Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Grass by Sheri S Tepper

grassGuest reviewer Emma Barnes uncovers the themes at the heart of a science fiction classic.

I discovered Sheri S Tepper by accident many years ago, when I picked up one of her books from a sales rack.  It was about a bunch of singers who lived on a planet of moving crystal mountains, whose job it was to sing the songs which hit the right frequencies to keep the mountain passes open…. A fairly typical Tepper book in some ways, as one thing this writer does not lack is inventiveness.  I started looking for more of her books, and soon after happened upon GRASS which blew me away.

GRASS is set in a distant, but not unimaginable, future.  Our planet, Terra, has been despoiled by massive over-population, with the result that there are now strict laws about reproduction.  However as one of most powerful institutions is the fundamentalist style church, Sanctity, there are also strict prohibitions on contraception, which means large numbers of people fall foul of the law and end up being shipped to prison-planets.  Unsurprisngly a lot of people have already emigrated to other planets already.  And then, just to add to the general joy, a terrible inter-planetary plague breaks out.  Sanctity is desperate both to keep the plague secret (not least from the end-of-the-world religious sect, the Moldies, who would spread the plague if they could) and to find a cure.  They suspect the planet Grass holds the answers, but Grass itself is led by a clique of old-fashioned aristocrats who want nothing to do with Sanctity or non-Grassians, but who are instead obsessed with their own secret hunting rituals.

The unlikely hero – heroine – in all this is Marjorie Westriding Yrarier, middle-aged, unhappily married, a former Olympic show-jumper, and an old style Catholic tormented by religious doubts.  Quite an interesting combination.  Sanctity arranges to send Marjorie and her family as ambassadors to Grass (including her husband’s mistress and a couple of priests) believing that as they are excellent horse-riders they will win the trust of the hunt-mad aristocrats.  But as the Yrariers soon discover, the kind of hunting practised on Grass is very different from traditional English fox-hunting –  and far more sinister and dangerous.  The “mounts” are the barbed and red-eyed Hippae, who sometimes abduct their human riders, and the “foxen” – well, I don’t what to give away too much.  But the foxen are well worth discovering.  As to the link between the Grassian hunt and the plague: inevitably there is one, and it takes all of Marjorie’s grit and determination to uncover it.

Marjorie is at the heart of the book.  She is honest, kind, determined, always trying to do her best.  She is also burdened by some very old-fashioned doubts.  How much does she owe her family?  How much her Church?  At what point is she entitled to her own happiness?  Is she able to develop her own philosophy, aside from the strictures of her religion?  Taking on responsibility for saving the universe is in some ways a welcome distraction. However the book includes a huge cast of characters, and among the most memorable of Marjorie’s companions are an elderly man from a monastic order, a young boy who is both an expert climber and plague-survivor, a good-looking young aristocrat, several horses and a creature who is…well, something not really human or animal at all.  As for the plot, it travels in all kinds of different directions, but is always gripping and satisfying.

Tepper has written many books of fantasy – all of them highly inventive, and all of them marked by a concern for certain issues.  After a while, you will come to recognise Tepper’s preoccupations: and yes, many of them are present in Grass.  They include feminism (Tepper’s early book, The Gate to Women’s Country, was a bit of a feminist sci-fi landmark, although I have to say it is one of my least favourites of her books); issues concerning reproduction and reproductive rights (interesting to note that Tepper worked for Planned Parenthood for many years); fundamentalist style religions of all varieties (she doesn’t like them) and the natural environment and environmental destruction.  This sounds rather worthy, but the full-bloodedness of her obsessions, and the creativity of her fertile imagination, means the result is exciting, not preachy.  There’s plenty of action.  A wonderful feel for the natural world.  There’s even romance.  Yes, really.

When I first read Tepper, I was a little inclined to dismiss her preoccupations as “hobby-horses” – you couldn’t really have a fundamentalist church taking over the world, now could you?  Rereading Grass a couple of years ago, I was struck by how much closer it suddenly seemed.  A President in the White House who had been elected by fundamentalists, who believed in the end times, and who had banned funding for charities in Africa promoting contraception …not to mention the new threats posed by Global Warning and the possibilities of deadly ‘flu epidemics….suddenly the world she portrayed no longer seemed so very far away.

So…to conclude: read Grass.  It’s great.  And if you like it there are loads more great books by Sheri.S.Tepper.  I especially like The Family Tree, Raising the Stones and Six Moon Dance.  The bizarre and the strange run riot in Tepper, but always in the company of the homely and the sympathetic, the thoughtful and beautiful.  Enjoy!

544 pages, Gollancz, ISBN-13: 978-1857987980


Interview with Sheri S Tepper can be found here.


Emma Barnes is a writer and just so happens to be RosyB’s sister. But that’s not her fault.

5 comments on “Grass by Sheri S Tepper

  1. rosyb
    May 1, 2009

    I’ve read Grass on recommendation of the person above. 🙂 And it’s brilliantly absorbing, if completely deranged. But brilliant.

    I’m not sure I picked up on all the themes in so much detail – well I mean I suppose some of the themes and ideas are staring you in the face, but I was more taken up with the highly imaginative society and world she creates – as for the creatures and the very strange encounter at the end…well what can I say. You really have to read to believe it. Brilliant. Err and deranged and all those things I was saying earlier. But in a good way. I find some of the names for things a bit unconvincing though. Like Moldies. And the names of the aristos…perhaps all that makes more sense if you think of it symbolically I suppose. But it does also seem strangely uncontextualised…

    What am I saying? No idea. But perhaps i will read more. And I never knew she writes under 2 other pennames either. Incredibly prolific. Boggles the mind.

  2. Moira
    May 1, 2009

    I may have to go back and try Sheri Tepper again at some point. I read Six Moon Dance a while back and didn’t really get on with it terribly well. I may have been in the wrong frame of mind for it at the time – but she does seem to be a lady with hobby-horses.

  3. Jackie
    May 1, 2009

    I don’t read much sci fi, but this one intrigues me. The planet sounds familiar enough that it wouldn’t feel too strange, but it stretches some ideas, which would be interesting to explore. Thanks for the well written review suggesting it.
    The watercolor on the cover is actually rather nice, what a lovely pastoral scene…

  4. Steve
    September 18, 2009

    I first discovered Sherri S. Tepper in the 1980’s as a teenager with Mavin the Manyshaped. I can’t say that I was hooked on those books but I then discovered The Awakeners. this story gripped me like no other had done before. Then I read Grass. Grass is the best story that I have ever read. Bugger the eco-feminist stuff, it is a wonderful, terrible, prophertic piece of work. As you can probably tell I am male, Grass is a book that I have read and re-read over the years, and will re-read again. coupled with Raising the Stones and Sideshow these three interrelated books make up for me anyways the best trilogy I have ever read. As I grow older I have found that I am finding more and more in the stories. I have since bought and read as many of her novels as I can find here in Australia, I have the whole lot now. Sherri S. Tepper to me is the best writer I have ever come across, Her lead female characters are so well written, the themes and plots are very real, albeit set in fantastical worlds. I would love to see Grass as a movie one day, I know I’ll pick it to pieces as it is impossible to recreate that world on film, but I’d watch it nonetheless. I believe Sherri S. Tepper is one of the most underrated sci-fi/fantasy authors, and she deserves much better recognition for her work. Well, that’s my ten cents worth, enjoy her stories. Cheers, Steve.

  5. Pingback: Science fiction can only hint at God | Francis Spufford | Octogon Daily News

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This entry was posted on May 1, 2009 by in Fiction: fantasy, Fiction: general, Fiction: science fiction and tagged , , , .



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