A Billion Days of Earth, Doris Piserchia

A Billion Days of Earth, Doris Piserchia (1976)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Doris Piserchia’s A Billion Days of Earth is a whimsical, disturbing, and stunningly inventive science fiction novel. This is the second and by far the best of her novels I’ve read (A Billion Days of Earth surpasses Doomtime (review here) in virtually every regard). Not only are the characters better drawn but the plot isn’t as easily derailed by repetitious actions. That said, she isn’t always the best at plotting but her imaginative worldscapes and bizarre creatures more than compensate. Doris Piserchia’s oeuvre deserves to be read (and reprinted!). Sadly due to deaths in her family she stopped publishing in 1983…

The year is three million A.D. and humans have evolved to the point where they possess immense physical and technological abilities. Humans (Homo Superior), now called Gods, in the past dabbled with genetics and created various creatures including the ferocious zizzy, which is a pouched bee/cat. The Gods refuse to interact with the denizens of the Earth and occupy themselves by engaging in various leisure activities in the clouds.

However the Gods are not the only sentient creature inhabiting this future earth. Rats have evolved and gained sentience without the assistance of the Gods. The rats call themselves humans. These rat/humans have constructed an immense foundry to supply surrogate metal hands… Occasionally pockets of intelligent rats without metal hands are discovered.

The action takes place in Osfar (the location of the hand foundry) a city in the middle of a desert cut off from its water supply by an earthquake. The main characters are Rik, a brilliant and fearless scientist, and his adopted brother Jak (whom Rik discovered and supplied with hands). The humans are ruled by an inbred “caste” called Fillys who are virtual dictators and control vast amounts of money and live in huge estates.

The inhabitants of this future earth, besides the Gods, are engaged in vicious interspecies strife (the zizzies attack the human/rats and vice-versa).

Into this violent and unusual world comes Sheen an amorphous silver being whose purpose and origins are unknown. Sheen seeps out of the volcanic Valley of the Dead and prays on any species it encounters (besides the advanced Gods) by presenting a victim specific telepathic vision of paradise in order to consume the victim’s ego. Sheen multiples and soon huge swaths of land are devoid of life. For a long time no one is concerned despite Rik’s repeated attempts to notify the authorities…

A parallel story emerges as well — Rik spends his time stealing gadgets from the Gods (humans). On one of these treks Rik and Jak encounter a helpless Goddess who momentarily lost her abilities while secretly giving birthabout to be consumed by a moving hill. Yes, a moving semi-sentient hill!

The two narratives — Sheen’s slow engulfing of all human life and Rik’s interactions with the aloof Gods – intertwine in spectacular fashion.

A Billion Days of Earth is a heady brew of fascinating ideas — semi-sentient moving hills, evolved human/gods uninterested in the world below, sentient rats with metal hands, and of course the amorphous/shape-shifting ego consuming Sheen. The snappy dialogue between Rik and Sheen is a delight to read (and the dialogue between Sheen and any of the creatures it attempts to consume).

My critiques are minor. I wish Rik had a larger role to play (especially his interaction with the Goddess after the incident with the moving hill). His role is minimized because of Piserchia’s unfortunate tendency to introduce a horde of characters throughout the novel which don’t add too much to the narrative. Likewise I’m still unsure of the purpose of the tangential Filly machination subplot…

Highly recommended for all sf fans.

The review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other suspect Ruminations.

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The Anything Box, Zenna Henderson

The Anything Box, Zenna Henderson (1965)
Review by Kev McVeigh

“there is sometime among children another seeingness — a seeing that goes beyond the range of adult eyes, that sometimes seem to trespass even on other dimensions.” (‘Turn The Page’)

The 14 stories collected in The Anything Box almost all feature children in some kind of relationship to a parent or teacher. From the title story onwards teachers observe children with some form of magic, some way of seeing a different world, or of influencing the world, that is denied or lost to adults.

Henderson is probably best remembered for “The People” stories about a community of aliens crashlanded on Earth and hiding out in the South West USA. The Anything Box stories share some similarities of setting, and scenarios, but are significantly darker and less sentimental in most cases. The sometimes twee moralising of The People’s secretive interactions with humans is replaced here with more tragic consequences. In ‘Come On, Wagon’ when Thaddeus is told he can’t use unexplained powers that he used to move his toy wagon, eventually life comes full circle and he no longer has the ability which would save his Uncle’s life. In ‘The Last Step’ the teacher interrupts the children’s game, only to realise later that their game was a premonition of reality, and they have no escape because the game was terminated.

Although children are at the centre of these stories the focus is repeatedly on the power of imagination:

“When I was in the first grade, my teacher was magic” (‘Turn The Page’)

“Imagination is an invaluable asset. It is, I might say, one of the special blessing bestowed upon mankind.” (‘The Last Step’)

“Too young to learn that heart’s desire is only play-like” (‘The Anything Box’)

“Magic, us old-timers would call it. Dunno what you empty, don’t-believe-nothing-without-touch-it-taste-it-hear-it-proof younguns would call it.” (‘The Grunder’)

Written in the 1950s, published between 1951 and 1962, these stories have an innocence of telling on the surface, but their own magic in part through Henderson’s charmingly regional voice. It is often said that SF has very few regional writers, but Zenna Henderson’s native Arizona and Southern California is clear in some of these stories. In a couple of cases they remind me of the great RA Lafferty, (though they pre-date his first publications) in their inventive, quirky language, (‘Things’) and their emphasis on the power of language precisely used (‘The Last Step’, ‘Hush!’) As a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints Henderson is often mentioned as an influence on Orson Scott Card and others, but there is no sign here of the more dubious imagery of some Mormon writers. If anyone the more recent writer I see in ‘Walking Aunt Daid’ is Nicholas Fisk, and in ‘Turn The Page’ possibly the Kelly Link of ‘The Faery Handbag.’

Henderson may not be a religious zealot, though there are touches of spirituality in her stories, but she is a passionate proselyte in her own way:

“I can see that you haven’t forgotten the lessons she taught you. Only you have remembered the wrong part. You only half learned the lessons. You’ve eaten the husks and thrown the grain away. She tried to tell you. She tried to teach you. But you’ve all forgotten. Not a one of you remembers that if you turn the page everyone will live happily ever after, because it was written that way. You’re all stranded in the introduction to the story.” (‘Turn The Page’)

Another aspect of Henderson’s writing, according to her Wikipedia entry is that ‘her work could not be considered feminist’ but the petty arguments between Crae and Ellena in ‘The Grunder’ and his irrational jealousies are foregrounded and highlighted. The best story here, ‘Subcommittee’ looks like an obvious tale of human and alien children learning to play which eventually teaches their military parents to co-operate too. Alongside this however, Henderson demonstrates the dismissive ignorance of domestic reality in the military husband. Elsewhere there are hints of patronising behaviour in male Head Teachers to females, and so on. Henderson, as noted, came from a conservative background and was writing at a time when outright feminism was not visible in SF,so perhaps these little touches were what she was able to offer?

Overall, The Anything Box is an enjoyable collection with an angry undercurrent. Its occasional lapses into sentimental views of childhood are a product of its time, and tempered by a cynical tone in some of the adults. (Two stories open in almost identical words, ‘I don’t like kids’ and ‘I don’t like children.’) Time has taken its toll on Zenna Henderson’s work, as with most of her contemporaries, but her best work remains interesting, slightly charming and shouldn’t be forgotten. She tried to tell you. She tried to teach you.

This review originally appeared on Performative Utterance.

Metropolis, Thea von Harbou

Metropolis, Thea von Harbou (1927)
Review by Ian Sales

According to the back-cover blurb, this book is the “remarkable novel which was the basis of the world’s greatest science-ficton movie”. Hyperbole about the film aside, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is not one of the first ever adaptations of a science fiction novel. On the contrary, von Harbou’s Metropolis is one of the genre’s first novelistions – as it was actually based on the 1924 screenplay.

The back-cover blurb further adds, “The language of the novel is sometimes as thesauric as Shiel, as kaleidoscopic as Merritt, as bone-spare as Ray Bradbury, as poetic as Poe, as macabre as Machen….” Certainly von Harbou’s prose style is… florid. Wildly over-written, in fact. Not having read any 1920s German science fiction before, I don’t know if it’s representative of the time and place. But I have read DH Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield, and neither were as over-the-top as von Harbou. For example, “Now she stood still, regarding the young men and women one after another, with the deadly severity of purity. She was quite maid and mistress, inviolability–and was, too, graciousness itself, her beautiful brow in the diadem of goodness; her voice, pity; every word a song” (p 13).

This “quite maid and mistress”, a phrase repeated a number of times throughout Metropolis, is Maria. She has broken into the “Club of the Sons” with a train of poor kids in tow in order to shame the playboy sons of the city’s oligarchs into doing something about Metropolis’s poverty. Freder, son of the Brain of Metropolis and heir of the city, immediately falls in love with her. In penance, he decides to swap places with a worker on the New Tower of Babel’s Pater-Noster machinery. As a result, he stumbles across a meeting in the catacombs beneath the city and hears Maria preach to the assembled workers.

Meanwhile, Freder’s father, Joh Fredersen (and no, I didn’t understand why a man called Fredersen has a son called Freder; Freder Fredersen is recursive), has also come across a map to the meeting in the catacombs. He visits Rotwang, a mad inventor/magician. The two were rivals for a woman, Hel, but Fredersen won her, only for her to die giving birth to Freder. The two of them join forces and decide to scupper Maria’s plans, using Futura, a robot built by Rotwang. First, they change Futura so it resembles Maria…

And so it goes… How closely the novel hews to the movie is hard to say. The original film was 153 minutes long, but it is a cut and edited 90-minute version that has been shown ever since. A 124-minute version, containing footage previously thought lost, premiered in 2001, and in 2008 a copy was found in Brazil of the original film, adding a further twenty to twenty-five minutes. I have only seen the 2001 version, and there were certainly parts of the novel which I don’t recall from the film. For example, when Fredersen fires his secretary Josaphat, Freder persuades him to his side. But Fredersen’s hatchet man, Slim, pays off Josaphat, who takes a plane out of Metropolis – a two-seater plane, apparently, as Josaphat is driven by guilt at abandoning Freder into braining the pilot with a spanner and then parachuting out of the plane. Futura in the novel also bears no resemblance to the robot in the film: “The being bowed. It stretched out a hand–a graceful skeleton hand. Transparent skin was stretched over the slender joints, which gleamed beneath like dull silver. Fingers, snow-white and fleshless, opened like the petals of a crystal lily.” (p 60).

In fact, the difference between the two versions of the robot neatly encapsulates the differences between book and film. Lang’s Futura is a being of metal, an industrial artefact; von Harbou’s is more like an angel, a supernatural creature of crystal and silver and gold. Rotwang’s house in the film is a place of strange angles and blocky shadows; in the novel, it is a house of magic, built centuries before by a wizard and guarded by a magical seal. Von Harbou’s Maria is also close to magical herself – while Freder is besotted with her from the moment he lays eyes on her, it’s hardly a surprising turn of events given the language used throughout by von Harbou to describe her.

In the film, the city of Metropolis is a vast machine itself, operated by the workers. In the book, von Harbou calls the city a living thing, which feeds on its workers. The story is, to my mind, more of an industrial parable than it is fantastical fable, and so Lang’s vision strikes me as more appropriate to the material than von Harbou’s. If you can put up with the over-ornate prose, and a cast who emote with all the fierceness of a pulsar, then Metropolis is an interesting read. But it is, of course, first and foremost an historical document – both as science fiction, and as science fiction written by a woman. Forrest J Ackerman, in his introduction to this Ace edition, may declare the novel is “a work of genius”, but I can’t say the same.

The Word for World is Forest, Ursula K Le Guin

The Word for World is Forest, Ursula K Le Guin (1972)
Review by Cara Murphy

When the inhabitants of a peaceful world are conquered by the bloodthirsty yumens, their existence is irrevocably altered. Forced into servitude, the Athsheans find themselves at the mercy of their brutal masters.

Desperation causes the Athsheans, led by Selver, to retaliate against their captors, abandoning their strictures against violence. But in defending their lives, they have endangered the very foundations of their society. For every blow against the invaders is a blow to the humanity of the Athsheans. And once the killing starts there is no turning back.

Set several centuries in the future, and part of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, The Word for World is Forest has been seen a response to the role of the United States in the Vietnam War. Maybe it was at the time of writing, but I consider this book to be particularly relevant to our own actions today regarding the environment, the destruction of our planet’s natural resources and ‘assimilation’ of indigenous peoples. Certainly that was the theme that struck a chord with me and left a lasting impression.

Men from Earth have arrived on the planet Athshe, renamed it New Tahiti, and are in the process of logging the abundant forest, sending the valuable timber back to a homeworld which has suffered environmental destruction. The indigenous population are referred to by many as “creechies” and used as forced labour. The arrogance of the humans is personified in the pivotal character, Captain Davidson, whose point of view opens the book and sets the scene for the explosive events that follow.

“For this world, New Tahiti, was literally made for men. Cleaned up and cleaned out, the dark forests cut down for open fields of grain, the primeval murk and savagery and ignorance wiped out, it would be a paradise, a real Eden.” [p.12]

The native Athsheans – while sharing similar origins as humans, being ‘seeded’ millions of years previously by the Hain – are small, green-furred and live in natural harmony with their world. They have a matriarchal society, a culture of lucid dreaming and, prior to the arrival of humans, have no history of violence. Although the behaviour of the colonists, or ‘yumens’ as they call them, is of concern to the Athsheans, the idea of fighting back against the destruction and oppression is an alien concept to them. They don’t understand the yumens and consider them to be backward and insane.

“But they only dream in sleep, you said; if they want to dream waking they take poisons [hallucinogenic drugs] so that dreams go out of control, you said! How can people be any madder?” [p55]

Their world, where the word for ‘world’ is the same as that for ‘forest’ is described in rich detail and shows Le Guin’s talent for worldbuilding. When contrasted with the society the colonisers have created, Athshe is indeed a utopia.

Although I think that The Word for World is Forest is not one of Ursula Le Guin’s best books, it is well worth the few hours it will take to read. It lacks some of the depth seen in other novels such as The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed in my view; however, I found the character of Davidson compelling. While he was the archetypal colonist; self-righteous, overtly oppressive and dismissive of anyone not like himself, his inner dialogue revealed an almost sociopathic personality. He reminded me of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, slowly going mad in an unfamiliar environment. On the other hand, Selver, his Athshean adversary and nemesis, was a more thoughtful and introspective character who took no pleasure in becoming the first of his kind to kill and murder. He led a bloody and ruthless revolt but lost a vital part of himself in the process. Both men are irrevocably changed by the events in which they played central roles.

What has stayed with me is the environmental thrust of The Word for World is Forest. Men (and the human colonisers are all male) arrive on Athshe to plunder its forests with no consideration for the native inhabitants or the consequences of removing the trees from the land. It sounds very familiar to us today, with the Amazonian and Indonesian rainforests being cut down and replaced with soya and palm oil plantations. But we do not have a New Tahiti to exploit. Ursula Le Guin has described a lush and fertile world, one where the trees are the lifeforce of the land and the inhabitants recognise this. The Athshean society lives in harmony with its environment, respecting the land and the creatures that live around them. Le Guin makes a very interesting point… that the word for world in the Athshean language is forest, whereas the word for world in ours is earth.

Red Spider White Web, Misha

Red Spider White Web, Misha (1990)
Review by Kathryn Allan

There is something profoundly disturbing – and, as equally, compelling – about Misha’s post-apocalyptic vision of the world in Red Spider White Web. The novel is unrelenting in its bleak characterization of future humanity, but fascinating in its direct interrogation of race, technology, and the value of art. Whereas non-white characters are often assigned the supporting roles in conventional cyberpunk, Misha places her Aboriginal-others at the centre of the narrative. Red Spider White Web is a tale of the future told from the point of view of people whose history lives only in museums and on genetically-engineered farming colonies.

In his “Pseudo-Introduction” to the 1999 reprint of Red Spider White Web, John Shirley argues that Misha’s name should appear next to his on any list of seminal cyberpunk writers. He writes: “Misha’s particular interfacing of the artist-character with the streetscene with the cyborgian meat-transcendence revelation, her operatic evocation, her bold juxtapositions, her strangely feminine toughness, her barbed-wire poetic content, and most of the all the sense of an underlying metaphysical reality in Red Spider White Web – well shit, it was just plain ahead of its time.” The novel draws on the sub-genres of horror, cyberpunk, and feminist SF, but it is more frenetic, more darkly prophetic, and stranger than any clear-cut genre designation allows.

Two intertwining narratives in Red Spider White Web tell a story of desperate survival in a world fallen apart and the longing for beauty and real human contact. The primary character in the novel is Kumo, a holo-artist who scrapes out a living working in the artists’ market, waiting among the other discarded people for a “rich suit” to buy her work. The other narrative is that of Tommy, a mad ex-agent/preacher/junk collector, whose disjointed musings open the book and set up its dark visual imagery: “His circuit is a skull juggler. He’s a factory guard who stalks the silent chemical night. Eye guard transluscent aquariums of red agar. This. This is rehabrehabrehab ilit tation. Watch out!” From the book’s first sentences, Misha’s writing warns the reader that this is no breezy Sunday reading. While the prose verges on being poetically unintelligible at times – a reflection of the disarray and insanity of the world it describes – the majority of Red Spider White Web is captivating slang-thrown dialogue and keen images of a rotting city and its disenfranchised citizens.

The plot revolves around Kumo, as she navigates a cityscape full of gangs, cannibals, “zombies,” and groups of well-armed rich kids who prey on the poor and vulnerable for fun. Someone is killing the artists in her community, but with dogged determination, Kumo survives her surroundings and keeps making her holo-art. Misha’s world-building does not leave much room for hope: people must shield themselves from UV radiation, they eat synthetic food, contract 15-minute viruses, slap on drug patches, and wallow in perversion. Misha does not give into transhumanist nostalgia or the typical cyberpunk trope of transcendence. Kumo and Tommy are ultimately alone and all too human beneath their masks of metal and cloned-leather.

While Red Spider White Web might not make for ideal bedtime-reading, it is a novel worth attention from anyone who reads SF and understands the inherently critical nature of the genre. Misha’s savage world speaks to fears of those already left behind – the rich get richer and the poor get eaten. It is a vision of a world that must not come to be. I’ve wanted to write about Red Spider White Web for a long time. It has taken two years for me to revisit it. A good story stays with you and Misha’s Red Spider White Web refuses to leave easily.

Dreaming in Smoke, Tricia Sullivan

Dreaming in Smoke, Tricia Sullivan (1999)
Review by Richard Palmer

A recent thread on Torque Control about Women and the Clarke Awards, got me thinking about my genre reading habits. The thread had its genesis in an interview with 1999 Clarke Award winner, Tricia Sullivan.

The first thing that occurred was that I haven’t read anything by Tricia Sullivan, the second that, when I thought about it, I have read very little in the way of recent SF from female writers.

So, to deal with the first (and, I suppose, the second!), I thought I’d give Tricia Sullivan’s writing a go. Considering that it was a Clarke winner, I figured that Dreaming in Smoke would be as good a place to start as any.

Dreaming in Smoke is a novel of ideas. At its root, it’s a story about an attempt to colonise a hostile alien world. There is also a strong element of cyberpunk to the novel; furthermore, Sullivan has convincingly created a society set up and arranged to cope with the rigours of colonising an unfamiliar planet.

Much of this is familiar territory; the colonisation of alien worlds has a long history in SF. Cyberpunk, handled poorly, no longer seems as vital as it did. This novel, however, does have a nice take on it, the “Dreaming” of the title. Most interesting – though this is a little prejudice of mine – is the exploration of the differing social structure which is, again one may argue, not new.

Kalypso Deed (one of those born in the colony), a “shotgun” is tasked with entering peoples dreams to ensure that they are able to continue their scientific thinking whilst asleep. Though Cyberpunk itself is as an SF trope a little hoary, this particular conceit is a nice entry into the sub-genre. Sullivan makes a good stab at conveying the dream-states; particularly gratifying is the lack of wonder that Kalypso brings to her work. Mostly bored with her assigned task – especially given that she is tasked with assisting Azamat Marcsson, a competent but dull and unimaginative man. His dreams are so devoid of colour, that she amuses herself by illegally using the resources of their controlling AI (named Ganesh) to listen to old Earth music.

The opening of the novel gives an indication of what we can expect from the “Dream” sequences:

“The night Kalypso Deed vowed to stop Dreaming was the same night a four-dimensional snake with a Canadian accent, eleven heads and attitude employed a Diriangen function to rip out all her veins, then swiftly crotcheted them into a harp that could only play a medley of Miles Davis tunes transposed (to their detriment) into the key of G. As she contemplated the loss of all blood supply to her vital organs it seemed to her that no amount of Picasso’s Blue, bonus alcohol rations, or access privileges to the penis of Tehar the witch doctor could compensate for having to ride shotgun to Azamat Marcsson on one of his statistical sprees with the AI Ganesh. She intended to tell him so – as soon as she could find her lungs.”

The world, T’Nane, had been chosen for colonisation because of its apparent suitability for accepting human life. However, it transpired when they arrived that things had changed and the environment was inimical to human life. This backdrop is crucial to the shaping of the society portrayed. The people selected were selected to ensure the success of the colony. Unfortunately, given that the world they arrived on was not what was expected, when the novel opens, it is clear that the colony is stagnating, if not regressing. The “Mothers” are there as the heads of the society and, though ageing, they still are powerful and if not always respected, they are still listened to. Meanwhile the male “Grunts” (of whom Marcsson is one) were chosen for their suitability for colonising the new world. Unseen (and at the beginning presumed dead) was a group who had been researching ways to adapt themselves and the world to each other.

Given their loss to the “Wild” (the lands outside the bases constructed around the ship that took them there) the colony is left unable to grow as the carefully constructed society is unable to adapt to the new situation. It’s clear that they have lost much of the creative brilliance that would be required to solve their problems.

Colonisation stories can follow different paths. One solution is that the people arrive on a planet which is similar enough to Earth that there are few problems surviving. Of course, terraforming would be another way. Another, such as in Frederick Pohl’s Man Plus is to alter the colonist to fit them to the environment (this does also remind me somewhat of Ursula Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness, given that the inhabitants of Winter were adapted to the peculiar conditions of this planet. Where Pohl’s novel focuses upon the effects of the transformation on the man, Le Guin’s set as it is at a time when the colonisation of Winter is long forgotten is more focused upon the society created).

Dreaming in Smoke handles the problem by seeing the planet and the people altered when they come together. Mostly this works; it is consistent with all else that we’ve seen. Given the state of the society which no longer has all that it needs to survive and the unexpected hostility of the planet it seems more likely that the colonists would have to reach a compromise with the planet.

The novel isn’t without its flaws. The ambition of the novel does, unfortunately, come at the expense of characterisation. Few of the characters had any great depth to them, and it was difficult to get any real sense of the relationships that they supposedly had. A part of this is probably due to the unfamiliar social structures within a small and clearly delineated population. In this context (and the context of the unexpected dangers found on the world of T’Nane) the coldness between many of the characters is believable. Kalypso is almost an exception to this (although I can’t say that I found her to be particularly sympathetic, though her actions were, in the main, understandable).

Also, though the story makes sense and is ultimately satisfying, there were, on occasion, instances where I have to confess that I was a little confused as to how we had got to that particular point. It’s not a huge problem for me, though it may irritate some. I’m inclined to think that the problem is that, in what is a fairly compact novel, there isn’t really enough room for all the ideas. Ultimately, though, being no fan of unnecessary bloat in novels I’m pleased that Tricia Sullivan kept the novel lean.

I can’t say whether or not it was a deserving winner of the 1999 Clarke Award; unfortunately I haven’t read any of the other novels on the shortlist. On its own merits, though, it is a novel which, in spite of some minor flaws (and, hey, how many novels are truly perfect?) is worthy. Entertaining, intelligent, thoughtful and featuring prose of a consistently high quality, it was an excellent introduction to Tricia Sullivan’s work.

This review originally appeared on Solar Bridge.

Grass, Sheri S Tepper

Grass, Sheri S Tepper (1989)
Review by Michaela Staton.

Born in 1929 in Colorado, Sheri S. Tepper did not begin to receive much notice or acclaim until she retired from her position as Director of Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood in the early nineteen-eighties. Before her retirement, she had published some short children’s stories. Her first full length published works were the True Game YA fantasy series. After her retirement in 1986 she published several science fiction novels. She has also published horror and mysteries under several pseudonyms including E.E. Horlak and B.J. Oliphant. In 1991 she won the Locus magazine Best Fantasy Novel for Beauty.

Tepper is best known for her eco-feminist tales that are often a mix of both fantasy and science fiction, putting her in the socio-political category of SF. In the 1998 Locus Magazine interview entitled Sheri S. Tepper, Speaking To the Universe she said “To me, fantasy has always been the genre of escape, science fiction the genre of ideas. So if you can escape and have a little idea as well, maybe you have some kind of a cross-breed between the two.” This philosophy is borne out by her writing style.

Published in 1989 Grass is the first in the Arbai trilogy. It was both a Hugo and Locus award nominee. The story centres on the character of Marjory Yrarier né Westriding and her family’s settlement on the mysterious planet of Grass. Marjory and her husband Rigo are from Earth. They are ‘Old Catholics’. The society within which they live is ruled by the laws and the religion known as Sanctity, a mix of dogmatic Christianity and science worship. Earth is crowded and deprived of resources. Its people live under strict procreation laws and its children are often forced into servitude among the sanctified from which the only escape is a penal colony or service among the Green Brothers upon Grass.

Humanity has spread throughout the galaxy; however, growth has long since been stagnant due to economic depression, the stifling of human expansion by Sanctuary, and a plague that seems to affect every world that man inhabits other than Grass. In the hopes that they can find the scientific answer to plague, Rigo is sent as the Ambassador at the behest of his uncle who is the head of Sanctity. Along with Marjory and their two teenage children they journey to this little known outpost.

Grass is a planet made almost entirely of grasses; with the exception of a few swamp forests, small copses of trees, and outcropping of rocks there are no other topographical landmarks. The ‘bons’ are the ruling class. In their huge estates known as ‘estancias’ they spend most of their time at the hunt. With native fauna consisting of the Hippae as the mounts, a terrible almost dinosaur like creature, those only known as hounds who are similar to the Hippae but smaller and usually run on all fours, and the foxen who are barely glimpsed by most humans. Though the bons consider themselves the rulers of Grass they produce little from their great estates and are blissfully unaware of the thriving commerce that takes places in ‘Commons’, the large settlement of workers and merchants within which the space port is located.

The bons live in a by-gone era. With little education and almost no knowledge of technological developments their time is spent either at the hunt – which cycles through each estancia on a regular basis – or at political scheming among themselves. They are distrustful of strangers and outsiders. Marjory and Rigo must try to ingratiate themselves to this close-knit family based hierarchy so that they might discover the secrets of plague immunity. Through their own love of riding they try to develop a rapport with the bons. It isn’t until they witness a hunt for themselves are they made painfully aware of the sinister manipulations of the Hippae and their malevolent hold over the bons. When their daughter mysteriously disappears on a hunt Marjory and Rigo are thrown into conflict with the bons, but it is Marjory who seeks to know the darkest secrets of the Hippae. With aid from the wise Brother Mainoa – a Green Brother archaeologist working on the ruins left by the extinct Arbai – she will ultimately discover how and why the Hippae control the world of Grass. She will also discover how the Arbai, who once thrived on every world now inhabited by humans, suddenly became extinct.

Grass itself is a beautiful if intimidating place. With its vast prairies of grass in different lengths, widths and colours, the landscape is not an endless wheat field, but an array of sculpted planes that shift and change with the seasons. The people of Grass are both in love with the planet and yet live in constant fear of the dangers that lurk beyond their seeing. Man has conquered many places, but he cannot conquer Grass.

In many ways this story is far more fantasy than science fiction. The descriptions of the people and the places are almost Steampunk. The world of grass is populated by ornate flying machines and air balloons. There is a distinctly Victorian feel to the dress, attitudes and the grand homes of the bons. Science is a thing that is very far away. The Green Brothers—a sect of the Sanctified living on Grass—live in a monastery made entirely of grasses. Beyond God and the harvesting of grass their only occupation is the archaeological pursuits of the Arbai city. Technology is used sparingly. It is not machines that will thwart the machinations of the Hippae but cunning.

Tepper writes an entirely engaging mystery and adventure full of metaphor. On the one hand it is a treatise on human expansion and colonisation, not among the stars but on our own planet. Instead of man dominating the landscape, the landscape dominates man. The animals are no longer the victim, but the persecutor.

It is also a story about classism. The bons look down on pretty much everyone else. They tolerate the ‘commoners’ more than they do Marjory and her family because the Yrariers are intruders, or ‘fragras’ as they are called. However, the bons power is superficial. The commoners have a thriving community and do very well in trade with the rest of human civilization. They are not as ignorant of technology and medicine as the bons are. Though the bons see them only as servants, the commoners are in fact far freer to seek their own happiness than their masters.

There are many threads woven in and out of the story beyond the larger concepts of ecology, human expansion, and classism. This story is also about evolution both in the natural world and in human civilisation. It is about the place of religion and belief in a society full of scientific advancement, and a world filled with natural forces beyond the control and remit of religious institutions, or power.

Tepper uses her knowledge and experience – no doubt gained in her many years at Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood – of class struggle, poverty and religion to weave a well-rounded, if sometimes disturbing, view of a possible future. The human society we enter through the characters in the story is dystopian in its restrictive and punitive view of itself. Yet the beautiful world of Grass is as equally dystopian; though it promises freedom to those who wish to rise from the oppression of Sanctity, they must pay a terrible price for that freedom by sacrificing either their will or their lives to the Hippae.

What comes across most acutely is man’s ability to learn, to share, and to adapt. Grass is a forbidding place because of the sinister secret it hides, yet men have come and carved from it their own society despite the treachery of nature all around them. Within the story, Marjory finds herself as a person separate from her husband and her children. She finds the truth through the darkness and guides others toward a collaborative and sustainable future.

This is not a dark tale of struggle and ultimate self-destruction, or apocalyptic annihilation. It is not only a tale of warning against the human presumption over the natural world and over each other; it is, in fact, a story of hope. It is about man’s ability to change, to ascend and become something better.

Tepper is one of the great minds of socio-political science fiction. She is also a consummate story-teller. Her descriptive style is infused with thought-provoking narrative. Her characters are well-rounded and full of conflict and personal struggle. Her story is full of action and is well paced. There is both beauty and horror in every aspect of the universe she has devised.

Though she sometimes takes some unusual liberties with narrative style, it is amazing how she can make certain technical flaws work where lesser authors would fail. In the family tree of great women writers of Science Fiction, Sheri S. Tepper is undoubtedly a descendant of Mary Shelly.

This review originally appeared on Beyond Fiction.

See also this SF Mistressworks review of Grass.