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.

Grass, Sheri S Tepper

grass-sheri-s-tepperGrass, 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.

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.

Grass, Sheri S Tepper

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.”


“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.