Sherry Tepper’s Six Moon Dance is an intriguing fantasy. It starts out seeming to be an investigation of a society with unusual sex roles (half the female babies on Newholme die as infants, so women have unusual power. Men are seen as the weaker sex, and male concubines are common; Mouche, the viewpoint character, will train to be one). The story slowly morphs into a deeper exploration of the interaction between a bizarre quasi-human society, and two interesting alien organisms, mediated by the Great Questioner, a cyborg with her own problems. Each has been changed by their interactions with the others.
Humans have only inhabited this world for a few hundred years. The first settlers didn’t notice the native life (they were hiding until they figured out the settlers’ intentions), which put them in a bind because the Council of Worlds enforces its version of the Prime Directive harshly. The native life has some rather fantastic powers: budding off individuals who can live a separate life for a while and then reabsorb, returning their memories to the collective.
The story arises because the Questioner (the investigator and enforcer of the Prime Directive) schedules a visit at the same time as Newholme’s periodic geologic upheavals start again in earnest. The natives have dealt with the problem in the past (it’s partly of organic origin and intricately related to both the themes of multi-species intertwining and strange sex roles) but need more help from the humans this time around, since their presence has disrupted their normal approaches. But if the local humans are to escape punishment, the Questioner mustn’t notice the shenanigans.
Of course, the Questioner has her own resources, and her job is to be suspicious, so everything unravels.
This is more than the story of an investigation. Tepper describes events and people very poetically. Here are a few excerpts to give a taste:
Questioner has drafted two young dancers to help her with the investigation on Newholme, and as they were still struggling to find their identities, her intervention has interrupted their progress. Gandro Bao has trained as a Kabuki dancer, which has given him some sex-role confusion (excuse his broken English, please.) The other dancer, Ellin Voy has identity issues since she found out she is a clone raised to be a dancer just like her mother and her many sisters.
“So, I am being confused, and some days I am looking at face in mirror and thinking, who is this? Is this male or female? Is this real person or only actor? ... So when I am twelve, ... and deciding I am whoever I am wanting to be! Who I am choosing to be!”
“But that’s just it! I can’t choose who to be! I never had a choice!”
“You cannot choose to be horse, or fish, or tree, no. But it is like this. You are like small seed, and this ship is like big wind, and it is blowing seed from small plant far, far away where is no other such plant. And plant is not saying, ‘Oh, oh. I cannot be oak tree, I cannot be bamboo, I cannot be cactus, I have no choice.’ Plant is not so silly as that. Plant is putting down roots of own self and growing! And while it is growing, when things are difficult, it changes a little bit, so when it is grown, it is not exactly like the plant it was coming from. It adapts.”
Near the end of the book, Mouche is consoling the Questioner:
“[T]he true story of any living thing has pain in it, and life has to be that way. Curiosity is a good goad, but pain is a better one. It is pain that moves us, that makes us learn how to cure, how to mend, how to improve, how to re-create. Inside all of us, even the happiest are memories of pain… Each of us cries that we are lost. We ask the darkened room, who are we? And we demand easy answers: I am my father’s son. My mother’s daughter. A child of this family, or that.”
“That’s the nature of mankind,” she agreed.
“True, but Corojum had an answer that is equally true, and I like his better! We are made of the stuff of stars, given our lives by a living world, given our selves by time. We are brother to the trees and sister to the sun. We are of such glorious stuff we need not carry pain around like a label. Our duty, as living things, to be sure that pain is not our whole story, for we can choose to be otherwise. As Ellin says, we can choose to dance.
The part about being driven by pain doesn’t resonate with me, but I liked the way the story illuminated the exhortation to choose.
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