Writing What Remains: Naturalism and the Nonhuman after Nature in Sheri S. Tepper's Plague of Angels Trilogy
Sheri S. Tepper (1929-2016) is a contemporary American speculative ecofiction author known for her post-apocalyptic world building. These settings not only highlight the danger of an extremely narrow, speciesist thinking about who or what is human, they also provide tabula rosa scenarios where the loss of cultural knowledge forces inhabitants to develop new ways of understanding, valuing and relating to nonhumans. As such, Tepper's texts are part of the nonhuman theoretical turn because both assert that humans and nonhumans are essentially ‘indistinguishable’ (Grusin x). However, unlike most nonhuman theoretical positions, Tepper makes an ecoontological claim regarding teleology: to survive, humans must ‘progress’ as a species, evolving to recognize our own ‘nonhumanness’ and the 'humanness' of nonhuman others.
SF and Naturalism have a common project: the development of humanity (Link), and Tepper is a perfect example of their united interests; Being heavily influenced by Darwin, Tepper often utilizes genetics, scientific facts and terminology and explores evolution in the context of humanity’s struggle against itself for survival. Tepper’s characters are shaped and defined by their environments and respective cultures; however, for Tepper, narratives create these and thus, have the power to transcend and alter the lives of characters, cultures and their futures. Thereby, humanity’s struggle with ‘the brute within’ becomes a battle over narrative. Therefore, I utilize an econarratological approach (James) to reveal Tepper's vision of human evolution as a philosophical, physical and narrative occurrence.
Unlike many naturalist texts, the universe, environment and the nonhumans who populate them are far from indifferent. They are witty, intelligent, communicative, capable of the same foibles and beliefs and some are actively hostile. Tepper shows that a speciesist humanity is deadly not only to nonhumans but to themselves, and that diversity and biodiversity are essential to humanity. This means that a humanity which cannot coexist with nonhumans—is not human.
In her Plague of Angels series, this takes a distinct material turn with Tepper's emphasis on genetic evolution and the physical exchange of traits between humans and nonhumans necessary to the survival of both. The Plague of Angels series is a trilogy consisting of three texts: A Plague of Angels (1993), The Water's Rising (2010), and Fish Tails (2014); these are the last texts Tepper wrote before her death and they connect to Tepper's very first texts: the True Game duodecology. I will show how this theme is developed in this series by examining how Tepper blends nonhuman, naturalist, and econarratological thought into a new hybrid thinking about what the next stage of human evolution entails. I will critically assess how Tepper redefines the human/nonhuman, identifies and mocks the concept of human exceptionalism (Lorpists and Shapists), shows the deadly results of those narrowly defined value systems (The Big Kill) and argues for taking the next step in human evolution by creating a genetic engineering project that allows humans and nonhumans to materially exchange attributes, materially embodying the nonhuman turn. Underpinning this plot are hostile aliens and other nonhumans who do not believe humanity is worthy of existence and try to destroy our species. In addition, because Tepper is an author with a distinct rhetorical style, I will account for the ways in which her Camp sensibility works econarratologically to highlight the artifice, or constructedness of the storied world, and therefore, it's revisability—and perhaps ours.
Naturalism; Nonhuman; Speculative Ecofiction; Sheri S. Tepper; Plague of Angels Trilogy