"Grass! Millions of square miles of it... a hundred rippling oceans,
each ripple a gleam of scarlet or amber, emerald or turquoise... the
colors shivering over the prairies... Sapphire seas of grass with dark
islands of grass bearing great plumy trees which are grass again."
So opens Grass, Sheri Tepper's first fully-successful novel and
perhaps still her best. When I first read Grass, I realised that Tepper is
a genuine wild talent, taking SF in new and unexpected directions.
If you've read any Tepper, you'll have noticed that she takes a pretty
dim view of human nature, especially among men -- and of religion,
especially patriarchal religion. The standard Tepper themes are here --
of course, they weren't standard back then -- but handled lightly and
thoughtfully, with only a bit of the didactic ham-fistedness that mars
some of her later books. What I didn't remember about Grass is the
splendid sense of place she evokes -- Grass emerges as a fully-formed,
beautiful, and thoroughly alien world. The formative image of Grass,
to the Colorado-born & raised Tepper, is that of the American Great
Plains after a good spring, which is indeed an oceanic experience --
one that your Oklahoma-raised reviewer has shared, and misses.
Sanctity, the noxious world-religion of Tepper's Earth, is explicitly
modelled on Mormonism. Mormon readers ('saints') will not be
flattered -- though Tepper has exaggerated for effect. Sanctity is not
nice. At times it verges on cartoonish, but then I would reflect on the
banality of evil.... Tepper does a good job, handling evil. Beauty (1991)
is her masterwork of evil -- a remarkable book, but not for the
squeamish. "Down, down, to Happy Land..." Ugh.
The Hippae aren't nice, either. Neither are the Hounds, another
Grassian species she introduces in the Hunt, and splendidly develops
as the novel progresses. I've seen criticism of Grass's ecology, but to
this non-biologist it seems reasonably sound, certainly good enough
for fictional background.
The extreme isolation and strange behavior of Grass's rural
aristocracy are again drawn from Tepper's Western experience. Larry
McMurtry has written eloquently of just how strange isolated
pioneers could get [note 1], and I remember similar stories from
Oklahoma. Tepper, McMurtry and other senior Westerners (like me)
are just one lifetime distant from the frontier...
Marjorie Westriding -- besides having a wonderful name, and a
remarkably irritating husband -- remains Tepper's most memorable
character. The NY Times says she's "one of the most interesting and
likable heroines in modern science fiction." Well, "me too."
Westriding appears in two more of Tepper's books, but is far less
memorable in those (sigh). But she's *great* here.
The Great Plague, ah, that's where the dodgy biology lies, and it's a
pretty contrived Maguffin, too. And the wrap-up gets a little mooshy
and pat. But these are quibbles. I had a great time re-reading Grass,
and you will, too. Highly recommended.
Note 1.) -- in his recent essay collection, Walter Benjamin at the
Dairy Queen (highly recommended), and in almost all of his
historical novels. Of course, many of the pioneers were pretty strange
to start with....
Review copyright 2002 by Peter D. Tillman