SF Book Review: Grass by Sheri S. Tepper

ImageI’ve been meaning to start writing reviews for some of the many, many books that I read. I want to do this in part to generate interest and conversation around some of my favourite (or least favourite) novels, and in part to keep me thinking while I read. Perhaps I’ll inspire some of you to pick up a novel you otherwise would have passed over, or to pass over one you might have wasted precious reading hours on!

Sheri S. Tepper’s novel  Grass is definitely one that all lovers of science fiction and speculative fiction should give a shot. If you’re not into SF, you might also be interested in this book if you like any or all of the following: strong female characters, philosophy, theology, horses.

I know you can just search it on nobleindigoamazonians.com or whatever other source you use to creep new reads, but I’m going to give you a summary anyways. For my benefit. Otherwise I might miss something important.

Grass is a novel set in a distant future, when the human species has disseminated throughout the galaxy (perhaps further, it’s not really specified) and colonized innumerable other planets in the name of Sanctity—a bizarre extrapolation of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition—and Terra—our home planet. Unfortunately for us, a plague is threatening the continuity of the human species, and no planet seems to be safe from its blistering, boiling, puss-ing reach. No planet, except for Grass, that is.

Sanctity is busy trying to pretend that the plague doesn’t exist—for fear of a group of apocalyptic death-worshipers who may be trying to assist the spread of the virus in order to hasten mankind’s spiritual ascent—while desperately trying to convince the people of Grass to allow the Sanctified Scientists to  come have a boo at why they’re apparently immune. Grass which, of all of the colonized planets, is the only one to have avoided a Sanctified presence is understandably wary of allowing the religious nuts to come poking around.

Grass, named for the hundreds of thousands of varieties that grow on its surface, is almost exclusively a prairie planet, with some small copses of trees and an inhospitable swampland as the only other landscapes. The planet’s aristocracy has evolved into a parody of its own purported ancestry. The Grassian nobles, or bons, do their best to imitate continental manor lords, complete with a ritual “fox” hunt.

And it is because of the Hunt that Rigo Yrarier and his wife Marjorie are chosen to represent Terra as Ambassadors on Grass. They are chosen by Sanctity, although they are not Sanctified themselves, because of their skilled horsemanship—both having competed in various equestrian sports at an Olympic level—and it is hoped that they may be accepted into the private world of the bons through their love of riding. While the bons will not accept scientists, they do agree to an Ambassador, mainly to keep Sanctity off their backs.

So it is that Marjorie and her family end up on Grass and, very shortly thereafter, realize that Sanctity has been sadly mistaken about the nature of the bon’s Hunt. The Yrarier’s horses do nothing to endear the bons to them and, if anything, only serve to increase the aristocrat’s contempt of Terra and Sanctity.

Grass is an engrossing science fiction novel, one which does not rely so heavily on the science as to lose its characters. Marjorie Yrarier is a compelling protagonist as she battles her relationships with her family—two teenage children, a controlling and volatile husband, his vapid mistress, and the family’s Old Catholic priests—her Faith, and her own motivations for coming to Grass. When her husband becomes more interested in gaining the respect of the bons than finding out the secret of their immunity, Marjorie takes their mission into her own hands.

Grass is what I think of as “Big Idea” SpecFic. Tepper is exploring some very interesting ideas about humanity, spirituality, religion, and sin that could easily have overshadowed the story she was trying to tell. Indeed, there are many reviews out there who complain of one-dimensional characters and lack of emotional depth. I, however, did not find this to be the case. I would say that Grass is largely a plot driven, rather than character driven, novel. But I felt that Marjorie’s character was well drawn enough for her to be a sympathetic figure, and she grows and changes in ways that are satisfying to read.

If the rest of the characters lack depth, I would argue that it is because the human characters are not really what Grass is about. Tepper is telling the story of Grass’s original species, the Hippae and Foxen, as well as an extinct species, the Arbai, which are the only other species known to have travelled in space and colonized other planets, many centuries before humans got around to it. The relationship between the Hippae and Foxen, and the Foxen and Arbai, act as a cautionary tale for Humanity. Whether or not Marjorie will see the warning before it is too late is really the crux of Grass and, in light of this, her relationship with other Humans is shallow by necessity. If Tepper is as brilliant as I think she is, this is an intentional lack of depth; it forces the reader to focus on what is really important to the story—Humanity’s relationship other intelligent species, and with God.

If you don’t feel like thinking about the book you’re reading, perhaps leave this one for a time when you do. If you’re not interested in “Big Idea” SF at all, then you might never pick it up. I get that. I’ve picked this book up a couple of times and then decided that I wasn’t in the mood for it. That being said, I do believe there is sufficient action and character development to keep most readers satisfied once you get into it. If you’re in the right mood, like I was this time, it will likely only take the first 30 pages or so. If you’re not deterred by having to flex your grey matter, I definitely recommend it.

Besides, how can you not love a book in which humans are analogously compared to the virus they are trying to stop, and in which God refers to us as simply “very small beings” which He (for lack of a better pronoun) cannot discern on an individual level. Grass is about God and Humanity, Faith and guilt, evolution and survival, and not in any of the ways you might expect. Go on… read it.

4 thoughts on “SF Book Review: Grass by Sheri S. Tepper

  1. Grass is wonderful, this was the title that got me hooked on Tepper. scenes where Marjorie was learning to ride the mounts? I remember having nightmares about that. I haven’t reread this one in forever, but thanks to Grass I went on to read Raising the Stones and Sideshow, which take place in the same universe and have some cross over characters. Sideshow is still one of my favorite novels, and I would never have discovered it if it hadn’t been for Grass.

    1. Grass is my first Tepper, but it definitely won’t be my last. I picked up this novel, along with A Plague of Angels and Beauty when I was trying to get a little more familiar with female SF writers. I really just stumbled upon her stuff accidentally, and I’m glad I did! I’ll have to grab Raising the Stones and Sideshow once I’m done these ones. Thanks!

      And yes! The Hippae mounts were terrifying, and the training machine that they used for days at a time . I loved that Tepper didn’t try to describe her alien species in great detail; she gave us glimpses and let the reader do the rest. I imagined them to be like prehistoric horses, dragons without wings. But I’ve read some people’s descriptions of them as more like armoured cats, or enormous dogs! She gave us just enough to be properly creeped out, and then let us fill in the blanks with whatever we found personally horrifying. Brilliant!

  2. This sounds like a great book to pick up for a summer read. It will fit nicely with the biology topics this I teach.

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