Happy Friday Everyone,
Today we have a special treat, The Sci-Fi Novel’s FIRST guest posting! It’s a review of the 1989 sci-fi novel Grass by Sheri Tepper. It’s not on My List, but my friend Matt recommended it (you’ll find it under Reader Suggestions). I’m really excited and grateful that Matt took the time to read Grass and write a review for this here blog.
Without further ado, here is a review of Grass.
Hi. My name is Matthew Lepley. I’m from southwest England. I met Andrea through the medium of the internet, which just a few years ago was science fiction too. I am excited and proud to support this up-and-coming site by writing its first ever guest review of the novel Grass by Sherri Tepper.
From an alternative and future version of Earth named Terra, the humanitarian aid worker and scientific researcher Marjorie Yrarier and her family depart to the mysterious planet of Grass. Their mission on Grass: to find the rumoured cure for a plague that is in danger of decimating the entire interplanetary civilization of humanity. Marjorie must battle an over-bearing husband, recalcitrant daughter, hostile locals, the savage but super-intelligent local wildlife, and an oppressive religious empire in order to achieve the mission. This is a romantic but serious sci-fi adventure, with plenty of mystery too. Its depth and breadth are impressive, but would I recommend it to others? Read on…
Impressively, there are many interlinked and integrated themes explored in Grass. I would summarise the main themes into three groups: patriarchy; imperialism and class division; ecology, ecospirituality, and ESP.
Tepper is quite rightly a feminist, in the basic equality sense of the term. Through the trials and tribulations faced by her protagonist, Marjorie, she successfully explores issues related to the patriarchal oppression of women in society. Tepper gives these issues a real credibility by going into the private emotions and thoughts of her protagonist in considerable depth.
Her over-bearing, insensitive, and womanising husband, Rigo, is a convincing character, if slightly stereotypical. The historical patriarchy of organised religion is also described in Tepper’s projection of the Catholic Church into Sanctity: a future interplanetary Catholic government based on Terra. The subject of the sexual abuse of women and girls by men is tackled in the book as well, as structurally supported by religion and class division.
Imperialism & Class Division
Imperialism is clearly described as an oppressive force. In the case of Sanctity, the ideological imperialism of Catholicism is shown to be responsible for sending illegals to the slum planet Repentance. Illegals are excess children, as all families on Terra, of all classes, are only legally allowed two children. The hypocrisy of this is shown as the richer women can afford contraceptive implants, which they have in secret.
The imperialism of Sanctity is contrasted with the class division on Grass. On Grass it is the bons, the aristocratic lords of the hunt (patriarchy revisited!) who apparently hold the wealth and power. Away from the bons’ rural estancias, most of the rest of the population lives in Commoner Town. However, the irony is that, as we increasingly find out, the bons are isolated in their privileged rural world. They don’t realise that all of the life and new wealth of Grass happens in the town, which is also a trade port. This is definitely Tepper having a laugh at the expense of privileged aristocrats!
Ecology, Ecospirituality & ESP
The main plot is driven by the tradition of the fox hunt on Grass, which is an exaggerated and adapted version of fox hunting as practised on our Earth, and Marjorie’s Terra. On Grass, the foxes are the size of small elephants, the hounds are the size of horses, and the horses (Hippae) are twice the size of Earth horses. Tepper gets her own back again, as it becomes clear that it is the animals themselves, particularly the super-intelligent Hippae, that direct the hunts by mind-control of the humans.
Up to a point, Tepper is very clever at describing how a whole ecology of interdependent species, including colonising humans, could develop on another planet. This is all based on a vividly described multi-coloured landscape of grasses.
As Marjorie learns more about the ecology of Grass, another dominant Grassian species becomes known to her and others via telepathy. This species and how it relates to the others becomes the crux of the search for the plague cure. In the final pages Marjorie has a spiritual experience which ultimately ties together her mission, her growing rebellion against patriarchy and empire, and the ecology of Grass as a whole. In a grand way, an ungendered ecospirituality, based in scientific ecology, is juxtaposed victoriously against patriarchy and organised religion.
Strengths & Weaknesses
Wow, there are so many strengths to this book! You can see why it was nominated for both the Hugo and Locus awards in 1990. Tepper’s exposition and exploration of an alternative planet and its ecology are riveting. She also weaves together subplots effortlessly throughout the book, with every subplot seeming to add something to the overall narrative. Her character development is solid, not just of her protagonist but of the whole cast of characters, from Marjorie’s family to Sanctity to penitent monks on Grass to the bons and folk of Commoner Town.
Tepper builds up a believable universe. She offers insight into human relationships, which, coupled with the depth of emotion in her writing, adds to the convincing whole. Moreover, Grass is propelled forward by its moral strength; summarised well when Marjorie says to her husband and a priest:
“You two can go to hell!”
I see two major weaknesses in Grass. You may be surprised to learn that these weaknesses, for me, bring Tepper’s universe crashing down! I prefer soft science fiction to hard, but even soft sci-fi must have a solid scientific grounding to be believable. For the most part Tepper develops her alternative ecology and its dependent human culture amazingly well. Yet when I read about a process of metamorphosis on Grass that is integral to the plot, I thought it was described so unconvincingly that it blew a massive hole in the side of my suspension of disbelief. At this point, I thought, Tepper has let her imagination get the better of her reader, and not in a good way.
Secondly, towards the climax of the book, Tepper has wound together so many different subplots so well, that the only way she can find to do final justice to them is to attempt to jump between all the different characters in the closing pages, in a kind of frenetic action-driven way, which for me, causes the unravelling of the whole.
Grass was a brave undertaking at over 500 pages. We need more feminist sci-fi authors to attempt this kind of thing. But the risk of aiming for the stars is that sometimes you will fall short. I think that Tepper ultimately failed on this occasion. Perhaps she could have separated this potent bundle of setting, theme, plot, and character into two separate books, or cut more out. (Even though this is only the first book in her Arbai trilogy!) And she could have focused down a little more on the science. I would still recommend it, though, because it has many strengths and there are certainly readers out there who will really enjoy it.
Wow, Matt! Thanks so much for this great, comprehensive review! Grass was nominated for a Hugo Award in 1990 and I can see why. It offers a rigorous -ology, builds an interplanetary universe, and offers a strong, female protagonist. If you’re interested in great feminist sci-fi, be sure to check it out. Just remember it gets a little crazy at the end.
Matthew Lepley is an aspiring actor, director, musician, writer and entrepreneur. He hopes he is getting good at some of these things. He reads widely. His preferred style of SF novel is a soft style that explores the depths of human psychology. Ursula K. Le Guin is one of his favourite authors. Check out his blog The Epic Futures of Earth, which explores our collective human future and what we can do about it at www.epicfutures.wordpress.com.
Author: Sheri Tepper
Quotations: Tepper, Sheri S. Grass. London, Gollancz: 2002.