Sunday, July 5, 2015

Fungi in Fiction: Raising the Stones (1988)

Book Review: Raising the Stones by Sheri S Tepper (1988)

The first couple of times I read this speculative fiction novel, I totally missed the first clues pointing toward its fungi related theme. The title, Raising the Stones, comes from a poem by George Seferis, Mycenae. Twenty years ago, I thought it to refer to some once-upon-a-time Greek islands ruined by volcanic action. As a consequence of missing the word play, I could never reconcile the title with the content.

At that time, several other important themes kept me reading. Godless then and now, I’ve nevertheless always been interested in the way in which gods seem to arise out of the natural world. Tepper’s treatise on the animistic religions of the past, I read this as. So much so, that I always thought the book could easily have been titled The Hobb’s Land God.

There’s more to it though, with a feminist plot in which the Hobb’s Land matriarchal society is pitted against a fiercely patriarchal society shouting ‘Ire, Iron and Voorstod’, where ‘Voorstod’ means ‘death by whip’. A society uncannily similar in operation to some of the fundamentalist groups operating today, even to the revival of slavery, considering the novel was published more than twenty years ago.

Then there are the explorations of the different psychological effects of legends, and stories. Tepper discusses the idea that the legends we retain from our Greco-Roman-Germanic history might lead us into these dangerous fundamental patriarchies.

Due to its themes and intent, which are not just to entertain, I don’t believe this novel should be classed as a space opera though events play out in a fictional star system.  Tepper’s omniscient narrator often lectures on branches growing from the main themes. Because these digressions tend not to be more than about three paragraphs, I keep my cool and read them, where normally I am quite impatient with lengthy lecturing.

Hobb’s Land is a small planet in The Belt, a farm world supplying the three large massively populated planets. Twelve settlements and a central management village house a population of about 1300 farmers. Children born into this society know their mothers, grandmothers, aunties and uncles; friends and siblings. Fathers are progies (for progenitors) if they are known at all.

At the time of settlement, twelve of the planet’s original inhabitants, the Owlbrits, still live. Most die quite quickly, seemingly glad the invaders have come to now be responsible for the work. An older somewhat dysfunctional settler takes over the care and welfare of the one remaining god. A couple of pages in, both he and the god die. The whole population of Settlement One falls down in a faint, not waking till the next day.

Whilst the characters discover the effects the god had on them, we get our second clue as to the nature of the Hobb’s Land gods. ‘Birribat (the old settler) was where Sal had left him, in the central chamber, except now he was curled on the floor, covered with a fine black dust, dead.’ (p8) If you have no knowledge of fungi you’ll probably won’t realise the importance of that ‘fine black dust’.

An omniscient narrator can express every point of view as well as recount hidden processes such as the following: ‘The dust brooded wetly in the manifold womb of the earth, brooded and soaked and changed. Individual particles swelled and replicated themselves, and again, and yet again. From a single grain a filament came, thinner than hair, white as the light of stars; palely gleaming it snouted its way between infinitesimal grains of flesh, among microscopic remnants of flesh, stretching out through the rags of clothing into the earth beyond.’ After another couple of paragraphs of lyrical description we are left with this: ‘Beneath the soil lay Birribat Shum: what was left of him; what he had become.’ (p38)

The settlers recover, taking about ten days to work through an inexplicable grief. Though the god lives, as only we readers know. The children of the settlement start restoring the temple, and when they ask for help with the roof, the adult who goes to check on their work has the roof almost falling in on her.

The mycelial web that was Birribat Shum continues to grow, and grow, until it takes over the surrounding land, growing under the fields, roads, the settlement itself. It looks for food but doesn’t find much it can use. Here’s where we enter fantasy, at least I think we enter fantasy. ‘And in the thick mattressy felt where Birribat had once lain, the hard strange nucleus continued to grow, laid down molecule by molecule …’ (p100)

The kids working on the temple, when a settler dies of old age, bury that body near Birribat’s. There is a lot of underground growth while the story above ground also continues. Two of the children, Jeopardy Wilm and Saturday Wilm, cousins, become god-carers. The rest of the settlements grow jealous at Settlement One’s peaceable demeanour and consequent high production rates. Barely suppressed warfare breaks up an intra settlement sport meeting. Sam, Settlement One’s Topman (chief/manager), while in the throes of one of his hero fantasies kills a monster. Events in far away Voorstod draw nearer.

After a philosophical discussion on the possible need for sacrifices, the settlement’s cats begin to bring ‘ferfs’ rodents native to Hobb’s Land, as offerings to the god. Feeding the mycelium, in other words. The mycelium pushes on toward Settlement Three. Soon all the settlements have their gods and their god-carers. When Jeopardy Wilm is kidnapped by the Voorstoders, Saturday Wilm accompanies her grandmother – the actual target – and her uncle Sam to Voorstod. Saturday smuggles out pieces of the mycelial mat to start up secret temples in the Voorstod world.

In the last few pages I learned that ‘Gyromitra, false morels, a class of fungus upon Manhome, can only be eaten after you boil the rocket-fuel away’ (p446) when the fungus builds shelters for the evacuees and weapons with which to beat the Voorstodders. After a great deal of disaster and growth both above ground and in the soil, the fungus and its people win their freedom.

There is a lot more of interest in the novel. The Doors, the way to travel from planet to planet. A kind of time travel, I presume. Some of the futurist technology is now commonplace. Computers everywhere. Enforcement by a robotic army is not. De-bonders I hope will never be.

By the end the fungus rules! As you would expect. This is one of my favourite fictions using fungi as part of the plot. 

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