Sunday, May 19, 2013

Grass - Sheri S. Tepper

I was hoping to find the time to take part in the WWend Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge this year. Until now that has been a dismal failure. I haven’t had time to research and acquire the book I need for it and have mostly been reading stuff that was already on the to read stack this year. I would be surprised if I could still manage to read the twelve required but I can at least read some of them. After the reading challenge for 2013 was announced I picked Sheri S. Tepper’s novel Grass to be my first read. Tepper is a prolific writer in various genres and this novel is one of the few written by a woman that made the Gollancz science fiction Masterworks series when they were still being numbered. I have absolutely no experience with Tepper’s writing but the premise looked interesting so this novel was a logical place to start. The novel didn’t quite turn out to be what I was expecting but it is a very good read nonetheless.

In a far future, overpopulation and environmental degradation have forced humanity into space. Many planets have been colonized but under the influence of humanity’s main religion the expansion has stopped for the moment. One of the colonized planets is named Grass. Most of its surface is covered with numerous species of a genus that resembles the grasses of old Earth. Despite its position at a galactic crossroad, the planet has remained something of a backwater, governed by a small group of families descended from various noble families in Europe. The ‘bons’ as these families are known would rather be left alone but when a plague strikes humanity for which no cure can be found, eyes turn to Grass anyway. For some reason, the population on Grass appears to be immune. Reluctantly, the bons allow an embassy on the planet to look into the matter.

Grass is a pretty hard novel to get into. There are plenty of science fiction novels that explore the mysteries of an unknown planet and manage to do so in 200 pages. Tepper needs will over 500 and there is a reason for that. The social structure of Grass and how it clashes with that of the rest of the galaxy is an important part of the story and not something than can be unraveled in a few pages. Tepper takes her time to set all of it up properly. That does mean that the first part of the novel I rather slow and the relevance of a lot of that material is not directly clear to the reader. I suspect more than a few readers would be tempted to put the book down in that stage. It requires patience. I think it pays off in the end.

The bons of Grass (I assume the name is taken from the ‘von’ found in many names of German nobility) have developed a culture bases on hunting.  They ride the native Hippae and hunt another native creature named Foxen but apart from the name, the resemblance to foxhunting is superficial at best. De bons are a very closed society and not much is known about their planet and way of life in the rest of the galaxy, except their obsession with hunting. Based on this information, the ambassadors sent to Grass are two Olympic medalists in the Equestrian disciplines in hopes of gaining acceptance with the Grassian elite. They are hopelessly ill prepared for what they find on Grass but, aware of the stakes, very driven to succeed anyway. The clash between the desperate ambassadors and the bons, wanting to protect their isolated and privileged lifestyle, is fascinating to read.

The novel has a very strong religious theme as well. Most of humanity is firmly under the influence of a religion referred to as Sanctity. Their motto is Sanctity/Unity/Immortality and immortality is what they promise their followers in the ‘second creation’. This, as the name implies, comes after the first creation is undone. Sanctity influence stretches far and the church jealously guard their influence over human occupied space to the point where they restrict further expansion and strictly limit procreation. Combine this with even more strict taboos on contraception and you get the picture of a very scary organization indeed. They are not the only religion however. The ambassadors sent to Grass adhere to ‘old-Catholicism, which appears to be a religion mostly in line with the stance of the (more conservative parts of) catholic church at the moment.  Here again, Tepper introduces conflict into the story. Ambassador Marjorie Westriding-Yrarier, the woman who could be considered the main character of the novel, is forced to examine her beliefs when they clash with Sanctity, the duty to her family and humanity as a whole, and the sense of superiority displayed by the bons. There is more than a bit of feminism worked in this part of the story. Personally I found both religions equally disturbing for various reasons. Grass is often described as a dark tale and in this respect it certainly is.

Tepper isn’t done weaving strands into the story though. Grass was once colonized by the Arbai, a mysterious alien race that went extinct for unknown reasons. Their ruins can be found on Grass and are being excavated by Sanctity. The reason for their extinction is suspected to have something to do with the plague that is currently affecting humanity but so far, the ruins have not yielded the answers that are needed. Indeed, one might wonder at the motivations of Sanctity, eager as they are to reign in the ever expanding numbers of humanity. This strand in the story is perhaps the most mysterious of all. Grass is the first book in a trilogy in which, as far as I can tell, the Arbai are involved in all three. Grass resolves most of its plotlines and works fine as a standalone but if anything is left dangling it is probably the history of the Arbai. Tepper explores it for as far as it suits her story and not much beyond. Given all the other material already stuffed into the novel that is probably a good thing.

Personally I liked Grass just fine but I can see a few problems other reasons might have with it. The novel is intricately plotted, that is absolutely true, but at some points it lacks subtlety. Especially the depictions of religious madness are taken a bit too far. Marjorie’s family is dominated by a man who feels everything should revolve around him and resents Marjory for having her own interests. On top of that he is hypocritical enough to openly have a mistress and yet accuse her of being unfaithful. The sheer stupidity of his approach to religion is a bit hard to swallow. Sanctity on the other hand is not only hypocritical but plain megalomaniac. I’m not a religious man myself and the disasters, pain and suffering people will put up with in the name of religion never cease to amaze me. I think Tepper’s approach is a tad too stereotypical to be really believable though. In that respect the madness that afflicts the bons is much more believable and disturbing.

Another issue I have with this novel is that the ending, especially compared to the long buildup, feels rather rushed. The novel ends with the reader overseeing the battlefield just after the battle has concluded so to speak. There is no sense yet of the implications of what has just happened. The author needs an epilogue to clean up after herself. The ending fits I suppose but I do think it could be handled better. I can’t shake the feeling that it throws the pacing of the novel off balance.

I do see a few problems with Grass but on the whole it is a fascinating read. There is so much in the way of social, religious and scientific ideas stuffed into this novel that the scope of it is comparable with some of the most ambitious works in science fiction. I felt the execution is not quite good enough to name it a great work of science fiction but it is not far off. The novel is essentially one big puzzle and examining the pieces is enough to keep a science fiction fan reading. It’s not often that one finds a science fiction novel that has taking in so many aspects of human life and manages to weave them into a satisfying plot. The novel may have its imperfections but for me it included so many things I like to see in a good science fiction novel that is was an irresistible read anyway. Opinions will likely be divided on this novel but I would recommend it.

Book Details
Title: Grass
Author: Sheri S. Tepper
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 535
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-8579879-8-0
First published: 1989

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