Grass

by Sheri S. Tepper

Cover image

Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: September 1989
Printing: August 1990
ISBN: 0-553-28565-3
Format: Mass market
Pages: 449

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Grass. It's an alien world full of its namesake, almost entirely covered in fields of the plant. Fields of a huge variety, colors not found anywhere else, types not found anywhere else, including grass as thick as bamboo that grows to well above the height of a man. It was settled many years ago by an expanding human race, but oddly. The settlers were primarily minor nobility who wanted to be greater nobility, and have now become inbred and inward-facing families who live in giant estates out in the grass and hunt. Hunt riding native mounts that are not horses, with "hounds" that are not dogs, pursuing "foxes" that are nothing of the sort. Hunting is beyond a passion and has become an strange and deeply disturbing obsession, despite lost limbs and lost children. The only part of Grass untouched by this strange life is Commoner Town, surrounded by swamp forest and therefore inaccessible to the Hunt, where something more akin to a human colony thrives beneath the notice of the nobility.

To this world comes the Yrarier family. The universe outside of Grass is dominated by a religion and church named Sanctity, which preaches enternal life via uploads and reincarnation, but the Yrariers are not Sanctified. They're Old Catholics, which makes them a somewhat-untrusted minority. But Rigo is the nephew of the Sanctity Hierarch, and he and his wife Marjorie and their two grown children ride horses, so they seem to be the best choice in a diplomatic mission to Grass. An urgent mission, because everywhere else in the universe, humanity is dying of an unexplained and apparently incurable plague. Everywhere except Grass.

Also to this world comes Rillibee Chime, an acolyte of Sanctity (not that he ever had any say in the matter) who is sent to the Green Brothers settlement on Grass, a settlement for penitents used as a form of punishment. Rillibee saw his family die of plague, but he made the mistake of saying that, when Sanctity is doing all that it can to suppress any public knowledge of the nature and spread of the disease. Work with the Green Brothers is mostly makework, but the one useful thing the settlement does is an archeological excavation of an abandoned alien city, aliens who mysteriously disappeared long before humans started settling the galaxy.

All of this is, of course, related. The core of Grass's plot is the unravelling of the mysteries of the plague, Grass's strange immunity from it, and the disturbing nature of the hunt, "mounts," "hounds," and "foxes." It's mostly an alien biology and civilization puzzle, gradually explored and at times quite rewarding. I think the best part of the book is about three-quarters of the way through, when most of the preliminary revelations are out of the way, events have built some momentum, and both the discoveries and the danger are coming in furious succession.

Unfortunately, the problems with the book are also severe. Like a lot of Tepper's writing, there is an unsubtle agenda, but here it's particularly blatant and infects the book's villains badly. Alien biology puzzles do not work well with components that are portrayed as flatly evil and unremittingly malevolent unless the goal is horror rather than SF. (And horror doesn't fit this book.) They can work with elements that just appear to be inherently evil, but the reader is then right to expect some sort of twist of complexity. A simple conclusion of "they're evil, deal with it" is boring and takes quite a bit away from a book.

There are similar, perhaps even more severe problems with the book's major sub-plot, which is Marjorie's relationship with her husband. Marjorie is the primary protagonist throughout the book, the character whose viewpoint we see the most frequently, and we're clearly inclined to be on her side. That was fine with me, as was Tepper's agenda in showing the ways Rigo abuses and misunderstands his wife. It's blatant, but this is Tepper; one doesn't read Tepper if one isn't in the mood for a somewhat blatant portrayal of morality. What isn't okay is that, on top of Marjorie and Rigo's utter lack of communication, Rigo's internal thoughts (to which we are occasionally privy) are completely unrealistic to the point of utter absurdity.

Marjorie is a complex and well-rounded character. She carries a lot of pointless guilt and (in my opinion, somewhat inanely simplistic) morality, but it's of a recognizable human type, and I respect Tepper for playing her straight and true to her character throughout (even if I respect Marjorie somewhat less for it). But Rigo is pure caricature: the aggressive, domineering male who craves intimacy but only can take it through force, has constant anger problems (as do many of the men in this book), jealousy and possessiveness to the point of absurdity, and blatant stupidity and narcissism in his interactions with everyone else. It's understandable that he can't figure out Marjorie at the start of the book, since Marjorie seems completely incapable of explaining anything about herself to anyone other than a priest, but, by the end of the book, he's been given a detailed map, and he's still wallowing in incomprehending ignorance.

This colored, and hurt, quite a lot of the book for me. Tepper gives us repeated scenes of Marjorie attempting to reconcile her conception of the role of a wife with the fact that she married an abusive caricature, to the point where I started wanting to forcibly insert her backbone. I suspect that Tepper was trying to make a point about the religious doctrines that keep her trapped in this sham of a marriage, but the point was hammered straight through the heart of the story and ripped it badly. She also gives us repeated scenes of Rigo's ridiculous jealous tirades and pathetic incomprehension of intimacy, and those were just tiresome. There's no development, no understanding, no growth throughout the book. Even when Marjorie finally stands up to him, it's in a weirdly crippled and passive-aggressive way, and then we're treated to a considerable amount of Rigo's pouting man-child routine.

Sadly, I'm sure this isn't too far afield from some real battered spouse situations, but it's not anything I wanted to read about. Real life may be like this, but if an author is going to put it into a book, I want the catharsis of Marjorie kicking his ass by the end of the novel.

There are similar, if lesser, problems with the rest of the novel. Nearly everything is in uncompromising black and white, even more than other Tepper novels I've read. Characters are lined up as heroes or villains from almost the moment of first introduction, and then go merrily off down those tracks for the rest of the book. The only real change is around Marjorie's interaction with some of the aliens, and even that felt bizarrely simplistic. I liked the idea of the complex philosophical interaction that I thought Tepper was building up, but then it fizzled nearly entirely. In a book of nearly 450 pages that seems to want to be full of moral lessons, I wanted something deeper than "stop talking about bad things and do something about them."

I wanted to like this book. I'd heard it was one of Tepper's best, and the world-building was initially interesting. And it does have its moments; some of the revelations are quite well-done, and while the biology is too deterministic and the final explanation of the plague is vaguely unbelievable, it's not as bad as it could have been. Some of the set pieces were wonderful, and I did get a strong sense of place and of alien difference from the planet. But the human relationships were badly belabored and were toxic in ways that drove me nuts. I could have really liked this story with rather more of Rillibee Chime and Brother Mainoa, a more proactive and less stiflingly religious Marjorie, and a bit more complex biology.

As is, this is deeply flawed. I'm not sorry I read it, but I really can't recommend it. The primary problem is that Tepper doesn't remotely play fair with her agenda. Even if you're in sympathy with it, the didacticism is annoying. If you're not already sympathetic, particularly on the subjects of religion and feminism, it's likely to move from annoying to infuriating. I don't mind politically-motivated fiction from time to time, but to remain entertaining, the villains have to not be distorted straw men, at least not quite this obviously.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-04-23

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21