GRASS
Sheri S. Tepper

 


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Foundation/Doubleday, Sep 1989
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood

Science Fiction

The Hunt. Eerie, silent lines of riders and their mounts, hours of passage through grass too high to see across, packs of hounds who will never relent until they have treed the quarry – a foxen. Fewer foxen than humans seem to die in the field, but the lives of the Grassian gentry revolve around The Hunt.

The planet of Grass was colonized by noble families who came from Earth to escape Sanctity, the established religion which, generations later, still dominates all of human space. In their contempt for foreigners they dismiss anything not of Grass as Elsewhere. They will take any measures to keep their secrets hidden.

Into this xenophobic society comes the family of Ambassador Yrarier: Rigo and his estranged wife Marjorie, their reluctantly uprooted children Stella and Tony. They are here because there is a deadly plague ravaging human space -- everywhere except on Grass. It is very likely that by the time they learn what keeps Grass free from plague, everyone they know and love on Earth will be dead. They must make Grass give up its secrets.

After an intense, suspenseful start full of unanswered questions, the main body of GRASS is slow moving, gathering itself beneath the surface with the curling, glassy power of a tsunami. Who are these dangerous beasts who seem to have allied themselves to man, and what is their purpose? We see the Hippae from four different viewpoints, but never from their own. Their pounding dances, hypnotically described, thunder through the night with evident intent, but no one knows what they mean. They eye their riders with mockery, but no true Hunter would give up The Hunt by choice. What happens during the lapse, when the Hippae disappear? And what happened to the Arbai, former intelligent dwellers on Grass, of whom nothing is left but their homes and mummified corpses? Mutinous Stella Yrarier is the trigger who explodes the plot of GRASS into furious action. She wants to ride The Hunt, and Grassian society is not prepared to deal with the consequences.

GRASS is an intricate lattice of ideas that stretches as far as the mind’s eye can reach and beyond. On one plane our characters work, each in his own way, on a puzzle that they hope will save their lives. Marjorie Yrarier, so poor at forming a connection with her husband, wins hearts and loyalties among Grass’s other inhabitants: the Commons who were brought to be servants to the nobility, and the Green Brothers who are exiled to Grass by Sanctity. On another plane is the mystery of Grass’s original inhabitants. Yet other planes explore ecology, pacifism, religion, extra-species relations. Washing over and through it all is the beauty of a planet carpeted in grass of every hue and description, from horizon to horizon.

The prose of author Sheri Tepper leaves the reader with the sensation of a series of quick, attention-getting slaps. The head jerks back, as it were, and one stops to recover one’s breath and latch back onto the thought, now much sharper than it was. Examples from early in GRASS: Stella “moved as a whip cracks, always seeming to arrive wherever she was going with considerable noise but without having bothered to travel the intervening distance.” “Stavenger’s eyes slid across Marjorie’s gaze with the slickness of ice. His face was not merely empty but stripped bare.” “Then suddenly aware of the deep, causeless thrill of terror inside herself, she knew what the horse was feeling and that it was not all right.”

GRASS is one of those books for which it is impossible to convey the effect even when telling the facts. I can tell you there is a deadly chase among towers at the Green Brothers’ mission, and it will tell you nothing about the chilling satisfaction you will get from reading it. I can describe a foxen for you, but I can’t make your hair stand on end with it, as Sheri Tepper can. You will have to develop your own sympathy and admiration for Rillibee Chime and love for Brother Mainoa. You will have to decide for yourself what you think about Marjorie’s lifemate.

Sheri Tepper began publishing late in life. She is dedicated to exploration in her writing, meaning that in some of her books, she has not adequately prepared her foundation. While not always resulting in masterpieces like GRASS, this constant reaching has given her a career of stature. GRASS is a strong candidate for my Best Read of 2004.

December 2004 Review

 

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