SFM Review: Grass by Sheri S. Tepper (1989)


Should we read older SF? Gollancz seems to think so. Their SF Masterworks line has, for the last 14 years, highlighted SF classics and kept them in print. This series of posts is here to try to do two things. One to expand this authors’ knowledge of classical SF, especially eighties SF, and secondly to ask the question are classics worth reading?

So far on my short journey in the SF Masterworks Challenge  I’ve encountered a man who changed himself, another man who changed himself and the world, aliens who want to change everyone and so it was time for something different. I wasn’t exactly expecting horse-riding but that’s what I got. Well, at least that’s what I thought I had for the first 40 pages of Grass.

Now female authors and SF come in for a hard time, Sheri S. Tepper is one of a handful of women writers that that make up the SF Masterworks list (though there are many deserving authors out there), and, honestly, starting with a hunting analogy may put off people, that includes me btw.  With the threat of a deadly plague wiping out humanity across the universe and seemingly Grass being left untouched I couldn’t understand why we were spending so much time focusing on a quasi-fox-hunt.

But the third chapter takes the reader away from Grass to Terra or more accurately Sanctity (being the ruling religion of most of humanity) and at that point things, for me at least, got more interesting.

The whole book starts to slowly open up and moves away from a story that would have had a smaller audience into one that that grows in scope to draw in social hierarchy, identity, immortality, morality, wrong assumptions, reality, religious rule and ancient civilisations to name a few things.

Let’s start with assumptions: the whole point of the beginning is to set ‘norms’ in place for the reader – the aristocracy of Grass, known as the bons to the commoners of the planet, go on hunts and for the most part that is all they seem to do. There is something odd about the arrangement. The native mounts and hounds appear when needed and they have foxen to chase but how has something so English translated to an alien planet and its creatures so easily?

Well, it doesn’t, but the reader nor those that have been sent from Sanctity know the truth yet and I’m not doing to spoil it too much because part of the enjoyment for me was seeing Grass unfold and seeing my narrow views and those of some of the characters unfurl.

The bons of Grass don’t give free access to roam around – visitors are limited to Commoner Town and commoners limited to there or the villages on the bons’ states. No one goes roaming freely on Grass. Well, they can but they’re unlikely to ever come back and the only way to travel is aircar, unless you’re on a hunt.

This restriction seems natural as they don’t want the various grasses destroyed. Everything seems normal to those on Grass, at least from bons’ point of view. But when we get to experience other views, mainly via Marjorie Westriding-Yrarier,  we discover that things aren’t what they seem.

And Tepper excels at looking below the surface and showing us what we’ve assumed was reality. She also looks at the fear that religion places on those under them and the fear of losing control. And being in control is one the themes of Grass or more precisely letting people think they control you is.

Grass rightly has a place as a SF Masterwork so trust that the set-up is positioning you to have your assumptions challenged.

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