Grass – Sheri S Tepper (1989)
‘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.’
Blurb to the Gollancz SF Masterworks 2002 edition
Tepper didn’t start publishing until she was in her fifties, but since then she has been remarkably prolific within the Holy Trinity of speculative genres. SF, Fantasy and Horror.
‘Grass’ is the first in a series of books featuring Marjorie Westriding, the wife of Rigo Yrarier, an irascible Catholic diplomat. He is also the nephew of the Carlos Yrarier, Hierarch of Sanctity, a repressive theocracy which more or less controls life on the majority of settled human worlds.
A plague is loose in the human population and Marjorie, Rigo and their retinue have been sent to the planet Grass which may or may not hold a clue to its cure.
Grass is a complex and intriguing examination of alien psychology and human society, but to describe this novel in such terms is to be simplistic to say the least. Unlike many SF novels it is character-driven, and driven by characters diverse and extreme.
We are immediately introduced to the bon Damfel family, one of the seven aristocratic families of the planet Grass, as they are about to set off on a hunt, modelled on the British Fox Hunt (which, anachronistically, seems to be still thriving on Earth). It is not until much later in the novel that we see the ‘mounts’ and ‘hounds’ through the eyes of the first Terran ambassador and his family, who have been sent to Grass merely because they ride to hounds, and would therefore be more likely to bond more easily with the ruling families.
There are several main elements to this novel. There is the planet Grass itself and its disturbing metamorphic aliens and ecology; there is Sanctity, a weird futuristic and fascistic blend of Catholic and Mormon beliefs which has displaced most other religions and appears to be an undisputed theocratic dictatorship which has the power to sequester individuals without trial ‘within the Faith’ as it were.
So far, Sanctity has denied the existence of the plague which is devouring the bodies of people on many human worlds.
It is significant perhaps that this was written in the late eighties at a time when the spectre of AIDS was hanging over the world and HIV was far less well understood than it is today. Whether or not Tepper is making some sort of veiled comment about religious groups and organisations either hiding their heads in the sand or conversely embracing the virus as a weapon of God against the sinful is unclear, but the comparison remains. In some ways, Sanctity (and their spin-off Doomsday cult, The Moldies) are thankful for the plague for different reasons: the Church hoping that it will wipe out the Godless masses so that Sanctity can rebuild civilisation and The Moldies hoping that it will simply wipe everyone out.
Then there is the vanished Elder Race, The Arbai, whose ruined cities have been found scattered sparsely across several settled human worlds. Elder Races sometimes perform a semi-religious function within the genre; god-like creatures with lost technologies far beyond our own who once roamed and possibly conquered the universe but are now gone, having left something behind, in some cases a clue to the central mystery of the novel, as in McDevitt’s ‘Engines of God’ or indeed Clarke’s ‘Rendezvous with Rama’.
Finally there is ‘the Hunt’, a gross reflection of Marjorie’s hunt for a cure for the plague. The ‘bons’ of Grass are essentially addicted to the Hunt, so enmeshed in its ritual and the cerebral pleasure obtained from communion with the mounts and hounds that they accept the mutilations, deaths and ‘vanishments’ of their own children.
Again, like addicts, they refuse to face up to the reality of their habit and through enshrining it in custom have blessed it with a veneer of respectability.
Running through is also the theme of women being controlled, from the women of the ‘bon’s (who are manipulated both by the males of their families and by the Hippae, even to the extent of having their personalities erased and being used as living weapons to carry the plague to humanity) to Marjorie, who is controlled both by her husband and by the Church who expect her to be subservient to Rigo.
If nothing else ‘Grass’ is a sharp and skilfully drawn portrait of avoidance and denial.
It has a deft and meticulously choreographed plot in which emotions, actions and reactions combine to ignite change and revelation. One could even say that it is the friction between the complex personalities of Rigo and Marjorie which drives the plot. Their relationship, or lack of one, can be seen as a contrast between the effect they have on each other and the effect that their relationship has on everyone around them.
Tepper’s sublime powers of characterisation ensure that we do not see Rigo as an evil man, or even a stupid one, but perhaps an insecure and obsessively controlled and controlling one.