Grass by Sheri S. Tepper (Bantam Press 1989)
The Short Version: There are creepy horse-like animals and rainbow grass on the planet everyone conveniently needs to be on to try and stop a devastating interstellar plague. Marjorie Westriding-Yraier and her family are sent from Terra, along with their actual horses, to try and uncover its secrets, which involve a bewildering array of sci-fi tropes that don’t completely obscure the central mystery of the Hippae and deeper questions about relating to alien life.
Grass is a book about creepy horses.
On some level, of course, all horses are creepy. This is not to suggest they are not also beautiful, worthy animals, without whom the development of global civilisation would be very different, but come on. Horses are giant creatures with giant, alien eyes, walking around on giant single fingers. They appear to sleep standing up, and die of inexplicable things like “not being able to burp” or “tripping over”. They have a bizarre combination of fragility and power, and long, weird eyelashes. There is a reason the first suggested filter when you Google “horse masks” is “creepy”. There is a reason they consistently lag behind wolves and cats in fursona popularity, despite the cultural obsessions with horse-related children’s literature and My Little Pony. There is a reason why Horse Master exists.
So, the planet Grass has a lot of grass, in various colours, and it also has creepy horses – who, we quickly ascertain, are actually aliens that look somewhat like horses, except bigger and covered in lethal bone knives. Completing the picture, we have a society of aristocratic families living on the grassy plains, who spend half of the 2000-day year going out on hunts tailored to the natural wildlife. Grass opens with one such hunt, with the youngest daughter of the bon Damfel family going on her first Creepy Alien Horse ride, to the concern of some members of her family. The alien horses, or Hippae, collect her and her family for a ride, along with equally creepy alien Hounds, in order to catch a “Foxen” which, you guessed it, probably isn’t a red fuzzy mammal (but like British foxes has done equally little to deserve their fate). Dimity bon Damfel survives her hunt, but has mysteriously disappeared by the time our main story opens.
For all its flaws, Grass the Creepy Hippae planet has two things going for it. First, it is apparently one of the few human planets not under the control of Sanctity, an oppressive and vaguely Catholic religious order with a stranglehold on the now-ravaged Terra and the rest of human spacefaring. Second, it is apparently the only planet on the galaxy not being affected by a mysterious plague with a 100% fatality rate which causes humans to literally decay in their own skins. Sanctity is almost as desperate to cure the plague as they are to stop its existence from becoming common knowledge, so to treat with the Grassians they send the Yraier family, whose collective love of horses supposedly make them ideal diplomatic material despite the abusive tendencies of father Rigo and the liability of two teenage children, Tony and Stella, who aren’t told the true purpose of their visit to Grass. Only wife Marjorie comes across as an interesting and sympathetic character from the outset, and we spend most of our time with her point of view as she unravels the secrets behind the Hippae, the plague and why entire families have dedicated themselves to riding what appear to be intelligent and sadistic knife-horses through a plain for fun.
There’s a lot going on in this book, and some of the many tropes deployed fit better than others. There’s a long-dead alien civilisation whose demise on Grass appears to have been different to their deaths everywhere else, whose history and interaction with the Hippae makes an interesting counterpoint to the humans’ own interactions with them, and with other apparently alien intelligences. There are tensions between the aristocratic Bons and the “commoners” of Grass, who are actually much better educated and closer to the galactic norm. There is a Sanctity presence on the planet, whose story is told mostly though the eyes of Rillibee Song, an acolyte who was packed off to the order after his family died of plague. Here, Sanctity appears to operate more as a weird cult than a political force; the younger members have a bizarre hierarchy of their own related to climbing towers and violence, which both their seniors and the narrative seem quite happy to explain away with a “boys will be boys!” shrug. There is also a mercifully brief introduction of an intergenerational love triangle, which combined with the other sexualised elements of the book (particularly the young women going missing on the hippae hunts and one other spoilerific thing) does not endear Sheri S. Tepper’s sexual politics to me.
Ultimately I felt that Grass would benefit from being either half as long or twice as long. A pithy exploration of the bits of the narrative that really go somewhere – the plague, the contact with the Hippae, the discoveries about their life cycle and the relationship between humans and the alien planet they have settled on – would have made a fantastic and thought provoking read, without the religious baggage or teen antics getting in the way. As it stands, the “humanity oppressed and directed by extreme Catholicism” element does find some synergy in the book’s later mysteries, but its a fairly tortuous connection and the treatment of religion in general holds up very poorly compared to something like The Sparrow, so I don’t think that element would be missed. Cutting this out would also focus the book better on the suspense and atmosphere of the main narrative, as the presence of the Hippae in their search becomes more unavoidable to the Yraier family and the nature of their relationship with the Bons becomes clearer.
On the other hand, I could see Grass going the other way successfully – fleshing out the interesting aspects of the worldbuilding related to the Sanctity and their Grassian order, giving more space to Rigo and Marjorie’s relationship and to their children (though please not to the intergenerational love triangle), giving the women of the Bon Damfels family and the commoners a greater voice. As it stands, the political intrigue and family drama in this novel are far outclassed by the horror and alien contact elements, but there are enough interesting elements in the former that could be woven more effectively into the narrative if given space to do so. Rillibee, in particular, is an enjoyable character to spend time with right up until weird spoilery sexual politics rear their head at the end, and I enjoyed his building a relationship with Brother Mainoa, the man who has been tasked with exploring the ancient alien ruins, and coping with his grief at his family’s deaths and his unwanted new status as a celibate religious acolyte. While I hesitate to suggest that Science Fiction needs more intricately plotted political doorstops, I can’t help but feel that Grass would be better as one of those, rather than the marginally lighter book it actually is.
In theory, Grass is the first book in the Arbai trilogy, but I get the impression from write-ups of Book 2 that it has little in common with the first, and in particular that the creepy horses and rainbow grass are out (but the ancient gods of a long-dead people are in). Based on what I’ve read, Reading the Stones is on my “someday” reading list, but given the length of that list I doubt I’ll be getting to it very soon. As a standalone, Grass has elements which are up there with some of the best science fiction I’ve read, but Tepper makes the reader work for them by throwing in a whole lot more that ultimately doesn’t come together as a fully realised whole in a way that does the central idea justice.
Two thumbs up for the creepy horses though.
Rating: Seven “Stop Making This A Thing, Adri”s out of Ten