Lioness in Winter: Sheri S. Tepper
When I was forty, in the midst of raising children and being a corporate drone, I read Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper. Gate, published in 1988, is an audacious book. I had grown up in the heyday of male-centric post-apocalyptic science fiction.
By contrast, Tepper’s novel is fully female-centric. It is set in a dystopian future where women craft uncomfortable solutions to the human dilemmas of aggression, overpopulation, and environmental degradation. Her premise and her viewpoint remain eye-opening.
But what stands out in my memory decades later, even more than the book itself, is its biographical note about the author. Tepper was a woman who had always wanted to write, and who started a new career as a novelist after retiring from running a non-profit.
This was a revelation; let me explain. In my twenties, I turned down a scholarship to the MFA program at CUNY after my fiancé took me to dinner and told me I would never be Shakespeare, and I’d better get an MBA instead. By my forties, – with a Columbia MBA – I had divorced the husband but was raising the kids and working in a corporation. The trajectory of Tepper’s life changed how I thought about mine. I was stunned that she had reinvented herself after completing the responsibilities of career and motherhood, and the fact that Tepper had done that simmered in my consciousness for decades, until I could do it myself.
Now that I am free to write whatever I please, it is good to step back and take a new look at Sheri Tepper: who she was and what she accomplished, as a writer and as an example to other women. After all, I am not alone: Many of us pass through the crucible of career and motherhood and come out on the other side, vital and creative in our fifties, sixties and beyond, and Tepper can shine a light for us all.
Sheri S. Douglas was born in Colorado in 1929. After a brief early marriage, she raised two children as a single mom, and worked for Planned Parenthood of Colorado, eventually becoming its Executive Director. She was a strong advocate for the reproductive rights of women and expanded services to low-income women throughout Colorado and Wyoming. Her second marriage to Gene Tepper in the late 1960s continued for over fifty years, until Sheri Tepper’s death in October 2016, when she was 87.
Professional concerns about the rising human population and the resulting environmental degradation were the driving force for her novels. Dr. Gary Wolfe, a Science Fiction historian, had this to say when Tepper received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the World Fantasy Convention: “She is, in a sense that isn’t as fashionable as it once was, a consciously social novelist. The storytelling just came naturally to her and was the most effective way she knew of getting important ideas presented.”
One of the most delightful things about Sheri Tepper is her exuberant output. Although she deferred her writing career until her mid-fifties, Tepper published more than forty novels over the course of three decades. She wrote murder mysteries under the pen names A.J. Orde and B.J. Oliphant, and horror as E.E. Horlak, plus lots of science fiction and fantasy in her own name. Her writing career continued until she was well into her eighties.
She was strong as a lioness in her winter years.
She clearly did not care what anyone expected of older women, what we should do, or say, or look like. “Having formed the habit of writing every day,” Tepper said in a 1998 Locus Magazine interview, “it’s a hard habit to break.” Her appreciation of the natural world was key. “To my mind, the expression of divinity is in variety, and the more variable the creation, the more variable the creatures that surround us, the more chance we have to learn and to see into life itself, nature itself.” The future of the natural world became an important theme in her work.
Tepper evokes wonder at her inventiveness. Explain a point in one of her plots to a friend and watch your friend disbelieve you, wrote one reviewer. And she could have fun. In Six Moon Dance, she played with a fantasy world where women were expected to take consorts after a certain number of years of marriage – it was right there in the wedding contract. But Tepper’s writing was just as disturbing as it was imaginative. She holds up a mirror that shows us where we are headed if we don’t mend our ways. We can use contraception in real life, right now, Tepper warns us, or expect her fictional plagues to be visited on our future.
No hero is complete without clay feet, and Tepper can be complicated for modern readers. Sometimes it is her biases more than her predictions that make me squirm. The Gate to Women’s Country contains a cringe-worthy passage where researchers discover a “cure” for the “gay gene.” Besides its overt homophobia, this just doesn’t make sense. A writer concerned with overpopulation should welcome a human trait that separates sexuality and reproduction. Tepper worried that human biases prevent us from seeing what is best, but she herself was not immune.
Tepper was hailed in her lifetime, nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer when she was 55. Her novel Grass, perhaps her most famous, was a finalist for the Hugo Award. Her novella The Gardener was a World Fantasy Award finalist. Other novels were shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke and for the James Tiptree Jr. Literary Award. Sheri Tepper was a Cassandra who called out uncomfortable truths in the vein of Margaret Atwood and Marge Piercy. So it is surprising that Tepper is no longer well known. Some of her works are out of print; quite a few are hard to come by, even secondhand. Yet many of her books are readily accessible, and I look forward to reading much more of her in my new phase of life. And the more of us who demand her work, the more of Tepper’s books will find a second life in this e-book age.
Sheri Tepper died in October 2016, at age 87. “I have always lived in a world in which I’m just a spot in history,” she said in an interview. “I’m just part of the continuum, and that continuum, to me, is a marvelous thing. The history of life, and the history of the planet, should go on and on and on. I cannot conceive of anything in the universe that has more meaning than that.”
Tepper’s life reminds us that women live long enough to become something new, like a kaleidoscope that unveils unexpected designs from components that were there all along. We collect ideas and memories for decades, not knowing how they will emerge in art or writing, transfigured by the passage of time.
Finally, the moment arrives to look at who we are now, in this new stage of life beyond work and child-rearing. Sheri S. Tepper, who became a prolific and inventive writer late in life, is a great example for women on the cusp of a new stage of being.