Grass by Sheri Tepper, a Review

(You can’t melt a frozen heart with anger)

Pros: Lovely prose. Fabulous world building. Engaging plot with mystery, peril and hope. Deep themes including population control, religious hypocrisy and societal constraints, the human-animal connection. Fine characterizations including a portrayal of a failed marriage, and an intriguing protagonist. Characters act from in response to well-depicted psychological motivations.
Possible cons: Anti-organized religion theme may trouble some readers. Third act drags and occasionally becomes preachy. Fair bit of emotional tell.

A multicolored prairie covers Sheri Tepper’s finely imagined world, appropriately named Grass. The animal life, intricately imagined, and the climate present a series of challenges to human pioneers. And those who live isolated estancias find that life in the vast grasslands slowly warps their minds.

Grass is one world in an inter-planetary religious empire controlled by the Sanctified, a cruel and hypocritical religious organization bent on recording all DNA signatures for later resurrection. Sanctity is based on Earth, the planet marginally habitable thanks to overpopulation, environmental decay and a mysterious plague that not only threatens Earth, but has also spread to the entire empire.

Marjorie, Rigo and their two children are deployed to Grass as ambassadors. Marjorie, the main protagonist, is a sportswoman with Olympic-grade horsemanship. Despite her successes, she’s failed to meet the expectations of her culture and her family. But she’s duty-bound by church and family and hopes to find meaning and purpose on the planet Grass. Naturally, a variety of interesting events ensue, while Marjorie and Rigo writhe in the confines of an unfortunate marriage.

His self-contained wife puzzles intense, controlling, and intolerant Rigo. Marjorie is an introvert so her passion for meaning and connection, her joys, agonies and strategies stay in her head. Externally, she’s aloof and distracted. Rigo yearns to experience and possess his wife’s interior life.

There was an expression on her face at certain times, an expression of unconscious joy which came from a part of her he had always coveted, a separate being he never saw when he was with her. He had seen that being in the arena or the hunt, skimming the green pastures toward the high fences, all there between the posts and over the water, winging on danger and delight, a bird soaring with a singing face. He wanted to hold that bird.

He interprets Marjorie’s independent mind as an affront, a rejection; she doesn’t really need or want him. In his mind, Marjorie couldn’t possibly reject him based on his behaviour or character; she must be having an affair. The imagined affair and Marjorie’s aloofness, infuriate Rigo.

He wanted more than anything else to hurt her enough that she would cry. He had seldom seen her cry.

Rigo’s clumsy bludgeoning for intimacy drives Marjorie away. She fears Rigo will engulf her if she comes to close and swallow her personhood. She prefers to stand apart and be accused of being remote. She withholds herself while wondering why he doesn’t understand her.

He doesn’t notice what I am, but only what I am not, which is whatever he may be wanting at any particular time.

Standing apart takes loads of self control, a trait Marjorie possesses in overabundance. Rigo torments her, so she withdraws. By the time the story really gets going, Marjorie is so withdrawn she tolerates Rigo’s mistress, even when the woman accompanies them to Grass.

So he grew more angry and she more silent; so they danced, a blindfolded minuet.

Marjorie and the society of Grass evolve by the end of the book, allowing this novel to be classified as “hopepunk,” a science fiction novel in which people with insight, courage, and a vision beyond their limited self-interest leave the world a better place.

As always, the novel reflects the era of publication and the life of the author, now deceased. A focus on reproductive rights and relationship issues might originate from Ms Tepper’s career as director of Planned Parenthood. And she wrote this book in the eighties, during the Regan presidency, a time when reproductive issues were a hot topic of debate. Likewise, the plague storyline might reflect the HIV epidemic of that time. Regarding the grass, the author originates from Colorado’s front range where the mountains meet the great North American prairie, eastward, grass as far as the eye can see.

Favorite quote:

And though the grass be numberless as stars, there must still be a first shoot set out to make a garden.

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