Grass, Sheri S Tepper

grass-sheri-s-tepperGrass, Sheri S Tepper (1989)
Review by Victoria Snelling

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, save for Grass. But the secret of the planet’s immunity hides a truth so shattering it could mean the end of life itself.

Grass follows Marjorie Yrarier and her family as they go as ambassadors to Grass with the secret mission of finding a cure for the plague. There are two societies on Grass; the aristocrats, an ossified relic of old European aristocracy that spends its time hunting; and the Commons which is a vibrant, trading nation. Then there are the Hippae, who act as mounts in the aristocrats’ hunts, but who are far more than semi-intelligent animals.

I loved this. The central mystery is well-handled and the reveal is done slowly over the last third of the book. Grass as a world is vividly realised and it’s inhabitants and their relationships are well-drawn. The ideas about social organization are subtly woven in and the plot is always at the foreground. I actually couldn’t put it down. It’s nice to read something with a middle aged woman as the protagonist – especially science fiction, especially an adventure mystery. Marjorie is a wife and a mother, and yet she is portrayed as an individual, as active and as as driving the story. Marjorie is purposeful woman, driven to solve the mystery at the heart of the disturbing planet she finds herself on and, although she has love interests (three if you count her husband) they are secondary to the main plot. It’s worth mentioning because it strikes me that female protagonists, in this type of story, are pretty rare. Tepper avoids the traps of either making her female protag solely defined by her family and romantic relationships or making her a man in a lady costume. It’s so refreshing.

I only have two minor niggles, and seriously, they are tiny. First. the planet Grass is sharply drawn and the word picture is rich and vivid. The group of colonies that it is part of is quite fuzzy; I don’t even know whether to call it a galaxy, system or universe. Perhaps it doesn’t matter as most of the action is on Grass but it does feel slightly incomplete. The other niggle is the omniscient third person POV. Tepper handles it well so it doesn’t feel like head-hopping, but I did find it a little old-fashioned and in one or two places it is confusing.

So, Grass was excellent, overall. It was complex, deep and thought-provoking. It was beautifully written. It made me want to read everything else she’s written.

Highly recommended.

This review originally appeared on Boudica Marginalia.

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Grass, Sheri S Tepper

grass-sheri-s-tepperGrass, Sheri S Tepper (1989)
Review by admiral ironbombs

Grass!

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.

Singer From The Sea, Sheri S Tepper

Singer From The Sea, Sheri S Tepper (1999)
Review by Grace Troxel

I can say without hesitation that Sherri S Tepper’s Singer from the Sea is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. It’s what would happen if one were to mash Frank Herbert’s Dune, Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and the movie Fern Gully into one story. It’s an environmentalist feminist epic complete with murder and mermaids.

The book tells the story of a young woman named Genevieve who lives on the planet Haven. Women on Haven are trained from an early age to be submissive to men and to obey the Covenants which were signed by their ancestors. Strict conformity to Haven’s social structure has created a peaceful society. However, when Genevieve and her father are invited to the Lord Paramount’s court, she begins to realize that there was something sinister going on behind Haven’s utopian front. Certain men in the Lord Paramount’s favor tend to live unnaturally long, but their wives all seem to die immediately after childbirth. Genevieve finds herself betrothed to the Lord Paramount’s son and must figure out what’s going on before it’s too late.

In Singer from the Sea, worlds have souls rather than individuals. If a planet’s soul becomes saddened to the point of departing from that world, then all life there begins to die off. Earth had already died off in the past, and humans have split up between other planets. Haven was founded by a bunch of rich people so they could relax and enjoy their lives.

One of the neat details that Tepper included was that Genevieve is black. You don’t see that very often in sci-fi, and it made me happy.

This was one of those books that I couldn’t put down. Tepper’s writing style is engaging, and I liked the way that she used the form of a mystery to describe the strange occurrences on Haven. The story began with a prophetic dream that Genevieve had, and then the story returned to the past until we eventually hit that point in Genevieve’s life, which made for some interesting foreshadowing.

While I enjoyed the book, I did feel like I was being drummed over the head by the whole “Women are oppressed” and “We need to save the planet” message, which was not at all subtle. It felt a bit preachy, but I didn’t think it detracted too much from the story.

I’d recommend Singer from the Sea if you’re looking for some unusual feminist sci-fi.

This review originally appeared on Books Without Any Pictures.

Six Moon Dance, Sheri S Tepper

Six Moon Dance, Sheri S Tepper (1998)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

Six Moon Dance, I think, represents both a new departure and a retreat for Tepper. It is a new departure in that she finally admits that it is who you are, not what gender you are, that determines your quality as a person. It is a retreat in that it falls back on two standard Tepper themes that were so blessedly absent from The Family Tree. So far, so undecided. But is it any good, and, more importantly, does it have anything new to say?

Well, Tepper novels are always good, even when they are highly irritating. She does write well, she can tell a good story, and she is always inventive, particularly with societies. This time she chooses to play with an environment in which women are so rare that they have the majority of political power. It is a society in which it is boys whose families sell them into prostitution and men who are deemed excessively emotional and have to wear veils.

This does not mean, however, that the society is a mirror image of our own. For example, Tepper is well aware that women have different attitudes to sexuality than men. The young gigolos are rigorously trained to be everything that a romantic hero should be, not just a strutting cock. More interestingly, she has her women deliberately avoid the sordid power games of commerce, leaving that area free for men to compete in. This is a potential weakness in the female control of society, though Tepper assumes that most of the men will be too selfish, and too busy competing with each other, to provide a major threat.

Had she left it at that and just explored the implications of the world she had created it would have been a very interesting book. Unfortunately she could not resist bringing in the usual psychotic, male-dominated cult and the all-powerful natural force that enables her characters to combat the bad guys. This is standard Tepper stuff and it is beginning to get boring. Which is a shame because she does a lot in this book to break down the normal stereotypes of Tepper characters. It also contains a lot of other fascinating ideas.

The cast includes a sadistic old woman, a positively charming and somewhat effeminate young gigolo, a female ballet dancer who seems almost sexless and a transvestite actor. There is also an android who looks like a matronly woman but doesn’t really behave like one until she discovers where the brains making up her processing unit came from. There are also two fascinating alien races and a radical political philosophy on which human interplanetary society is based. Most importantly, the book once again ends with a message of hope, not of despair. Sadly there is nowhere near enough room in one novel to explore any of these things in any detail.

My guess is that Tepper’s view of the world is evolving at a fairly glacier-like pace. Slowly but surely she is managing to let go of the hatred and distrust that have marred her work over the past few years. But it is a painful process, and one not likely to be enhanced by her present withdrawal from the world.

Ah well, she writes entertaining, if irritating books. Maybe one day she’ll get her sense of perspective back and write something as good as Grass. Maybe she’ll get her sense of humour back and write something as good as A Gate to Women’s Country. In the meantime we wait, and have to settle for books which are merely good.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

Shadow’s End, Sheri S Tepper

Shadow’s End, Sheri S Tepper (1994)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

A few years ago there was a book called Grass. It was famous, it got nominated for things, it was very good. Since then its author has produced a stream of excellent, thoughtful novels. None of them have become famous, none of them have been nominated for anything, most of them are just as good.

There are two things that Tepper does very well. The first is to construct different environments and societies which work, which are interesting, and which have some sort of central mystery to them which teases and tantalises you through the story. She has a good imagination, and works the ideas through.

The other is to pose moral issues as part of the plot. She thinks about things, she cares. She is interested in questions such as the future role of mankind in the cosmos, and our relationship to other species. Will we evolve? If so, how? And how will our interaction with others affect this?

There has been a larger plot as well. Most of the novels since Grass have been following the same sort of theme. But even so I was surprised to see the whole thing come full circle at the end of Sideshow. There was some long term planning in there somewhere.

Of course in the middle of that lot came the excellent Gate to Women’s Country, which is a most wry and elegant commentary on the sex war. Believe me girls, it is a classic. Read this book, and from then on, every time some macho twit gets up your nose, just say “reindeer” to yourself and you will collapse into giggles. Recommended.

This particular article, however, was prompted by the arrival of Tepper’s latest offering, Shadow’s End. It bears all of the trappings of a traditional Tepper novel. There is a mystery planet with a strange social ecology that involves a mysterious alien species. There is an arrogant, intolerant religion – male-dominated, of course. In fact there are two, although one masquerades as social philosophy. There is a change on the way, and seemingly ordinary but fated people caught up in it. So far so good.

Unfortunately Tepper’s imagination seems to have failed her this time, and although the mystery unfolds with its customary elegance, the plot draws to a grinding halt in a discordant squeal of heavy Deus-ex-machina. And that capital D was deliberate. It is a shame, because she has some good points to make. This time, I’m sorry to say, she lost it.

Which is a shame, because the rest of the canon since Grass has been darned good. Some may find it offensive. After all, she is a feminist, and she does have a particular downer on intolerant, patriarchal religions. But personally I think they need all of the taking down a peg that they can get.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

Singer from the Sea, Sheri S Tepper

Singer from the Sea, Sheri S Tepper (1999)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

These days, a Sheri Tepper novel has a lot in common with an episode of Star Trek. The characters are familiar, though Sheri insists on keeping giving them different names, the plot is predictable, and there the moralising which becomes increasingly trite as each new episode is produced. There are even the comic asides which, since Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, have transformed Sheri’s work from strident and depressing to comfortably entertaining. But, like one of my mother’s cakes, each one turns out just as perfectly crafted, and just the same, as the last.

Their belief system was called Hestonism, a homocentric faith with a god who looked and acted like the best among them, fair minded and honourable and masculine in his approach to problems. If asked, any Aresian would have said that God was an honourable competitor, a good shot, and comfortable on the playing field… Aresians felt that there was no challenge that could not be met by well-toned muscle augmented by superior fire power under the approving eye of a deity who kept His omniscient eye on the target and His omnipresent hand on the trigger.

Singer from the Sea is, so her interview in SF Chronicle tells us, the book that Sheri was writing during the last Wiscon. At the time it was called The Covenants of Haven, Haven being the planet on which it is set, and said Covenants being the latest set of rules by which Sheri’s heroines are oppressed by a bunch of wicked, selfish and exploitative old men. Naturally the bad guys are overthrown. As expected, loads of people, many of them apparently fairly innocent, die in the process. Sheri still believes that mankind’s crimes are a collective responsibility, but these days she is at least prepared to allow a few of the better of us of us to survive.

What was fresh about the previous book, Six Moon Dance, was that Sheri started playing with gender and began to be prepared to admit that, shock, horror, Not All Men Are Evil. Singer from the Sea tries to continue in the same vein, but does so half-heartedly. The heroine is, for once, allowed a handsome, competent and caring lover, though he is required to make an idiot of himself at the end to show that all men, no matter how good they might seem, fall apart in a crisis.

For most of the rest of the good men Sheri relies upon the gay community but can’t bring herself to write about them. A transvestite character is introduced but never used, the heroine is helped by a presumably gay and dreadfully clichéd dressmaker. Later in the book the heroine has to make a long journey without feminine company to the dressmaker finds her a “womanly” man who loves babies to help tend her child. Again this character, although around for quite a while, does not speak, and doesn’t even rate a name.

None of which is to say that the book wasn’t enjoyable. It reads easily enough and I romped through it very quickly. But it doesn’t look like any effort was put into it (an impression which is augmented by a particularly sloppy job by the publishers). To anyone picking up a Tepper book for the first time it will probably come as a very nasty shock, but for the rest of us it is the same, predictable and increasingly tired formula. This was a hack job, Sheri. You can do better.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, Sheri S Tepper

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, Sheri S Tepper (1996)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

North America, 1959, a group of young college girls meet for the first time and become friends. One of their number, Sophy, is stunningly beautiful and scared stiff of boys. In order to protect her from the endless stream of suitors, her friends give her a make-over so that she looks dowdy. Along with the poorly fitting clothes and glasses, they advise her to carry a large, heavy book everywhere so as to look studious. The book in question is The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. It becomes a symbol for the group, and they form a club, the Decline and Fall Club, in which they swear to each other to stand on their own two feet as women and not Decline or Fall from that noble position.

As many of you will know, Sherri Tepper is one of my favourite authors. Her early fantasy stuff is, I’m told, not very good. I haven’t gone back to check this. I was introduced to her work with Grass, which was a Hugo nominee. Since then she has produced a series of fine novels that combine SF and fantasy themes and most of which have a sharp feminist edge to them. Of particular note are The Gate to Women’s Country, which is a thoughtful, and sometimes hilarious, look at a feminist utopia, and Beauty, a startling re-interpretation of the Sleeping Beauty story which lives up to its name. Tepper has her faults, and we’ll come back to a few of them later, but I always look forward to a new novel from her with considerable eagerness.

Forty-one years later, the girls are grown older, wiser and, inevitably, sadder, but they still try to adhere to their vow. Once a year they meet up at the home of one member and assure their friends that they have not Declined nor Fallen in the intervening months. And for most of them that is mostly true.

Carolyn is married and has an adult daughter. When her husband retired from the FBI she gave up her legal career and moved to the country with him. Ophelia is married too, to a famous journalist who is never home, but she is still working: a doctor in the Manhattan South Receiving Infirmary (Misery to its staff). Bettiann’s husband is in advertising. She does not work, having swapped the endless round of beauty pageants her mother had forced her through for the equally artificial life of a society hostess. She is still bulimic. Jessamine keeps company with the chimps and monkeys who are her research subjects as she struggles to unravel the mysteries of genomes. The primates make better company than her drunken, philandering husband. Agnes, married to God, is now head of her abbey, which also happens to run one of the best oyster farms in an America whose coastal waters can no longer support fish. Faye, still a militant lesbian, is now an internationally respected sculptress.

And Sophy? Frightened, uncomprehending Sophy? Thoughtful, questioning Sophy? Sophy, who travelled the world recording stories of man’s inhumanity to woman? Sophy who spent all the money she got from her books establishing shelters for battered wives? Sophy lost hope. There was a bridge, a fast flowing river, an abandoned car. Sophy, it would appear, had Declined and Fallen, terminally.

Much of Tepper’s Science Fiction is written in answer to the question `How might Society be changed?’.

That was Anne Wilson, from a long and perceptive article on Tepper in Attitude #8. It is spot on, as is Anne’s contention that Tepper’s answers to this question are frequently unacceptable. She has tried covert social engineering, submission to a parasitic mind-controlling fungus, wiping out most of the population and, in her previous novel, Shadow’s End, God turning up in person to flush His failed experiment down the plug hole of the universe. The majority of this has been done in a science fantasy setting.

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall is different. Whereas before Tepper has always used an invented setting to detail the villainy of her enemies (primarily males and patriarchal religions), the new book is set fair and square in our world. The onset of the Millenium is used as the pretext for postulating a resurgence of the type of ideas she despises, but she has needed no artifice to find examples of evil with which to terrify us. Any reader of the excellent Marie Claire could have done the same thing: brides burned for their dowries in India, girls “circumcised” in the Sudan, girl babies exposed in China so that their parents can try again to make their single allowed child a boy, raped women jailed in Pakistan for their “immorality”, doctors at abortion clinics murdered by religious mobs, and unmarried mothers deprived of welfare in the supposedly enlightened west to discourage them from breeding again. In many ways the real world is more horrible than anything a fantasy author can imagine.

But, as usual, Tepper has no easy solution, no evolutionary path to a better society. Is she really as despairing as she makes out? Does she really want some avenging angel to come down from Heaven and cleanse the world of its wickedness? I can’t tell, but I would love to get to talk to her and ask.

Shortly before the annual DFC meeting, Carolyn is asked to take on a new case. An uneducated girl, without even the sense to know she was pregnant, gave birth to her rape-engendered child in a quiet alley and disposed of the unpleasant, bloody lump in a nearby skip. The local District Attorney, a known misogynist, has taken on the prosecution as part of a moral crusade aimed at boosting his chances of being elected Governor. Carolyn calls on her friends for help. But there is much more to the case than meets the eye. Her opponent is but a tool for the vast and shadowy American Alliance which masterminds right wing groups around the world. How can six old women living on past idealism hope to challenge an international conspiracy?

Perhaps Sophy would have known, but she is dead, isn’t she? The women are not so sure. They have been having visions, and the body was never found. Perhaps they should check up on their old friend, but how? She came, she said, from an obscure Amerindian tribe in New Mexico. But how much did they really know about her? Who was she?

Needless to say, it is Tepper, the writing is wonderful, the emotion it generates is intense. I loved it. But ever since my long and fascinating discussion with David Brin about Glory Season I have had new criteria by which to judge feminist SF. Once again, Tepper fails on both counts.

On fairness, yes she does have some good men: Carolyn’s husband and friends are solid, reliable and caring. But there are no bad women. Sure some of them are taken in by the lies men have fed them and slot apparently happily into their controlled lives, some of them are just too poor, stupid and desperate to know better, but none of them are ever motivated by greed to share in the oppression. Tepper, it would seem, has never heard of Margaret Thatcher. And, as I have already said, she once again falls back on the unacceptable solution.

Maybe I am an idealist, maybe I am just young and foolish, but I don’t want to give up looking for a solution that does not involve mass disease, death and destruction. And I don’t believe that any answer we come up with in that way can be any better than what we have now. Unacceptable solutions lead to unacceptable results. I will keep reading Sherri Tepper’s books in the hope that she manages to find an answer that is less apocalyptic, and I will continue to enjoy her fine writing. But I think I will continue to be sad and disappointed by her endings.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.