That Was Awesome! Writers on Writing

The Mystery of Bao in a Drowning World: Fish Tails by Sheri S. Tepper

I have always loved a narrative mystery. In my childhood, this translated into reading about the adventures of Nancy Drew and graduating into Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes later. Yet, when I think of a narrative mystery these days, I rarely think of murders, blackmail or international conspiracies. Instead, I think of a central enigma at the heart of any story, something that will keep the reader asking, wondering, hooked.

SFF has some genre-specific strategies of creating a narrative mystery. Since world-building often entails vocabulary and concepts that are aimed at constructing a setting different from our everyday reality, a technique employed by many SFF writers is to reveal the meaning of these words and concepts slowly, withholding information from the reader and thereby luring us in with unanswered questions that invite us to stay with the story.

This is precisely what Sheri S. Tepper does with the imaginary concept of bao in her most recent novel, Fish Tails:

As though I have not known about bao since I was a becoming-person. First lesson ever taught to Balytaniwassinot, long before it became Fixit, first lesson taught any of our people is always about bao.

“There’s that word again,” cried Arakny. “What is bao?”

Fish Tails revolves around a premise that is surprisingly biblical for an author who has never shied away from criticizing organized religion. The world is drowning, and the main characters Abasio and Xulai travel across the land, trying to persuade humans to make changes that will save them from certain extinction. We first hear about bao early in the book, when a grandmother talks about it to her grandchild, and it follows us throughout the journey of Tepper’s characters. While Tepper is careful not to give away too much about what bao means, along the way its significance grows ever clearer. Eventually, bao becomes the strongly beating heart of Fish Tails, the centre holding it together—something that a novel with such a wide cast of characters and a great many subplots could not do without.

The nature of mysteries is that once they are explained, they cease to hold the interest. Therefore, it would be unfair to give away what exactly bao stands for. Suffice it to say that the fate of the human species will eventually depend on it. As a reader, I found it immediately recognisable and affecting, something I could wholly and unquestionably believe in. The idea of bao spoke to me more strongly than anything else in Tepper’s vast fictional landscape.

I could see some readers argue that Fish Tails presents a dark view of humanity. Personally, I read it the opposite way: as the soul of this eco-fable, bao celebrates the human potential to make choices which, in the face of a global environmental disaster, will bring hope for survival and continuity. If there is a message that is more sorely needed in today’s world, I don’t know what it could be.


Emmi Itäranta was born in Tampere, Finland, where she also grew up. Her debut novel, Memory of Water won the Fantasy and Sci-fi Literary Contest organised by the Finnish publishing house Teos, as well as the Kalevi Jäntti Prize for young authors and the Young Aleksis Kivi Prize. Memory of Water is available in English from HarperCollins. Emmi is currently writing her second novel.

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