Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
It’s 2000, and a strongly moralistic conservative movement is sweeping the United States of America. Blaming natural disasters and the declining economy on “unsavoury” elements of American society, the American Alliance wants to restore morality and “family values”. Does this sound familiar? In some ways, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall is ten-years-too-early yet eerily prescient. There is so much in here that rings true, which is terrible. At the same time, it is a deeply flawed book with a simplistic plot that belies its attempt to tell a haunting and worthy story. I really wish I could love and laud this book, but every time I thought I had figured it out, it just got weirder.
Though mostly set in 2000, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall begins in 1959, when Carolyn Crespin goes off to college and befriends a diverse group of young women. They decide to form the “Decline and Fall Club”, or DFC, with the stated intention that they will meet every year and pledge never to decline nor to fall—that is, to be themselves, make their own decisions, and remain strong in the face of the adversity, misogyny, and sexism that remains a part of their society. When we catch up with them again at the turn of the millennium, they are now middle-aged. Carolyn became a lawyer, as she intended, and married for love rather than the cousin her aunts and mother intended for her. She has retired now, but her daughter persuades her to take one more case: Lolly, a fifteen-year-old girl who allegedly abandoned her baby in a Dumpster after giving birth. It’s up to Carolyn to defend Lolly, for if she is guilty she could be sentenced to life in a suspension pod.
Yeah, according to this book, by the year 2000 law enforcement will be imprisoning people in a primitive form of suspended animation. Minor offences merit “STOP”, where the person remains conscious but unable to move. More long-term incarceration is a matter of SLEEP, where the person is unconscious but continues to metabolize and age at a normal rate. As Tepper points out, this system might seem strange to us, but it does come with several benefits. Still, this is a very odd extrapolation to make from a novel being written only four years prior. This, as well as some mentions of greater environmental distress than was apparent in 2000, almost push Gibbon’s Decline and Fall into the territory of alternative history. Even later, there are elements that made me seriously debate whether I should shelve it as fantasy or as science fiction.
All this is academic, though. At its heart, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall is almost a thriller. This brings a lot of benefits—despite a fair amount of courtroom drama, the story zips along at a brisk pace. Alas, it also has a few big drawbacks: namely, villains that are larger than life, and not in a good way. Ultimately, this is a huge problem for this book and its theme.
Tepper is concerned with the status of women, and understandably so! She does not pull any punches as she evaluates the difficulties, both emotional and physical, that women face all over the world. The members of the DFC each have their own personal challenges to face. I wasn’t too fond of the almost-comical stereotypical hick family of the Crespins. However, I did find Agnes most intriguing. Her life-long relationship with the Catholic Church, culminating in taking the habit, has resulted in her internalizing a lot of the sexism promulgated by that Church. In the face of her fellow DFC members she puts up constant resistance, taking a highly conservative and traditional stance. I like that Tepper did not oversimplify the matter by making it “women” versus “men”; there are women who uphold traditional gender roles, just as there are men, like Carolyn’s husband, who are allies in the struggle for gender equality.
Unfortunately, this is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to characterization. Tepper’s antagonists resonate a lot with the contemporary rise of the “grassroots” Tea Party movement in the United States. Now, there are many good conservative Americans out there, and I’m sure that there are even many honest members of this Tea Party who believe its intentions are noble and good. But when this is the same party that courts politicians who claim God causes hurricanes and earthquakes to punish us for immorality or poor economic policy, something is wrong. We’re not supposed to be living in the fifteenth century any more, people.
So the situation presented in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall does feel a little too close to reality for comfort. And I’m sure that there are a few people out there who are like Jake Jagger. Nevertheless, I worry that Tepper’s antagonists are ultimately only straw men; hence, they actually undermine her arguments rather than strengthening them. Yeah, there are plenty of men who are just flat out misogynistic and openly abusive. But it seems like all the men in this book fall into that role or into the role of ally, like Hal and Jose are. There is no grey area, no in-between men who are blinded by their privilege but not openly hostile. In Tepper’s world, you are either enlightened or you are the enemy.
Although the book opens on a strong note, its inner thriller becomes more apparent as Lolly’s trial approaches. There are bugged phones, burglaries, desert retreats, helicopter pursuits, and maniacal plans for the subjugation of all womankind. Carolyn and the DFC eventually decide to pool their efforts into locating Sophy, the most eccentric and enigmatic member of the DFC. They had thought she committed suicide, but after experiencing almost spiritual visions of her for the past few weeks, they are determined to find out if she is still alive. At this point, Tepper throws in a twist that I honestly didn’t see coming. It’s very well foreshadowed, and I guess it sort of works, but … I didn’t like it.
Then the book gets even stranger, culminating in Carolyn having to make a choice on behalf of all humanity. And that broke me. Sorry, but as much as I admire what Tepper is trying to do here, I cannot countenance giving a single person that responsibility. Carolyn has no right to make a decision that would utterly change the nature of our species; it doesn’t matter that she is a “good” or “wise” person. No one should have that power. At that point, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall had run from science fiction to fantasy and back, from thriller to something more … epic … and I just wasn’t willing to follow it there.
Gibbon’s Decline and Fall has its good moments. Its protagonist is a likable and strong character; tragically, she seems to have been transplanted to a world of caricature, cardboard villains and friends. This is an obstacle neither she nor the book can overcome, and what started as a promising journey ended as a disappointing shadow of what it could have been. There is some excellent commentary on gender roles and relationships here, but it’s lost in the noise created by an unbelievable, untenable story.