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

Moderator’s note: This marvelous FAR site has been running for 10 years and has had more than 3,600 posts in that time. There are so many treasures that have been posted in this decade. They tend to get lost in the archives. We are beginning this column so that we can all revisit some of these gems. Today’s blogpost was originally posted August 6, 2017. You can visit it here to see the original comments. This post along with those which will be posted in next two days were curated by Barbara Ardinger to stand together for their relevancy now, 5 years later.

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.

BIO: Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (barbaraardinger.com), is the author of Secret Lives, a novel about crones and other magical folks, Pagan Every Day, a unique daybook of daily meditations, and other books. She really enjoys writing her monthly blogs for FAR. Her work has also been published in devotionals to Isis, Athena, and Brigid. Barbara’s day job is freelance editing for people who have good ideas but don’t want to embarrass themselves in print. To date, she has edited more than 400 books, both fiction and nonfiction, on a wide range of topics. She lives in Long Beach, California, with her rescued calico cat, Schroedinger.



Categories: Books, Feminism, Fiction, General

Tags: , ,

5 replies

  1. Friends, as I reread this novel a few weeks ago, I felt more than ever before that Tepper was prophesying the 2020s and the Orange Denier who is traveling around the U.S. to further spread his Great Lie. I think Trump, like Webster in the book, is actually an “eater of pain” from outer space, a force of corruption and evil. What do you think? I think you’ll all enjoy this novel. You’ll find it both scary (what the men are doing to women) and (in the careers and company of the six women) comforting. Bright blessings!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I couldn’t agree more Barbara. I was inspired to read this book from your post. Its pretty amazing that Gibbon nails so much that is in the news today. She does it in a sci-fi sort of way so its tolerable (I can’t really read things with unremitting misery in them). And she has these aspects of women’s comradery that bring so much hope.
    I could barely put the book down at times. It does bring the hopeful note of mysterious mystical energies rising to help us in our times of need. And she does it in totally unexpected ways. Very satisfying. Thanks for writing about this book.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Barbara I have not read the book but it is no stretch for me to believe that books like this are prophetic – it’s one of the reasons I shy away from fiction. The other reason? Because I am a dreamer – and dreamers read the future in uncanny ways that only years of journaling (like 40 for me) can reveal. I have been catapulted into the terrifying NOW long before people seemed to be able to see….especially with regards to what is happening to nature… at least until recently – now this stuff has bled into every area. So I most certainly don’t want to read more about this stuff. As a writer my poetry often seems to be able to “read” the future in much the same way – very very uncomfortable.
    It’s my belief that any truly creative act can and often does tap into the future – Living a life like this has taught me that present past future somehow fold over each other – or something.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. What a wonderful book! I haven’t read it, but it is definitely on my list now. I agree with the discussion that fiction can be eerily prescient. The book seems to not only predict general trends, but more precise events that have come to pass. I love the elder bag ladies and I have seen this dynamic of older women leading local progressive organizations and being a voice of hope and perspective for younger people happening in the past few years in my own region. On a more general level regarding futuristic predictions in fiction, I do find that ideas for much of what I write come from places I can’t pinpoint – I think that creative thoughts in general may often originate in a timeless place where past, present, and future aren’t as differentiated as we might believe.

    Liked by 2 people

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