Grass by Sheri Tepper is a fascinating science fiction book.
Here is the blurb on the back of the book:
Here is a novel as original as the breathtaking, unspoiled world for which it is named, a place where all appears to be in idyllic balance.
Generations ago, humans fled to the cosmic anomaly known as Grass. Over time, they evolved a new and intricate society. 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. No world save Grass has been left untouched. Marjorie Westriding Yrarier has been sent from Earth to discover the secret of the planet’s immunity. Amid the alien social structure and strange life-forms of Grass, Lady Westriding unravels the planet’s mysteries to find a truth so shattering it could mean the end of life itself.
Although Lady Westriding is featured as the main character, she is but one of many in a large and colorful cast of characters within Grass. Although sometimes it can seem a bit much to keep track of them all, each of them are beautifully imagined, their personalities clear and stark on the page, that I found no difficulty in keeping track of them all. The book takes time with each character, even minor ones, to give a glimpse of who they are and how they view the world around them. If there is anything this book does well, it’s an examination of events from multiple perspectives. This book tackles quite a few questions all at once and does a marvelous job of juggling and answering each one.
We all enter a situation with our own experiences, biases, and worldviews coloring our actions, thoughts, and words. This book shows how each of the characters maneuver through a complex world of politics, religion, strict traditions, and the mystery of the unknown. The book begins on Grass within the family of the bon Damfels, who are an aristocrat family who believe that they are the true rulers of Grass. Those that live in the Commons, the ones that craft much of their furniture and other necessities, are seen as lesser and not as important. The world itself is one giant biome that is various types of grass. There is some seas and Commons is built on a highland surrounded by swamp, but these are anomalies on a world that is nothing but colorful and often enormous varieties of grass. Trees are often few and far between. It’s interesting that even the landscape of the world will play a role in the unraveling of the plot and climax of the book.
The bons society is a stratified tradition-based society that centers around the hunt, where they ride the mysterious Hippae, a life-form native to Grass to hunt the Foxen, another native life-form that is even harder to see and more mysterious than the Hippae. It is on this bizarre little colony world that humanity will find the answer to its biggest and most dangerous problem: a plague that kills indiscriminately.
Back on humanity’s homeworld of Earth, Sanctity, a religious organization that also rules as the main government of Terran and its colonies, is dealing with the onslaught of the plague, trying to keep it a secret, but trying to find a way to investigate why Grass has not been affected. There’s been reports of people who have come to Grass with the plague and have left it cured. How and why? To find out, Sanctity’s dying monarch will send the Yrariers, an Old Catholic family, as ambassadors to Grass, to secretly determine why those on Grass are unaffected by the devastating plague.
Rigo, Lady Westriding’s husband, is a fiery character, who serves as a catalyst for the book’s examination of gender roles. As Old Catholics, Rigo and Marjorie often fight to stay within the realms of their gender roles, often confessing to their priests (who travel with them and often serve as their advisors) their sins and struggles to stay true to masculinity and femininity as defined by Earth society. Yet as the story progresses, both are limited by their adherence to their gender roles, and while Marjorie begins to fight past them, doing what she must to find the answer the larger questions, Rigo falls behind, trapped in this constant state to live up to his false ideal of masculinity. The book does a marvelous job of showing how the two interact and often fail to understand each other due to the great differences in their personalities. It also shows that their lack of understanding of one another isn’t because men can’t get women or vice versa, but is instead a breakdown in communication stemmed partly because of the strictness of gender roles, and the lack of patience and unwillingness to view another’s perspective that both suffer from, Rigo far more than Marjorie. Marjorie, as the book progresses, learns how to put herself into another’s shoes and grows because of it; however, Rigo struggles with this the entire book, often trapped by his own rigid adherence to traditional ideas of masculinity. Tony, his son, is depicted in sharp contrast to his father, and offers up another way to view masculinity — one that is softer, less rigid, and more empathetic, which Stella, his sister, offers up another way to view femininity, which is harsher and more fiery. Stella also serves as a disturbing catalyst for one of the biggest turning points in the entire book; what happens to Stella is the final push that forces Marjorie to act brazenly without regard to the rigid traditions that govern Grass. Through this action, she pushes a train of events that will change everything and bring her closer to the answers she so desperately seeks.
Another issue tackled by this book is the idea of what constitutes a person’s identity. Where is it housed? One of the most disturbing moments of the book lays in what happens to girls who disappear within the grass. The people within Commons eventually find the missing girls, but why they turned up at the port and the fact their minds seem to be wiped clean offers a disturbing examination of consciousness and what constitutes a person’s identity. How malleable our minds may be. This provides a horror element to the tale that weaves its disturbing thread all the way to the climax, for the role these girls play in the larger conflict is one that is just as disturbing as the mind-wipe they suffered from.
The book also examines politics, religion, and belief in wonderfully complex and intriguing ways. The society of the bons sits in stark contrast to the freer and less rigid society of the Commons. Here we examine how two very disparate societies work in tandem, and we see the differences aren’t truly caused by the location or even the people themselves but the interactions one group has with the native lifeforms that the other group does not have. Here we see how alien contact can alter and change a society, and it offers up questions as to what constitutes intelligent life? What if one intelligent life seeks dominance over another? How does one mitigate the violence or seek understanding, especially if there is a wide gap in understanding? How is the native lifeforms of Grass interconnected? The story hints at a biological connection between the main life-forms of Grass — ones most prevalent that has the most interaction with humanity. This plays a huge role in the plot of the story, and serves as the catalyst for finding the cure for the plague as well as an explanation for how the plague came to be. These lifeforms even play a role into why the Arbai, the extinct intelligent race with its abandoned cities spanning numerous planets, died. They are fascinating alien creatures, and their role in the plot was a wonderful twist that I didn’t see coming.
Another contrast is between Sanctity, the Green brothers — where those who fail their oaths are sent as punishment — who are studying the ruins of the extinct Arbai, and the Old Catholics. Here the conflict of religion and how it intersects one’s decisions, behaviors, and worldviews is examined in detail. Marjorie in particular has a crisis of faith as she struggles to deal with her duty to discover a cure for the plague and solve the mystery of Grass and her duty to be a good wife and mother; her crisis of faith digs deep into the nature of belief and how it influences us. Does God truly know us as individuals? Or are we similar to white blood cells within a larger body, only little things that are set into motion, but not truly distinct in the larger scheme of things? The Green brothers examine what it is like to be thrown into religion, where you are not given a choice as to whether you want to believe or not, and the consequences of such an approach. Sanctity itself provides insight into the question of how far is a religion willing to go to assert its dominance over its believers?
There is a lot of complex questions tackled by this book, and each one is deftly and thoroughly explored through the characters, the intricate worldbuilding, and the complex but beautifully woven plot. As disturbing as this book was at times, it was a fascinating read and one I highly recommend.
I’ve done my best to keep this review spoiler free, but for those that wish to discuss this book in the comments, feel free to discuss in detail. The comments will not be spoiler free.