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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Grass, by Sheri S. Tepper

Sheri S. Tepper is a prolific writer, and at least one of her novels (Grass, which was published by Doubleday in 1989, and is the subject of this post -- I read the paperback version.) was nominated for the Hugo award. I was surprised that the Wikipedia article on Tepper was so sketchy, and that there is no article on Grass.

I wouldn't say that Tepper is one of my favorite authors -- this is my first post on her, in over 1,000 such -- but she is certainly readable, and I found that there was a lot more to Grass than I remembered from my earlier reading. Let me qualify that previous sentence. No one has ever called me a male chauvinist pig, but some of Tepper's later work got so strongly feminist that I quit reading. One of my daughters recalls a similar experience with her work. Grass, on the other hand, isn't mostly a feminist work. It's science fiction -- speculating about what would happen if . . . The relationships and roles of males and females do enter the story.

Tepper has published two other books that are loosely connected, and this series is called either the Arbai series (after an extinct race of intelligent beings, found on many planets) or the Marjorie Westriding series (after the main character).

I have found a few reviews of the book. This blog post calls the book ". . . a rabbit-hole entry into rich moral questions . . .," and sees it as relevant to the US entry into wars in the Persian Gulf. This review calls it ". . . one of the most significant works of 1980s SF . . ." The review traces various significant literary influences on the book, mostly non-fantastic. Steven Wu's review states, I think correctly, that Tepper has loaded her novel with too much philosophical freight, but nonetheless commends her work. This review says much the same.

As I need to, I am going to give away various parts of the plot. This post will not be long enough to give all of it away.

Literary features.
I make no claim to be a literary critic, but even I can see that Grass starts and ends with, er, grass. Tepper begins, even before page 1, by quoting Isaiah 40:6, which she renders: "A voice says, 'Cry!' And I said, 'What shall I cry?' All flesh is grass . . ."

This marvelous passage opens the book proper:
Millions of square miles of it; numberless wind-whipped tsunamis of grass, a thousand sun-lulled caribbeans of grass, a hundred rippling oceans, every ripple a gleam of scarlet or amber, emerald or turquoise, multicolored as rainbows, the colors shivering over the prairies in stripes and blotches, the grasses -- some high, some low, some feathered, some straight -- making their own geography as they grow. There are grass hills where the great plumes tower in masses the height of ten tall men; grass valleys where the turf is like moss, soft under the feet, where maidens pillow their heads thinking of their lovers, where husbands lie down and think of their mistresses; grass groves where old men and women sit quiet at the end of the day, dreaming of things that might have been, perhaps once were. Commoners all, of course. No aristocrat would sit in the wild grass to dream. Aristocrats have gardens for that, if they dream at all.
Grass. Ruby ridges, blood-colored highlands, wine-shaded glades. Sapphire seas of grass with dark islands of grass bearing great plumy green trees which are grass again. Interminable meadows of silver hay where the great grazing beasts move in slanting lines like mowing machines, leaving the stubble behind them to spring up again in trackless wildernesses of rippling argent.
Orange highlands burning against the sunsets. Apricot ranges glowing in the dawns. Seed plumes sparkling like sequin stars. Blossom heads like the fragile lace old women take out of trunks to show their granddaughters.
(p. 1-2, Grass -- New York: Bantam, 1990)

It ends thus:
by the grace of God, grass.
Amen (p. 449. The end of her letter to her husband, who is going back to earth, while Marjorie remains.)

The biology of Grass
Or, I should say, the zoology of Grass, the planet, or Grass, the book. In spite of the title, there isn't much about the botany of the planet.

This review suggests similarities between the book and Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead. There is some connection. In Card's Speaker, an animal species is really another phase of the life of a type of tree, or vice versa. (I seem to recall some bizarre biology in the diggers of Card's Homecoming series, but I don't remember all of the details.)

So what's strange about Grass? There are, besides the grazing beasts, which are scarcely mentioned, after the opening passage, four apparent species of animals, the peepers, who show no evidence of intelligence; the "hounds," which are not much like hounds, which are as large as horses, and predatory; the hippae, which are even larger, also predatory, and definitely intelligent; and the foxen, which are also definitely intelligent. The hippae and the foxen have telepathic powers. The foxen are apparently able to control the thoughts of those around them, so that they can be nearly invisible to observers. The hippae can control humans. The reader discovers that these four types are actually all stages of a single species, going through something like the caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly progression found on earth. But there's a twist. At some time in the past, paedogenesis has occurred, and the final stage became unnecessary. Some hippae produced peepers without going to the final foxen stage. Later, some hippae did not make the final metamorphosis. Then the hippae came to hunt and kill the foxen, not needing them anymore.

There's another important aspect of the organisms of Grass. That is that they are immune to a gruesome viral plague that's destroying the inhabitants of other worlds, and threatens to wipe out mankind. (I didn't find Tepper's microbiology and biochemistry completely convincing, by the way, but this didn't really affect my reading.)

Mind control
The opening passage refers to aristocrats. On Grass, there are a few families of aristocrats (at least in their own eyes) living in estancias throughout the vast prairies of the planet. Somehow, the hippae have controlled their thinking, apparently using the aristocrat's knowledge of fox hunting, to bring about a complicated system of hunting that plays a large part in the lives of the aristocrats. They ride on the hippae (which is dangerous, because the hippae have sharp spines on their backs) accompanied by the "hounds," and are instrumental in killing the foxen. But they think that they are hunting foxes as humans used to do on earth. The hippae control all aspects of this.

There is also a population of non-aristocrats, living near the spaceport. They actually control almost everything on the planet, but the aristocrats don't realize that.

Marjorie and her husband have heard of fox hunting on Grass, and, reasonably enough, believe that it would make sense to bring their own horses with them.

Religious and moral aspects
It should be no surprise that a book that begins by quoting the Bible, and ends in a prayer, has some religious or moral themes and issues.

What are some of these?

One, whether Tepper intended it or not, is the question of earning salvation. Marjorie, who is a loyal Old Catholic (remember that the book is set in the future, when humans have reached several other planets) is trying to earn it by helping people who have violated Earth's strict birth control laws, and thus put themselves beyond the help of the state. This does not satisfy Marjorie. Does she ever find any sort of salvation? I'm not sure. Perhaps in her contact and even communion with a being of another race, a race so different that its members cannot even be clearly seen, she has found it, by the end.

Another one is the question of marital fidelity, and what makes a marriage work. Marjorie's does not. At the beginning of the book, she has never had an adulterous affair, but her husband has a mistress. When he is appointed ambassador to Grass, the mistress, and the wife, go along. By the end, Marjorie has given up on her marriage, which hasn't improved. On page 205, Father Sandoval, who has traveled to Grass with Marjorie, Rigo, their children and the mistress, tells her that he thinks the problem is, simply, that Rigo has been selfish -- he has wanted what he wants, when he wants it, not full-orbed marital intimacy.

Toward the end, Marjorie develops some sort of relationship with First, one of the foxen -- mostly telepathic, but partly physical -- and decides that she will not go back to earth with her husband.

There are religions in the book. One is Old Catholicism. Another is Sanctity, which is the dominant human religion. This review says that Sanctity is modeled on Mormonism. That may or may not be true. In any case, Sanctity is presented as more like an urban gang than a selfless religion. The leaders seek power, and impress children into years of service to the cult. On Grass, at least, the religion tolerates its monks (?) killing each other. When Sanctity learns that there may be a cure for the plague, they try to prevent its implementation, to maintain their own power. Another religion is the Moldies. They operate secretly, because of fear of Sanctity. Their aim is to destroy all humans.

The question of original sin, and the concept of sin, are discussed. Father Sandoval believes that the foxen were redeemed by Christ's death. Although the Arbai are extinct, enough of their artifacts remain to understand that they had no concept of evil, and, as a result, did not think the hippae capable of evil. The hippae destroyed them, by sending the plague through their inter-planetary transportation system.

The foxen know of the evil that the hippae do, and plan to do to humans, but do not act, but prefer to argue about whether or not to act, until Marjorie persuades them to do so. Her concern for her own horses is the trigger that causes this change. The foxen see that she is concerned, not just for herself, but for other creatures, so they follow her moral compass, and act to stop the hippae.

Finally, back to the last part of Marjorie's letter. She has come to believe that individual humans are no more important, in the eyes of God, than a virus, and that God is not concerned with individuals, but with large-scale events. Thus, she believes that, to God, she is like a blade of grass.

This was an ambitious novel. There are a number of aspects of it that I haven't mentioned, and the ones that I have mentioned aren't covered as thoroughly as they might be.

Thanks for reading.

* * * * *

On April 2, 2009, E Stephen Burnett wrote an essay, asking questions about how far a Christian author could go in writing fiction which has a God who is significantly different from the Christian God, and whether a Christian could legitimately create a fictional character who is in defiance of God. I posted tentative answers to these questions, which are related to the subject of the post above, on April 12, 2009.


Jamie said...

It's interesting that you say of "Grass" that "the relationships and roles of males and females do enter the story." I came away from this with quite the opposite feeling -- that it is indeed all about those roles, with Marjorie unsatisfyingly never doing more than mildly rebuking two men who have dominated her life for the entire tale while contributing little or nothing to the advancement of what they are all supposed to be there to do.

Marjorie's husband is constantly trying to prove his manhood to everyone around him and rejects all good advice from anyone, accusing his wife of non-existent infidelity while he keeps his own mistress is plain view. Father Sandoval admonishes Marjorie for being insufficiently obedient and believes on the basis of nothing but doctrinal teaching that the foxen must be animals. That she finally manages to muster the willpower to tell them both to go to hell is very, very far from what they deserve -- they, who did nothing to save Stella, to save Commons, to save the entire human race, but plan to go back to Terra patting themselves on the back for their purity of ideals in their own smug manhood.

Martin LaBar said...

Thank you for your comments, which, no doubt, have considerable validity, maybe a lot. However, I don't feel qualified to respond more than that, as I last read Grass about a decade ago.