Grass by Sheri S. Tepper

 

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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.

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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

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Audiobook Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

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Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman (Narrated by the Author)

Released 24/02/2017 (Audible UK)

The Short Version: An extremely enjoyable if man-heavy set of tales, well suited to Gaiman’s prose style and to audiobook format. But will humans of the future think his are the only versions? (Probably not.)

Rating: 8 strands of magical hair out of 10

How does one come to appreciate a mythology that no longer exists in any complete form? If I’m to understand Neil Gaiman and the rest of the internet correctly, the answer in the case of the Norse Gods is to turn to Marvel comics, and their loving adaptation of Thor and friends as part of their superhero stable over the past half-century. Certainly, Gaiman is very open and unapologetic (rightly so!) about arriving at the stories from that angle, but he’s obviously come to a rather fuller understanding of the surviving texts to write this retelling of the Gods of Asgard and the little we know of their soap opera lives. To be fair, I wouldn’t know if he’d only read/watched Thor before writing this, given that I haven’t read/watched Thor (or read the Poetic Edda), but I’m going to assume that Marvel has less high stakes blacksmithing and salmon fishing in their versions, whereas Gaiman and his literary predecessors have us well covered there – hurrah!

Norse Mythology weaves together an overarching narrative out of a patchwork of myths, mostly starring Odin, immensely wise father of the Gods; his hammer-wielding and considerably less wise son Thor; and Loki, the original* That Fucking Guy We Can’t Just Stop Hanging Around With. There’s also a rotating cast of godly relatives, giants, animals, love interests, animal love interests, and (most controversially) dwarves without Scottish accents, taking us all the way from the birth of the world to the end days of Ragnarok, and beyond into the next world to come.

I’ve had mixed success with Neil Gaiman in print, but Norse Mythology works brilliantly as an audiobook with the author’s narration – this is literally the perfect fit for his matter-of-factly magical prose style. The tales are mostly around half an hour long, which is a great length for making bread dough, tidying a single cupboard (if your cupboards look like mine), filling a moderate commute or giving yourself a bedtime story. Having come to this from the full-cast recording of Dune, which spared no expense when it came to odd background noises, I would have loved some 5-second musical interludes between chapters to demarcate them better, but that’s hardly a substantive criticism. The stories themselves hold up well, with lots of trickery and suspense and bizarre magical happenings and a sense of good mostly triumphing at the end of each story, although with enough creeping victories for evil to set up the total devastation of the finale.

Gaiman notes in the introduction that the stories that have been recorded are disproportionately those of the men of Asgard, and that the tales behind many of the women have been lost entirely. That imbalance is very clear here: Freyja shows up a few times as a loudly unwilling prize to giants who come seeking her hand in marriage, and other women like Sif and Hel also have moments, but the actors are almost exclusively men. I assume from the mention in the introduction that Gaiman is very conscious of this lack, and that it was likewise a conscious decision to remain true to the source material at the expense of using artistic license to give these ladies more screen time. On a purely personal level, I’d have liked to read “Gaiman’s newly invented version of Frejya and Sif and Frigg’s fabulous lady happenings”, but I understand why objectively that would be a much more controversial and upsetting choice – I have seen concerns elsewhere that having an author with a profile as high as Neil Gaiman risks “canonicising” this version of Norse Mythology at the expense of other interpretations.

I get this – I had only vague knowledge of any of these stories before the audiobook, and as I’m unlikely to ever seek out older versions for fun, for me this is the primary lens through which I’m going to think about these stories for the foreseeable future. One of the limitations of audiobook in particular is that you can’t easily add a bibliography for people looking to seek out more information (does the print book have one?), and I came away feeling like I had only a slightly clearer idea of where I’d go looking if I were to suddenly decide to start studying original texts and scholarly introductions to the myths. But then, far more kids since 1962 have only ever met this Thor:

THOR!

Or, as of 2011, this one:

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And yet the fuller, more nuanced version survives for as long as there are people to curate and look after the information we have left. If Neil Gaiman serves as another conduit for interpreting these stories at the expense of complexity for casual readers, I’d hope he acts as a gateway drug for enough future mythology nerds to keep any long-term flattening of these myths at bay. Until we all turn on each other and then get drowned by the Midgard Serpent, that is.


*Probably not the original, I think this guy has been around for all of human history.