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.
Guest 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.