Grass (1989) by Sheri S. Tepper

Grass1A planet of rainbow meadows! Rippling grass plains of psychedelia! It’s a setting ripped straight from my ‘80s cartoon-fueled childhood fantasies. With a one-word, exclamatory opening (“Grass!”), followed by rhythmic, semantically-repetitive exaltations of unworldly beauty of this agro-fantasy landscape, it brings to mind the overzealous theme chorus of Hair, the musical, (am I the only one?)

…and a very contrary feeling of eerie disquiet that never goes away…

Tepper turns menacing an innocuous setting from the first word. The cultish chant of excessive descriptors, like a chime of empty rhetoric interrupted by not-so-hints of social instability and injected references to blood, silver, and stubble suggest an insidious nature. At the bottom of the page, a little girl asks, “What are nuns, Grandma?” The next page over, she doesn’t recognize a parsnip. All followed by a quickening sense of archaic aristocracy and oppressive tradition, but really, what is this place?

And that’s the essential mystery of Sheri S. Tepper’s SF Masterwork novel.

(But thank goodness we get to leave that weird hippie-elite merged nightmare by chapter 3 for something more comfortable: a gritty urban techno-setting of poverty and tyranny. With spaceships! But we won’t be there for long… discomfort is the game in Grass.)

Marjorie’s husband is assigned to investigate a cure on the plagueless planet of Grass, with kids, horses, and husband’s mistress in tow, while the rest of the human universe succumbs to sickness. The dichotomous social structure of the planet baffles Marjorie—a hushed nobility over here, a vibrant merchant class over there—not to mention the sinister “mounts” and “hounds” that lead the “hunt. When a young girl disappears and society looks the other way, Marjorie risks her life, as well as her diplomatic position, to shatter the suffocating silence of the Grassian elite

Grass2Here be monsters: the hounds, horse-sized, “the nighttime horror, the eater of young,” (2) and the mounts, or Hippae, “twice the size of the hounds… those necks spined with arm-long scimitars of pointed, knife-edged bone…” (82). These are frightful beasts, but there’s also something sexual about the human-mount relationship with the strained, erect posture to avoid those barbs, the “simulator” they use for strengthening the thighs and back, and the lulling, rhythmic hypnosis of the ride. A social obsessiveness pervades these hunts, yet secrecy envelopes the act. It feels drug-like, carnal, impure.

Other subplots thicken the tale. The acolyte Rillibee is reassigned to a Friary on Grass, despite his internal blasphemies. Marjorie and husband wrestle with physical and emotional intimacy, further impaired by the presence of his mistress, and a younger male love interest. Marjorie’s daughter is desperate to win the affections of an older Grassian aristocrat. Meanwhile, tensions between the Terran-based empire, Sanctity, and the insular planet of Grass threaten the possible discovery of cure for the plague.

The theme is Taboo. So much unknown, so much unsaid. Taboo saturates Tepper’s universe. But things-being-unsaid doesn’t quite work when the author pans a conveniently trained lens on the internal worlds of every important (and not-so-important) character. Too often, intimate tension is revealed for the sake of the reader and to the detriment of the mystery. Head-hopping thoughts are exposed, while enigmatic characters are laid bare as simple and predictable. The domineering beasts of Grass are spared this internal vivisection (for the most part), and remain the only real force for page-turning in this layered tale.

Grass3At times, hairy situations are rescued by unlikely, convenient things: a slip of paper drops in just the right place, characters show up at just the right time. (At one point, I wonder if Rillibee has access to a teleport, considering his talent for fast and prompt travel.) Then, on page 343 of the 450-page tale, the only medical doctor on Grass, a multi-degreed female with research and publishing credits on her CV asks, “Why didn’t you ask us medical people?” (343). Well, yes. I kind of wondered that, too.

There’s something arbitrary about a planet-sized nation-state, feudal-state, culture, et cetera, and spacefaring races that regress technologically inevitably raise red skeptic flags, but I’ll forgive it in the name of metaphor, which is worth the parsing out, though, fair warning, a planet of rippling, rainbow-colored grass insulated by generations of taboo and tradition, and submissive to the forces of pernicious, untamed beasts might be muddier than the surface elements first suggest.

*Added after first comments rolled in* For sake of clarity, the book is an uncomfortable read, but in a good way. The setting is a quickly-discovered deception. (My exclamation points are doubly demonstrative, not mockery.) Causes much thinks, despite the technical flaws.

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13 thoughts on “Grass (1989) by Sheri S. Tepper

  1. thebookgator says:

    i think tepper does atmosphere very very well. U need to re-read her someday, but the atmosphere was seared in my mind.

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  2. I remember reading this book a looooong time ago, and I rather liked it.

    Of course, my friends kept on making weed jokes when they saw the title, but what can ya do.

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  3. …and a very contrary feeling of eerie disquiet that never goes away…
    nailed it. And it makes that tumbleweed attack stand out as stark foreshadowing—even in death, grass is after you. Be wary, Megan.

    It sounds like we’re pretty much on the same page here—some flaws, too convenient at times, but it makes you think and has a lot of interesting metaphor. I think you did a better job than I did pointing out that this planet has a foreboding, almost horror edge to it. That weirdness lurking beneath the surface was mysterious enough that I kept reading to see what was up.

    Kind of surprised you didn’t touch on the ecofeminism at all, but it is supposed to be much more mild in this book compared to some of her others.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Nature is always after me. If it’s not snakes, it’s tumbleweeds. That’s one thing I can pretty much count on. One thing we don’t really have around here is grass. Or trees. Or water.

      You know, I kept almost starting a paragraph about the feminism but I didn’t really have anything to say. It’s the absence of feminism (or, you know, what should be normal, appropriate ways of depicting women) that catches my attention. I might have complained about a female protagonist that involved romantic entanglements, but it was never Marjorie’s primary concern (I’m sure that was deliberate), and I almost brought up that the “young girl disappears and turns up naked” cliche, but I think that ties into the whole Taboo theme, so I left it alone.

      As for ecofeminism, I guess I’m not really sure what that is, especially in relation to what I look for when I’m reading. It just felt like a woman with outdoor interests. I’m sure there’s an agenda there, but it felt natural.

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      • That was kind of my problem, and I was wondering if was another case of me being thick and missing something. (And yeah, the romantic entanglements, and the “steal girls and return them naked” cliche, were pretty bad.) The Grass aristocracy is patriarchal, and Marjorie’s husband is oppressive, but it’s a far cry from the Joanna Russ-style feminism.

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  4. Yup, still want to read this.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Widdershins says:

    I think I was too young when I read a bunch of her books to ‘get’ them. Might have to do a re-read one of these centuries. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. […] Oh my. I only blogged three books this month? I am slacking. Shit. I ‘splained my way through Bob Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mansplainer, meh’d my way through David Brin’s Brightness Reef, and crept my way through Sheri S. Tepper’s insidious world of Grass. […]

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  7. […] Bugs have dominated the sci-fi alien landscape throughout its long history, from Wells’ spindly invaders to Clement’s didactic caterpillars to the Heinlein/Haldeman/Card &Scalzi spectrum of buggers. It’s a natural fit: with those extra articulated legs and absent the puppy dog eyes, bugs really are Earth’s other. With the exception of sci-fi’s obsession with busty cat ladies, mammalian aliens don’t appear as often as bug aliens, for to put fur and whiskers on an alien might run the risk of Disneyfied anthropomorphizing at worse, Petting Zoo People at best, and almost always something dumb and unimaginative, like NivPourn’s stomping elephants; rarely ever Tepper’s eerie horselike foxen. […]

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