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Grass by Sherri S. Tepper

Published by Bantam

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Grass is a world with a deadly secret. As its name implies, it is a world of enormous prairies, of endless grasslands and relatively few trees, found mostly in small stands scattered near water. It is the home of a group of humans who settled there to escape the stifling hold of Sanctity, the powerful religious organization that they regard as having curtailed human progress. They would be just as happy if the outside universe would simply forget them.

These people are divided into a number of aristocratic families, distinguished by the particle "bon" before their surnames, who live on grand estancias amidst the prairie grasses, far from the spaceport at Commons. Their primary obsession is the Hunt, a strange ritual in which they ride huge native creatures known as Hippae and are accompanied by other native creatures they call Hounds. The quarry of their Hunt is yet another native beast, which they call foxen.

We first learn the customs of the Hunt through the eyes of young Dimity bon Damfels, the youngest daughter of the proud Stavenger bon Damfels. Although Dimity is small for her age and quite frightened at the prospect, her father insists that she is old enough to ride to the Hounds. Thus it is with much trepidation that she joins in the morning's preparation for the Hunt, which is described in rich and meticulous detail. Since it is her very first Hunt, it's perfectly natural for her to notice everything -- and there's something vaguely disturbing about the process of riding the native mount across the endless prairie, the way it lulls her mind into a null state in which it's easy to think of nothing. The actual triumph of finding, treeing and killing the foxen is all a frightening flash for her, seen from a distance -- and by the time she returns home to the family estancia, she no longer even has all that clear a memory of the sequence of events.

Even as the Hunt proceeds, a group of the older members of the aristocratic elite, men who have been injured and can no longer ride, gathers at the estancia's great house to discuss the news. A plague is raging among the worlds, and the leaders of Sanctity cannot simply ignore the strange fact that Grass alone among worlds remains untouched. If humanity is to survive, the reason must be discovered, and the people of Grass have been less than helpful. Thus Sanctity is sending an ambassador, in hopes of gaining cooperation through the development of personal connections with the aristocrats and their traditions of the Hunt.

Thus Marjorie Westriding Yrarier, horsewoman and wife to an aristocratic diplomat of Old Earth, comes to Grass. She is a woman in a difficult situation, in an unhappy marriage to a flagrantly unfaithful husband but repeatedly told by her Old Catholic priest that she must focus upon loving support of her husband in penance for her unhappiness at his philandering. She tries to find purpose for herself by the doing of charitable work among the illegals of St. Magdalens, third children born in a world that restricts couples to only two, yet bans any form of contraception. Theirs is a miserable lot, mired in ignorance and resentment because Sanctity's laws forbid any education for illegal thirds. If they can survive to their sixteenth birthday, at which point they're mature enough to travel through space, they will be taken to a harsh world known as Repentance which still needs new colonists. But getting them to that point is often an uphill battle, since they have no useful skills or anything to give their lives meaning. The only pleasure available to them is sex, but if they get pregnant (or get a girl pregnant, in the case of the boys), they'll be shot by the Population Police, no questions asked, no excuses accepted.

It's a miserable job, but Marjorie's come to feel that it would be a sin to simply lay it down because she can't take it any more. Thus she secretly welcomes the assignment to Grass because it's an honorable out, a way to quit the endless futile struggles of Breedertown without being a quitter. However, she also has more than a little trepidation about this strange world she and her family are being sent to.

Although Marjorie's been given an honorable exit from an unbearable burden, not everybody is. Rillibee Chime was orphaned as a child, and was taken in by Sanctity. As such, he must spend a period of years as a pledged acolyte, serving in Sanctity's vast headquarters, helping record all that goes on within its precincts. It's a mind-numbing task for a young man who was once able to run wild on the edge of the desert, companion of lizards and jackrabbits. He's keeping his sanity only by focusing on the fact that he only needs to get through two more years and he will be free.

In this sequence we learn some of the nature of Sanctity. It's an offshoot of the Latter Day Saints, an interesting aversion of the All Christianity Is Catholicism trope. The practice of baptism for the dead, and thus of tracing one's family history in order to perform proxy baptisms for one's relatives, has mutated into the storing of the names of every human being who's ever lived in giant computers, thus somehow ensuring their entrance into Heaven like some grand technological prayer wheel. Even prehistoric humans and proto-humans have had their names reconstructed by statistical methods so that they too can be entered into Sanctity for salvation.

And it is amidst this strange memetic mutation of an outlier form of Christianity that Rillibee toils, serving a faith he does not even believe. And finally the strain becomes more than he can bear, and he cracks, so publicly that it cannot be ignored. He is to be dismissed from his service -- but because Sanctity cannot risk having their unwilling acolytes learn that snapping is a way of escaping their pledged period and returning to freedom, he must be exiled to the mysterious Green Brotherhood, penitents who dwell in a strange abbey on Grass, far from the estancias of the aristocrats or the port at Common Town where the ordinary people of Grass dwell.

It is to the port that Marjorie and her family arrive, and where they meet their first Grassians and get their introduction to Grassian culture. We learn along with her a little more of the relationship between the aristocrats and the commoners, but very little about the Green Brotherhood. That we will see through the eyes of young Rillibee as he struggles to win a place for himself among the brothers. It's interesting to see the rites of passage he has to go through, particularly his climbing the watchtowers they've built to amuse themselves. I think Sherri S. Tepper has handled this subplot pretty well, and has avoided the problem of conflating a difficult rite of passage with actual bullying as appeared in Beth Bernobich's Passion Play.

Once Marjorie and her family are on Grass, they must be introduced to the aristocrats. Their first visit is to the bon Damfels family estancia, and we learn that they are in mourning for a daughter who was lost in the Hunt. It's pretty obvious to anybody who was paying attention to the sinister behavior of the hounds in the beginning that the daughter is Dimity, but powerful taboos prevent any open discussion of the situation. Marjorie soon discovers that powerful and mysterious taboos also govern discussion of the hunt as practiced on Grass, but the Terran horses her family has brought with them will be of no use in it.

And then comes the day of the hunt, in which the outworld aristocrats will witness it for the first time. Because they have no training in it, they will not ride, but will instead observe from the air in a silent-engined blimplike aircraft piloted by an older bon Damfels who was injured in the hunt and can no longer ride. There is something eerily fascinating, yet repulsive, in watching the silent coursing of these huge native animals, their human riders tiny as dolls upon their backs, across the vast prairies to the copse of trees where the foxen has laired up. Marjorie is relieved that she will not be required to ride, but her son and daughter are immediately entranced by the possibility of riding as equals with the local aristocracy, and insist that they must begin simulator training at once.

Thus Marjorie and her family are pulled in different directions yet again, but this time with dark and sinister overtones. It's becoming increasingly obvious that something very dire is going on, and it relates to the hunt. A naked young woman suddenly appears in Commontown, trying to carry a dead native lifeform onto a spaceship. When she is apprehended, she shows no response to her captors, as if her entire mind had been systematically burned out. She is then identified as a daughter of one of the aristocratic families, the other girl who was mentioned in that first scene as having disappeared while riding to the hounds.

Just as Marjorie is beginning to get a picture that something very bad is gong on, her daughter goes out to ride on her first hunt, and vanishes without a trace. Suddenly Marjorie's husband, who had been rather absorbed in his own fascination with the hunt, realizes with a shock that yes, something is very wrong here. Although the bon Damfels and other local aristocrats insist to him that the only proper response is to privately mourn his daughter's loss and then go on as if she never existed, he becomes determined to find her. Thus he precipitates a confrontation that reveals a whole network of deadly secrets rooted in the extraordinary biology of Grass.

First is the nature of the hounds, Hippae and foxen. Although their names suggest that they are analogs to the Terran animals, they are not mammals and do not have mammalian life cycles or reproductive patterns. Instead, it would be more productive to look toward the insects and their patterns of metamorphosis for a model, for the hounds, Hippae and foxen are in fact all various stages of a single organism, as are the peepers, giant grublike creatures that live in the grasslands. When Marjorie sees the secret dance of the Hippae, in which peepers shed their skins and become hounds, and mature hounds turn into Hippae, she realizes that the similarity in structure between Hippae and foxen may not be simply a cladistic relationship.

Meanwhile, her husband presses the issue of their daughter's disappearance until it turns into a violent duel with Stavenger bon Damfels on the backs of Hippae. Except it is becoming increasingly obvious that Stavenger and many of the other longtime riders are not in their right minds, to the point that it's almost like they were becoming the living puppets of their mounts. For the Hippae are not mere beasts, but creatures with intelligence, albeit of a cruel and vindictive sort, like children allowed to grow up without moral guidance. And when the duel ends with the death of bon Damfels' mount, it triggers an all-out war with the humans of Grass, both in the various scattered estancias and in the tight communities of Commontown and the Green Brotherhood.

It's a narrow thing, for the Hippae have had a long time to undermine humanity's presence on Grass, both in the social and the physical senses of the word. But humanity has its ability to co-operate in trust with other groups, and although the casualties are horrendous, in the end there will be honorable funerals for those who died in the fighting, and Commons and aristocratic bons will lie side by side as common defenders of humanity -- not just those who live on Grass, but all of humanity everywhere, whom the Hippae were targeting for genocide. Remember that young woman who was trying to carry a native lifeform onto a spaceship? It turns out that the terrible disease that has been laying waste to human worlds all over the galaxy is in fact the result of a virus that alters certain chemicals essential to human life such that they are no longer useful -- but persons who come to Grass can be cured because the virus also turns the useless forms back into the useful ones, if present in sufficient amounts in the environment.

The ending suggests the possibility of another novel in this fictional universe, dealing with the mysterious and extinct species known as the Arbai and Marjorie's travels through their gate network to visit other worlds where they once lived and had a civilization, before the Hippae targeted them for genocide. However, the ending is sufficiently satisfying that I could live without that book.

But I think it may be even more interesting to consider why I find the prospect of an unwritten book dealing with the exploration of the ruins of an extinct civilization almost more appealing than the book we actually have. Part of it seems to me to be the particular flaws of the book we have -- namely, that the plotlines dealing with the oppressive religion of Sanctity and of the oppressive gender roles which have wreaked so much havoc on Marjorie are far weaker than the plotline which deals with the mystery of the biology of Grass, and particularly the relationships of the peepers, hounds, Hippae and foxen, which our protagonists must unravel. While the first two storylines are pretty much predictable and standard (although not as stereotypical as some I have read -- at least some of the men and religious people do have redeeming qualities, rather than all being brutish caricature), the biology of Grass is truly innovative, particularly the surprise about how the Hippae became what they are.

Review posted October 31, 2012

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