overgrown, with a rich ecosystem: Sheri S Tepper’s Grass

The follow-up to Tepper’s famed breakthrough novel, Grass is thematically complex, and the plot is a bit of a kitchen-sink affair: a mysterious plague is moving slowly but steadily through a human space diaspora which has been halted by the ascendance of a new post-Christian salvationist religion; a troubled couple of diplomats (plus their family and entourage) are dispatched to the titular planet in order to investigate rumours that the plague doesn’t seem to affect people there; said planet features a sort of cargo-cult aristocracy living out in the grassy plains, who have entered into a symbiotic relationship with some sort of psychic lizard monsters. There are schismatic priesthoods! There is legacy Catholicism! There is a vanished alien race and the empty cities it left behind! There is… horse-riding?

It’s a rather odd book, tonally speaking, and also baggy with what feels by modern standards to be an excess of moving parts: you’re almost halfway through before all the pieces are on the board and in position, by which point Tepper is already starting to narrow the diamond back down again. It’s like there’s no middle, only the start and the finish… and this is not a short novel, either! Everything does end up connecting in the end, though those connections—between matters personal, local, regional and galactic—sometimes therefore feel a little convoluted and/or convenient. That said, there’s no more handwavium here than in a lot of other sf from the late 1980s.

Talking of generic expectations, the explanation toward the very end of the book of how the plague is to be cured is so very skiffy—so very “I read it in New Scientist, actually”—and so much at odds with the character of the rest of the book that one wonders if Tepper wasn’t advised to include it by an agent or editor overly sensitive to the expectations of the sf market of the time. I think the story would have held up just fine without the sudden rush of detail about the availability of differently-handed proteins; indeed, leaving it out might have more successfully sustained the elegiac and melancholic tone of the culminatory chapters. But I can well imagine the chorus of neckbeards faxing fanzines with their demands for causal explication, and further insisting that it be explained with Science!

Honestly, though, I suspect the tonality was the bigger risk on that front. Tepper was well established as a children’s author before she turned to adult novels (in her fifties!), and there’s a simplicity to her images (and a whimsy to her character names) that feels like it could be a legacy of writing for younger folk. But as already suggested, the thematics are very grown-up indeed—and while the style felt mismatched to it at times, I actually found the musings on faith and morality to be among the more interesting and sophisticated aspects of the story.

It feels like the sort of thing you’d struggle to sell today: the style, the bagginess, make for a book that demands you pay attention and keep a lot of stuff in your head. It’s a novel from a less distracted age, more exploratory than explicatory. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but I would say it’s well worth the time.

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