The 2013 Science Fiction Experience.