Grass, by Sheri S. Tepper
Posted February 22, 2017on:
published in 1989
where I got it: have owned forever
Sheri S. Tepper’s Arbai trilogy consists of Grass (1989), Raising the Stones (1990), and Sideshow (1992). Although they take place in the same universe and a few characters cross over, you can read these books as stand alones, or in any order you want. Sideshow is my favorite of the bunch, and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read it. In the trilogy, humanity has colonized many planets, and colonists live rather pastoral lives on these mostly empty planets. We’ve come across tons of alien ruins, but very little in the way of living aliens. Like many space operas, there is politics and intrigue, back stabbing and the loss of innocent life. Grass was nominated for the Hugo and the Locus award, but sadly these novels seem to have passed into obscurity. It’s really too bad, because all three are freakin’ fantastic.
At first blush, the plot of Grass feels a little like Frank Herbert’s Dune – political family goes to secretive planet, has no idea what they are getting themselves into, intrigue and attempted murder ensues, family must connect with the locals if they hope to survive. Tepper of course takes things in a completely different direction, but if you liked Dune you’ll probably like Grass, and if you’re interested in Dune but have maybe felt a little intimidated by it, give Grass a try. Grass is a planet on which nothing is what it seems, and everything you don’t understand is so old even its history has become a myth.
The “nobility” of Grass have no interest in hosting the Yrarier family or in allowing their children to fraternize with the Yrarier heirs. Ostensibly ambassadors of the Church, the Marjorie and Rigo Yrarier have just enough upper crust-ness to hopefully be accepted by the Bons of Grass. But more important than that, the Yrariers were chosen because both Marjorie and Rigo are retired equestrian olympians, and the entire family is highly skilled in horsemanship and hunting. It sounds very old fashioned, but what are nobles if not old fashioned? And everyone on Grass is simply obsessed with hunting.
What happens when an obsession become something you are no longer in control of, something you are no longer able to choose for yourself? I’m not talking about a cult, I’m talking about something much worse.
Grass is a lobster of a book, and at the same time an addicting read. There is so much happening in this novel, so many little subplots and minor characters, and Tepper brings it all together flawlessly with laser focus. I try to boil Grass down to just a sentence or two of “what it’s about”, and I can’t. It’s about a woman trying to protect her family. It’s about obsession gone too far. It’s about humans being expectedly hubristic about alien life forms. It’s about people saying they want to save others, when in fact they want to do the exact opposite. It’s bigger than all of that, and thanks to pitch perfect pacing, it never feels like there is too much going on.
It’s been 10 years or more since I read this book, and all I remembered was being terrified of it. The not-horses of Grass scared the shit out of me, but I couldn’t get them out of my head. Reading Grass again got me thinking about horror, and unease, and why some things scare some people but not others. It’s not that a book is scary or not, it’s what the reader is scared of. Grass reminded me what I am scared of. For nearly ten years I couldn’t get those not-horses out of my head, and I was afraid of (among other things) what would happen if I got close to them again. What if I couldn’t escape? There are plenty of other things that scared me in this novel, but I don’t want to spoil anything so I’m not going to say anything.
No matter how afraid I was, I kept reading for Marjorie. She’s an incredible character. Yes, she has a mission on Grass, but she’s also got her own stuff going on. I like her because she struggles with the weight of what she’s “supposed” to do. She’s quietly determined to figure out what the hell is going on. She’s trying to be the best parent she can, to two drastically different children who need different things. Her marriage went down the toilet years ago, and while she may not love her husband anymore, she does care what happens to him, she does want him to happy. Nothing gets in Marjorie’s way, especially when her children are in danger.
She faces her fears because her family’s lives are at stake. Is she afraid? Yep! Does she dive in anyways? Yep!
That’s one of the reasons why I love stories like this. Marjorie never planned to be a hero. She isn’t painted as a reluctant hero or as an accidental hero.She’s written as a completely normal woman who just wants to do what’s best for her family. She finds herself at the center of something, something she doesn’t understand. So she opens her eyes and insists on understanding. Even when she knows she won’t like the answer, she persists on learning absolutely everything.
And you know what? If Marjorie can face her fears, so can I. Maybe I’ll get to be as cool as her when I grow up.