Are These Three Novels Prophetic? Part 1: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall by Sheri S. Tepper by Barbara Ardinger


Members of this community (and others) have been feeling that the world is out of balance since the 2016 election. There’s a feeling that people are becoming less kind and that some men (following the model that lives and tweets in the White House when he’s not at one of his golf resorts) are more misogynistic. I’ve heard that Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eight-Four is more popular than ever before. We seem to be living in a new, dystopic society. It’s very sad and very scary.

I’ve recently reread three novels written by women that I think may be both prophetic and inspiring. I’m hoping that if you read them, too, you’ll inspired by their brave heras to keep on resisting. The novels are Gibbon’s Decline and Fall (1996) by Sheri S. Tepper, Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) by Marge Piercy, and The Fifth Sacred Thing (1993) by Starhawk.

gibbon's decline and fall book cover

Sheri S. Tepper is well known for the feminist POV of her many novels, most of them classified as science fiction. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall is about six women who meet in 1959 at the beginning of their freshman year in college. One, Carolyn Crespin, is expected to marry her cousin (an FBI agent), but he’s such a right-winger that when she breaks their engagement, she yells at him that she is, among other things, a subversive. At college, she becomes lifelong friends with six other women. One of these is Sovawanea Tesuawane, a beautiful and very mysterious woman they call Sophy. Sophy hates the leers and whistles she keeps getting from men, so her friends uglify her. To help with the disguise, someone suggests that she hide her breasts by carrying a book—Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This is the source of the club the seven women establish; they swear that they will never decline and fall. After graduation, they gather periodically for weekends in each others’ homes. Even though Sophy commits suicide in about 1996, she seems to still be around…talking to her friends and appearing as if in disguise.

Tepper couldn’t know about Dubya or Obama or the Troll-in-Chief while she was writing this novel in 1996, but the world she describes differs from ours only by degree. If 1959 was the end of a conservative era (probably the “great” in Make America Great Again), the year 2000 in this novel  is far worse. Dominion over women is the rule. Women’s colleges have been bombed. The Right-to-Lifers have closed clinics and hospitals. Militias are active and marching. The Vatican and Muslim leaders are working together to enslave women. And there is an organization called the Alliance. It’s head is a man named L.S. Webster, one of whose true believers is Jake Jagger.

As a boy, Jake was locked in a closet while his mother slept with men for money. He has no idea who his father was, so he starts making lists of candidates; the list narrows as each man falls off his pedestal until the only possible father left is Webster. He’s Jake’s fantasy father. Jake gets noticed, he gets into politics, and he rises to become the District Attorney in Santa Fe. Like his mentor/“father,” Jagger hates women, even though he married a woman named Helen to produce a male child. Now he is being groomed by the Alliance to run for President.

What drives the main plot is the case of Lolly Ashaler, an uneducated, unmothered, almost sub-human teenager who was raped and gave birth prematurely. She didn’t know the bloody mess that came out of her was a baby, so she put it in a dumpster. This young Dumpster Mother is arrested and jailed. Jake becomes the prosecutor in the trial, and Carolyn, now a retired lawyer, is persuaded to defend Lolly. The Decline and Fall Club is meeting at her house this year, so she asks them for help. Now it gets more complicated, as Jake bugs Carolyn’s phones, then her house. When the club sets out to find the unseen home of Sophy and her people, Jake follows them in a helicopter and ambushes them when they return home.

This novel contains an idea I’ve loved since I first read it: put something in the world’s water to reduce testosterone levels. Carolyn’s daughter introduces this plotline when she complains that her fiancé has no interest in sex. As the loss of testosterone spreads, the misogynistic men become angry—not that they can’t do it with women (most of them never really wanted to), but because their dominion over women is falling apart. At one point, Carolyn tells her daughter the U.S. needs separate governments. “Instead of gingriching issues affecting primarily women and children, like pregnancy, childbirth, abortion, welfare…and the like, men should leave them to women to decide. Men could then pay full attention to issues of preeminent concern to men, like restructuring professional baseball.”

Groups of old women—bag ladies—have also begun marching. (Think of our recent resistance marches.) Some of the bag ladies, Tepper writes, “went among women who were alone, teaching them to join together, for there is hope in two women, help in three women, strength in four, joy in five, power in six, and against seven, no gate may stand. Some even went among men to tell them of the battle that was coming, to explain that it is not male god against male devil, nor is it female against male; it has nothing to do with gender but with dominion.”

The book ends as a colored “light” given by Sophia (the goddess) to Sophy and then to Carolyn is dropped into a sculpture that is a symbol of fecundity that incorporates a fountain  that eventually flows into the ocean. It will change the world.

 

Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic.  Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations.  When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the Neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.

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Categories: Books, Feminism, Fiction

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10 replies

  1. I’ve read the other two books on your list of three. I’m looking forward to reading this one. Thanks for letting us know!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. In the mid-90s, I sent a fan letter (on paper in an envelope with a stamp) to Tepper to praise several of her novels. She replied, and we had a very nice (if short–two or three exchanges) correspondence. I told her about my novel Secret Lives, which is partly about old women and was in progress at the time.

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  3. I’ve often fantasized about the idea of putting something in the water to reduce testosterone levels! But I’ve read that testosterone levels are already falling – maybe due to pollution – so maybe it won’t be necessary. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that it will be too little, too late. Global warming will probably cure gaia’s ills by eliminating humans.

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  4. What a fascinating book! I will definitely put it and the others on my list to read or reread. All these books speak to the need to be ever vigilant that the progress women have made in the past decades, when they were first written, not be undone. I love that this book puts older women in the spotlight and it is indeed prophetic when we see how many older women have been active over the past few months.

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    • Looking at your photos again, I’m suddenly struck by the thought that the publishers of these three prophetic novels should’ve hired you to illustrate them. Yes, there’s lots of imbalance in our so-called reality and in fiction.

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  5. Barbara, Thanks for this plot summary. I met Tepper back in the 1980s or early 1990s. She was a prolific science fiction and fantasy author, and definitely had a feminist point of view. But I never read this particular novel. Perhaps it was after I became incensed when one of her novels pivoted in the middle of the story from being a retold fairy tale to being science fiction, which as a reader I experienced as a betrayal of sorts. After that I was much less likely to read her books. The other two novels are two of my favorite feminist science fiction tales. I can’t wait to see what you have to say about them.

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    • Nancy, you’re probably referring to Beauty, which starts out as a sort of “real-life” medieval Sleep Beauty and zooms forward into a dystopia. Give it another try. There’s a message there.

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  6. Oh, yes, everyone: DO read Tepper!

    Barbara, thanks for introducing me to her when I was looking for new reading material: I started with “Decline” (which I think is her most pertinent comment for us at this time in history) and went from there. Barbara is right: there’s a message there.

    Great post, as always!

    Liked by 1 person

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