In my obituary for Sheri S. Tepper, I said that her novel Raising the Stones “contains the single best portrait of a utopia – feminist or otherwise – I have ever seen.” I’d like to say a bit more, and why that book has been a source of comfort and inspiration for me for years.
Massive spoilers within.
The setting for the book is that humanity has recently turned the planet of Hobbs Land into a quiet agricultural colony. It was previously occupied by a placid species called the Owlbrit, who moved about on detachable tentacles and left it dotted with small circular temples. A few of the inhabitants of Settlement One have taken up the Owlbrit custom of leaving small sacrifices of mouselike creatures, a practice recommended by the last surviving member of the species when a linguist asks whether such sacrifices are necessary:
“Not necessary,” the Old One had scraped with his horn-tipped tentacles in a husky whisper. “What is necessary? Is life necessary? Necessary to what? No, sacrifice is not necessary, it is only recommended. It is a way, a convenience, a kindness.”
Birribat Shum, one of the settlers who has helped keep up the temple, dies. His companions, without clearly being able to say why, decide to bury him nearby. And then, very gradually, things start to change. The children start rebuilding a ruined Owlbrit temple. The people of Settlement One are calmer, happier; their productivity goes up. No one really talks about it, but one day a group goes out to where Shum is buried and digs up the gravesite. His body has been replaced by a heavy mass of fungus that spreads out through the earth in fine filaments. Most of it they place in the rebuilt temple, but one girl carefully cuts out fifteen hand-size pieces. Then, whenever a burial is being conducted in another settlement, someone slips one of the fungal pieces into the grave – and that settlement grows more peaceful and productive, too. So it spreads, the filaments growing underground and being transplanted. Everywhere it spreads, people start building round temples and offering small sacrifices, and the natural world bursts forth with massive groves and forgotten species.
There is more, including actual characters and an actual plot, but the Hobbs Land Gods have stuck with me, in part, for their humble simplicity. They don’t give orders, they don’t make demands, they don’t try to change people all that much. Tepper works mostly by indirection; we see what people who have been in contact with the dust-like filaments do, but they avoid talking too much about it.
As best I can glean, most of the time, these “gods” only ever do two things. First, they tell people things it would be useful for them to know – an irrigation ditch needs mending, your co-worker needs a wrench, the gods will spread if transplanted to other planets. As one character puts it:
I know some things. They come to me solid, like pieces of wood, all carved to fit and nailed down. I just know, and I open my mouth and out it comes, and that’s that. No questions, no hesitations.
And second, they make people less afraid. Not of everything: if a harvesting machine is bearing down on you, the gods won’t stop you from running. Just of the things one shouldn’t really fear: unfamiliar customs, other people’s affairs that aren’t your concern, the intentions of people who mean no harm.
That’s it. For most people, the Hobbs Land Gods provide a simple, sensible, way of living better. They calm down a bit, they cooperate more, they go on for the most part as they have before. But conflict basically disappears, along with pointless destruction. And why not? Before you even think about raising a hand, you know that wouldn’t be a very good idea. So you don’t. You chose not to; you still have your free will. You simply knew enough and were unafraid enough not even to be tempted. For a few people, who prize their independence, or power, or a jealous grabbiness, something about Hobbs Land feels off: they’re uncomfortable, and they leave, which everyone agrees is for the best. What they leave behind is, as I said, a utopia.
Of course, the limits of human knowledge and the limits of human psychology are no minor matters. But out of all the things one might think in need of reform in the human condition, these are lesser changes than most other utopias depend on. If we knew a little more and feared a little less, everything really might work out all right.
I first read Raising the Stones in the spring of 1993. It has always been bound up for me with what I see as the redemptive potential of the Internet – if not quite literally, than perhaps thematically. The Internet, after all, is another almost-living network that spreads everywhere human hands carry it. It whispers needed knowledge in our ears, and maybe just maybe it might help soothe our unnecessary fears. The Internet we have is not so good at that, but the Internet we might have – the Internet we can imagine – the Internet we need – could be better.
For now, the Hobbs Land Gods remain the stuff of speculative fiction. But I carry the distant and unlikely hope that some day they may be made real. I will plant it where it might take root, and raise up the stones to make a home from which they may spread. It is a way, a convenience, a kindness.