Grass by Sheri S. Tepper left me breathless and haunted. I finished it over a month ago but vivid scenes from it pop into my mind unbidden at any time. Tepper accomplished the difficult feat of creating a compelling world, one that the reader can relate to but that has alien elements, some beautiful, others shocking. She begins with a rhapsodic chapter describing the physical attributes of the planet Grass. True to its name, oceans of grass cover the planet, different species, colors and heights of grasses, with one space port settlement surrounded on three sides by a swamp forest and villages scattered here and there. The aristocracy live on “estancias” which reminded me of the country homes of the British gentry. Their human ancestors brought the fox hunt tradition with them from earth, and they continue it with the cooperation of the indigenous species. But at what cost? The truth of the hunt puts oppression into new and frightening light.
We arrive on Grass with the ambassador and his family from Terra, sent by the ruling Sanctity to find out if Grass, an isolated and somewhat xenophobic planet, has the terrible plague that has been ravaging all the other planets settled by humans. A rumor has claimed that Grass has no plague. If that’s true, Rigo Yrarier and Marjorie Westriding Yrarier must find out why the inhabitants have immunity from it. Tepper shows us Grass and the people there through Marjorie’s eyes primarily, but also through other characters that add breadth to the story. We learn about Grass from the outsiders, though, and how they respond to what they learn and to the native species. All is not as it first appears, and Tepper peels away the layers from the society to expose the truth of life on Grass. She explores religious belief, biology, and the relationship between children and parents, especially with the indigenous inhabitants, the Hippae and the Hounds.
I loved the characters in Grass, even the aristocratic characters who irritated me with their narrowmindedness, but especially Tepper’s fearlessness in creating characters with unusual abilities or philosophies. Marjorie is a strong woman, highly intelligent, who opens her heart to the people on Grass, and because she wants to understand so do I. I am as frightened of the Hippae and Hounds as Marjorie is, and Tepper creates a dark suspense around these unknown creatures. Their mystery and behavior fascinates. These questions hang above them: “What is the truth about the Hippae and Hounds and what do they want?” At times, the suspense is unbearable which kept me reading.
What really blew me away about Grass, besides the thought-provoking ending, was Tepper’s use of language. The names she chose for certain characters gave their existence depth; for example, the acolyte, Rillibee Chime, and one of the brothers at the Green Friary on Grass, Brother Shoethai. I wasn’t sure how to pronounce some of the names, but that added to their mystique and to the characters’ personalities. Other names were wonderfully descriptive such as those of the peasant class. The rhythm of the sentences are as seductive as the elusive truth about the Hippae. I wish now I had marked certain passages in which Tepper used extraordinary words to describe and intensify the sense of being an outsider on an alien planet, but I just wanted to read and keep reading.
I would highly recommend this novel, whether or not you’re a science fiction fan. Despite its setting, it is literary, challenges attitudes and ethical theory, and a joy to slip down into the bath of its language and rhythms. The quest to find a cure for a plague is relevant to our time. The characters are and remain multi-dimensional with flaws and strengths, with recognizable desires, needs and behavior. The friend who told me about Grass also said that Tepper’s next two novels, Raising the Stones and Sideshow, continue with some of the characters and concerns of Grass. They are already on my library reading list…..