Sheri S. Tepper’s THE WATERS RISING is a thought-provoking, challenging novel that is both engaging to read, yet very slow to develop. Because of these paradoxical qualities, I had to re-read this book at least four times to understand what was going on, but for the most part I enjoyed the re-reads as I got more out of the book the more I put into it.
The basic plot of THE WATERS RISING is as follows: a young girl, Xulai (pronounced “Shoo-lye”) has been groomed since birth to be an important woman’s Xakixa, or soul-carrier. When the important woman passes away, Xulai realizes that her role as Xakixa, while accurate, is only one of the things she must do in order to play a significant part in keeping humanity alive despite a major ecological disaster.
Xulai is Tingawan, an Asian-derived kingdom that’s said to have a thousand islands — this could be Indonesia, could be Japan, could be Hawai’i, or could be parts of all three for all I know — and is far from where Xulai has been born and raised in the Duchy of Wold, which appears to be part of what we’d now call the United States (or possibly Canada). She’s known to important people because she is a mutant — this is never expressly stated in the text, but is the truth — and her particular genetic mutation has been prayed for, hoped for, and has been tweaked by what passes for scientists in Xulai’s rather barbaric future age, because the fact that the waters are rising is a major problem.
In Xulai’s time, Florida is gone. Mississippi, gone. England, gone. The Netherlands, gone. Any low-lying area anywhere on our Earth — gone. And the reason for this is because of what they call the Big Kill — which really is the fallout after thermonuclear war. The war was so intense that the climate altered, continents rose and fell, and the available, habitable land mass shrank significantly.
Now, with the waters rising due to the long-term effects after the Big Kill (something they call The Time Where No One Moved Around, or a second Dark Age), the remnants of humanity, which have devolved back to feudal states for the most part, are threatened because in addition to the glaciers melting, the aquifers underneath the former continents are adding to the available sea level, and have even changed the salinity of the water. The projected amount of rising water is expected to overtake all but the highest peaks, and therefore if humanity is to survive, they must become water dwellers.
And while there are geneticists, still, and doctors, they don’t really know what we know now — they are working somewhat blind, even in Tingawa which is both the most sophisticated culture left on Earth and the most spiritual — though it’s a type of spirituality that seems like a cross between Shintoism and secular humanism, not anything we’d really recognize as an organized faith at this time.
Around the mid-point of THE WATERS RISING, things really get interesting, because things up until this point were explained as magic that instead turns out to be science. And it turns out we’re looking at a scientific, not a magical, solution to the problems of this ecological disaster in the making because the Tingawans have a plan, and it all depends on Xulai.
Note that Xulai, because of her mutation, is older than she thinks she is, and needs to find a husband forthwith. She does in the wanderer Abasio, who seems to be a commonsensical version of “Everyman” despite his talking horse, Big Blue. Because of Abasio’s love for Xulai, we can see her as human, not as a freak. And that helps a great deal.
The rest of this novel is for you to read, and I’d encourage you to do so. It’s interesting, it’s thought-provoking, it’s entertaining, and it’s written in a deceptive way — almost like a fable rather than as a scientific tour-de-force, yet it’s both in its odd way. That shouldn’t be a surprise, but somehow was.
In other words, this is a book that reads for a half like fantasy, but is ultimately science fiction. It’s about many things — spirituality, sacrifice, what it means to be human, whether future humanity will have much, genetically, in common with present-day humanity — but the main ideas are clear, well-stated, and are compelling.
Don’t expect a quick read here, but do expect to have your assumptions challenged. That’s what Ms. Tepper does best, and she delivered brilliantly here.
To sum up — I enjoyed this book a great deal, but it does take effort to read it and understand it and appreciate it. But do not let that put you off, because if you give this book time, it will suck you right in and not let you out until you have fully understood what Ms. Tepper was going on about.
— Reviewed by Barb.