The Waters Rising is a loose sequel to Sheri Tepper’s 1993 novel A Plague of Angels (the two books share a protagonist, but pretty much stand alone). In a distant future where, after collapse, society has reverted to a medieval milieu, with added ‘magical’ phenomena (such as talking animals) courtesy of largely-forgotten science. Travelling pedlar Abasio and his wisecracking horse Big Blue arrive at the Duke of Wold’s castle, where the Duke’s Tingawan wife, Xu-i-lok, is ailing. Abasio meets Xulai, the young Tingawan charged with the traditional responsibility of carrying Xu-i-lok’s soul back to Tingawa, should the princess die away from her home country. Xu-i-lok does indeed die towards the start of the novel, and Abasio joins Xulai and guardians on their journey to Tingawa, where a solution might also wait to the rising waters which threaten to engulf the land – but, of course, there are those who would see Xulai fail in her quest.

Since I’m reading this book in the context of its Clarke Award nomination, I need to address the question of genre; because, for a novel which has been shortlisted for a science fiction award, The Waters Rising spends an awful lot of time looking like an epic fantasy. Yes, it’s set in the future; and, yes, its fantastications have scientific underpinnings; but they might as well be magical for all the difference it makes. Here, for example, is the evil duchess Alicia explaining the ‘curse’ she has placed on Xu-i-lok:

There’s no such thing as magic. No. My favourite machine makes lovely curses, invisible clouds of very small, powerful killers. I can make the cloud and keep it alive in a special kind of vial. Then, if I get close enough to the person and release the cloud, the cloud will find that person among all the peoples who may be near, no matter where the person is hidden, so long as I release it nearby! (p. 25)

What Alicia is describing here – though she doesn’t know the scientific words for it – is a nanotechnology weapon tailored to its target’s DNA; but it could just as easily be a magic spell. To me, his isn’t the sort of sf/fantasy bleeding that justifies considering a novel as science fiction. I’m not great fan of A Plague of Angels, but it was far bolder in the way it combined sf and fantasy: its characters moved knowingly between fantastical and science-fictional venues, and the novel held the two modes in tension. By The Waters Rising, enough time has passed that the science fiction is largely hidden behind the curtain of fantasy; and the odd intervention like Alicia’s nanotech ‘curse’ – or even the book’s final third, where the sf becomes more overt – is not enough to alter my perception that the beating heart of Tepper’s book is a traditional quest fantasy. That’s one reason why I’m annoyed that The Waters Rising has been shortlisted for the Clarke.

Another reason is that the book really isn’t very good, even as a quest fantasy. Structurally, the story is a fairly straightforward wander across the map, with occasional scenes joining the caricature villains (one even laughs, ‘Heh, heh, heh,’ at one point), who helpfully do much of their plotting out loud for our benefit. This might be fine in Saturday morning cartoons, but it reads very crudely in a novel. There are some diverting pieces of fantastication, such as the villagers of ‘Becomers’, whom Alicia has persuaded they must behave in a certain way (singing to each other, for example, or painting themselves blue) to receive the king’s favour.  But, like Declare on last year’s Clarke shortlist, too much of The Waters Rising is overstuffed with detail (the low point of this for me is a pages-long description of an abbey’s mealtime procedures).

As I mentioned earlier, the novel’s science-fictional aspect comes more strongly to the fore as we reach the final third, which is when the party reaches Tingawa, and solutions to humanity’s problems are mooted and implemented. But, even here, Tepper’s book frustrates. The Waters Rising has environmental degradation caused by humans in its background (‘Men were foolish and did foolish things [says one character], they did not respect the earth, they worshipped the ease machines and the world punished them by becoming barren,’ p. 200); but the immediate difficulties being faced in the novel have more fantastical origins, and the means of addressing them likewise. To my mind, this undercuts the book’s moral message, as well as its status as science fiction.

In sum, I really have no idea what The Waters Rising is doing on the Clarke shortlist, and can see no reason to recommend it.

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts about the Award.