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Grass, Sheri S Tepper

June 4, 2011

Grass by Sheri Tepper (1989)
Review by Cara Murphy

On the Back of the Book:
Generations ago, humans fled to the cosmic anomaly known as Grass. But before humanity arrived, another species had already claimed Grass for its own. It too had developed a culture… Now a deadly plague is spreading across the stars, leaving no planet untouched, saved for Grass. But the secret of the planet’s immunity hides a truth so shattering it could mean the end of life itself.

Grass is a novel with several strong themes, all relevant to our world today. Religion, the role of women in society and environmentalism are evident throughout the novel and raise some interesting parallels with our own planet today. But there is a dark side to Grass, one that the aristocratic families have learned to live with, uncomfortably, over generations; the Hunt.

Marjorie Westriding Yrarier is the central character. She arrives on Grass from a future Terra (Earth) dominated by Sanctity, an oppressive world religion. Her family relationships, her religion, ‘Old Catholicism’ and her faith in the very existence of God are constant themes in her life. Throughout the book, revelations about Grass, its culture and the nature of the native inhabitants, serve to undermine and challenge her entire belief system. Marjorie is a well-developed character and carries the book very well. I felt I engaged with her and found her to be a strong and insightful woman.

The world-building in Grass is top class. Apart from the spacetown and the estancias of the aristocracy, the whole planet is covered in grass… and Sheri Tepper’s descriptions of this world are some of her best writing

“Grass. Ruby ridges, blood-coloured highlands, wine-shaded glades. Sapphire seas of grass with dark islands of grass bearing great plumy trees which are grass again. Interminable meadows of silver hay where the great grazing beasts move in slanted lines like mowing machines, leaving the stubble behind them to spring up again in trackless wildernesses of rippling argent.”

and

“Beyond the ridge the watergrass filled a shallow basin dotted with islands of seagrass, the whole making such a marvellously lifelike seascape that it was called the Ocean Garden.”

The Hunt is a central feature of society in Grass. Organised by the aristocracy, in unspoken agreement with the Hippae, this is a disturbing parody of fox hunting in England. The Hippae themselves are unnerving and malevolent, frightening in their appearance,

“…the wicked neck barbs bristling to one side like a fan of sabres as they moved back…”

The families, collude with the Hunt, knowing that they risk their daughters wellbeing in doing so. What is the dark secret hidden within the Hunt? Who or what are the prey, the enigmatic Foxen? All is revealed, including the true natures of both Hippae and Foxen, as the book draws to its conclusion.

Throughout the book there are lengthy discourses on religion, original sin and guilt. Both Catholicism and fundamental Christianity (Sanctity, an oppressive religion, similar in some ways to Mormonism) are explored by Sheri Tepper. At times I found the religious aspect irritating, especially in the more theological discussions, but it is all relevant by the close of the novel, and indeed adds depth to the plot. But the author is not kind to patriarchal religions, and while Father James is a thoughtful and interesting character, the institution of Sanctity is corrupt and decaying in its oppressiveness. A secondary, but favourite character is Rillibee Chime who starts out as a minion within Sanctity but finds his life’s purpose on Grass. He is an innocent in many ways but holds a quiet power within him.

The strength of Grass is the world itself. How Grass the planet changes Marjorie is very well done and the very final conclusion is in keeping with her character. I loved the glorious descriptions of landscapes, the grass providing colour and texture to an otherwise plant-free world. The interconnectedness of all things was deftly illustrated by the relationship between the Hippae and the Foxen, which when fully revealed changes your perspective on both creatures. The mystery element, of what happens to the girls abducted by their mounts, is revealed, but is not the end of the story.

Grass is a thought-provoking novel, especially if you enjoy reading about human colonisation of alien planets and the imposition of old world ideology on a new world society. But it is a very human story too, with Marjorie’s core values being challenged by her experiences. She grows from an accepting, sometimes resentful, wife, mother and dutiful Catholic into a strong and confident women, ready to face her future on her own terms.

This review originally appeared on Speculative Book Review.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 16, 2011 2:31 pm

    What I found interesting in ‘Grass’ was that the strong wilful woman who has to be broken in order to be married to a suitable male was not, for once, the protagonist, but her daughter. The only departure from the stereotype was that she met the man she was to marry after being broken rather than before.

  2. June 16, 2011 2:45 pm

    Oh, and another thing….

    (yes, I hate people who can’t marshall their thoughts sufficiently to get them into one comment, too!)

    The first mindless girl who turns up is rejected by the brothel keeper as being of no interest to her clients, yet just about every man she encounters after that either wants to fuck her, or does. A brothel keeper who doesn’t know their own business! la

  3. June 16, 2011 3:39 pm

    @BuffySquirrel
    Thanks for your comments, both make very interesting points, something I didn’t pick up on myself. Next time I read Grass (I do this every 5-7 years) I will certainly remember your observations.

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