Grass, Sheri S Tepper (1989)
Review by admiral ironbombs
Millions of square miles of it; numberless wind-whipped tsunamis of grass, a thousand sun-lulled caribbeans of grass, a hundred rippling oceans, every ripple a gleam of scarlet or amber, emerald or turquoise, multicolored as rainbows, the colors shivering over the prairies in stripes and blotches, the grasses — some high, some low, some feathered, some straight — making their own geography as they grow. There are grass hills where the great plumes tower in masses the height of ten tall men; grass valleys where the turf is like moss, soft under the feet, where maidens pillow their heads thinking of their lovers, where husbands lie down and think of their mistresses; grass groves where old men and women sit quiet at the end of the day, dreaming of things that might have been, perhaps once were. Commoners all, of course. No aristocrat would sit in the wild grass to dream. Aristocrats have gardens for that, if they dream at all.”
It was human overpopulation that drove the exploration of space, the great flight from Terra for other habitable planets with more living space. When all is said and done, the balance of power rests in the hands of Sanctity, a fundamentalist religion turned power bloc that promises its adherents will live forever in its genetic banks. But not even Sanctity and its cloned afterlife is safe from the plague that may doom the dispersed humanity: a roiling miasma of death that kills any human or animal it touches, with life wasting away in a haze of gray lesions and gooey decay. Rumors say that the planet Grass is free from the plague – Grass, named for its endless oceans of green prairie – and so Sanctity’s heirarch names his Catholic nephew Rigo Yrarier the ambassador to Grass, sending him and his family with a secret mission to investigate Grass for signs of plague – or, hopefully, signs of a cure.
Rigo and his wife Marjorie Westriding-Yrarier are both Olympic equestrians, and Sanctity hopes that their experience as riders may be an inroad to Grassian society. Grass has a strong classist system where the elite aristocracy – the Bons, descended from Europeans who fled Sanctity’s intrusion – live in grand estancias, their existence revolving around their near-continuous Hunt. They stay at arms-reach from the commoners huddled around the planet’s only port; nor do they care much for the “Green Brothers”, Sanctified monks all but banished to Grass, excavating the ruins of long-dead alien species called the Arbai. But with the Bons, what the Yrariers find is a dark mockery of a Terran fox-hunt: utilizing “native equivalents”, the Bons ride barbed Hippae alongside frothing Hounds, running down or harpooning the strange, wailing Foxen. To the Bons, a horse is but a common animal in front of the Hippae. And it’s the Hippae who hold the answers to Grass’s secrets, displaying a dark and malevolent intelligence behind their blood-red eyes.
Marjorie is the unlikely heroine: middle-aged, trapped in an unhappy marriage, and now stuck on a planet known for its bizarre rituals and distrust of outsiders. Her husband and daughter plan to ride Hippae and join the Hunt, not wanting to lose face in front of the Bons; when her daughter vanishes during the Hunt, Marjorie sets out to find her with a group of odd companions, including a plague survivor, an elderly Green Brother quite attuned to Grass’s ecosystem, and Sylvan bon Damfels, a striking young aristocrat who’s fallen for Marjorie. Thrust into this chaos, Marjorie often has her doubts, questioning her role in her family, her relationship with Rigo, and in several long sections, questions the strictures of her faith. Yet despite all adversity, she proves a capable and competent heroine, unraveling the planet’s deep mysteries.
Tepper’s writing is pretty good; she has flashes of sublime imagery, and can evoke pure dread in the early sections dealing with the Hippae. Tepper reminds me of CJ Cherryh from her mix of sociopolitical intrigue, alien culture and biology, and good old-fashioned thrills, along with some social commentary. With Grass, that commentary is mostly on religious and moral grounds – it’s clear Tepper has no love for extremists (as Sanctity shows), but Marjorie and her “Old Catholic” family offers up a fairly balanced religious dialogue, a rare sight in SF. Tepper’s plotting is strong, too; the first half of the novel moves at a slower pace, introducing the many characters and subplots and foreshadowing what’s to come. The novel’s pacing picks up around the middle, and the final third of the novel sees all the plots and subplots crash together. Covering all of them is a futile effort; suffice to say that even when it’s slow-going, the book is packed.
While a strong novel, Grass is not immaculate; the plague is a nice macguffin, but both it and the planet’s surprise biology end up suffering from a lack of believable science. There’s also a distinct feel that Tepper was making things up as she went along, as some of the twists feel neither plotted or natural: Rigo first appears as an intense but loving husband, until suddenly he has a secret mistress, who (later) Marjorie suddenly knew about all along, and Rigo descends to become a cartoonish caricature of a domineering patriarch. In another case, Sylvan bon Damfels shows up at the commoner town and is annoyed that the commoners ignore him and treat him as useless, and suddenly it’s as if his life-long desire has been to be welcomed by the common folk. The ending is rushed and lacks impact, some elements are too stereotypical, and several of the characters (Sylvan, for one) remain underdeveloped. And some readers may chafe against the religious and moral philosophizing.
Overall, though, I found Grass a fascinating read. It balances social, religious, and scientific ideas in a novel rich with intrigue and action and a dash of horror. Combined with the stellar world-building, Tepper impressed me with her storytelling, weaving a complex narrative with dozens of characters and a multi-layered plot; even if it’s wrapped up too neatly, it’s an impressive effort. Grass has its flaws and imperfections but it also does so many things right, and I have a hard time being too critical. What Tepper has written is a very ambitious novel; like most ambitious novels, there’s that whole “reach exceeds grasp” thing, but what is grasped is more than enough to make Grass successful. I’d recommend it to most SF readers as a worthwhile read, provided they don’t immediately flee from its religion or ecofeminism.
This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.