In Sheri S. Tepper's The Margarets, nominated for the Clarke, a woman's identity is shattered into seven parts, each going on interplanetary missions to save humanity. This is magical space opera mixed with hardcore eco-politics.
Tepper's work is often compared to Ursula Le Guin's because she fuses the spiritualism of epic fantasy with interstellar war stories. For these reasons her work could also be compared with the Star Wars franchise, where shamans in touch with a magical Force cross swords with space-faring fascists. But unlike Star Wars, which focuses pretty much relentlessly on male experiences and heroes, Tepper explores how women fare on many interconnected worlds facing uncertain fates.
Margaret begins her life as a little girl on a Martian space station, where her parents are scientists. Earth has become so overpopulated, polluted, and resource depleted that it can barely gain entrance to an union of alien civilizations called the Interstellar Trade Organization (sort of like an extraterrestrial WTO). Humans are viewed by most aliens as savages, unable to treat themselves and their planet wisely. Their ruthless exploitation of resources on Earth has left them with nothing to trade with the ISTO groups, and their continued population expansion puts their continued membership in the group in jeopardy. And this is membership they need, because its members protect them from dangerous, evil alien groups who want to carve up what's left of the Earth for its last remaining resources and leave the humans to die.
So the Earthian governent strikes a bargain with the ISTO. They'll shrink their population to livable levels by shipping out many humans to alien colonies or into slavery. In fact, human slaves are the one export the planet has, and the ISTO allows them in on that basis. Unfortunately, the humans keep breeding and sucking up resources. A cabal of kindly aliens sterilizes 95% of the Earth population, but that still doesn't prevent humans elsewhere from repeating the same cycle of breed and pillage.
And that's where Margaret comes in. The kindly cabal - part of a secret order within the galactic Sisterhood - keeps watch over her as she divides into many selves, magic realism style. At various points in her life, when she makes momentous decisions, she divides into multiple Margarets who have each made the decision differently. Before one such decision, Margaret is marked by the population board on Earth as an extraneous human and tagged for shipment off the Earth. One self decides at the last minute to join a colony with her boyfriend, thus avoiding servitude. Two other selves refuse the boyfriend's offer: one winds up in bondage on a world where she tends intelligent sheep; and the other is apprenticed to a shaman (yes of course there are shamans in this book).
This aspect of the novel is quite simply amazing. Each of Margaret's selves is a believable, fully-fleshed-out character, and it's intriguing to watch how slightly different decisions turn the same person into quite different people in the end. One of Margaret's selves even becomes male, again via a moment of magical realism that slowly begins to seem oddly appropriate to this scifi tale about the mysteries of identity and choice. As the Margarets' stories unfold, we focus on a few of her selves more than others and the mysterious force that shattered them is slowly revealed.
It turns out that Margaret - all the Margarets - are required to exist so that they can help the Sisterhood discover a way for humanity to survive without constantly destroying its environment. The key lies in memory. Most intelligent species, it turns out, have ancestral memories that allow them to remember first-hand what it's like to be in war, to starve, and to know fear as a slave. Because humans don't have that kind of memory, they make the mistakes of war and slavery over and over again. They simply can't learn as a species quickly enough, though their written history helps prevent them from becoming completely evil.
To save humans, Margaret also has to discover why alien creatures called ghyrm are appearing all over human worlds, sucking the life out of people who discover them. A conspiracy that is half-political, half-spiritual ultimately ties the human and ghyrm problems together - and leads to their solution. In the meantime, the Margarets go on an adventure that spans wormholes, the realm of the gods, a planet of female slaves, a land full of dragons and green elfish creatures, and even leads her into deep friendship with a talking cat. All of this sounds a little cheesy, and believe me, it is. There are some cutsey moments in the novel that verge on atrocious. But ultimately The Margarets is saved by the non-cutsey, gritty intensity of the main chracters. All roads lead back to a meditation on the true nature of human selfhood, always divided but also with the capacity to become whole.
If you're looking for a hard science fiction novel with realistic political intrigues, The Margarets probably won't work for you. But if you're willing to suspend disbelief and enter the echoing realms of the psyche along with spaceships to distant planets, you'll find this novel supremely satisfying. As ever Tepper is unafraid to ask the hard questions about human nature, and to propose radical solutions to it. And she manages to bring magic into a story whose human characters feel as real as people you meet every day on this insane planet whose future is anything but certain.
The Margarets was nominated for a Clarke Award. Read more of io9's coverage of 2009's book award nominees here.