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Grass by Sheri S. Tepper4 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsSheri S. Tepper was one of fantasy and science fiction’s unique voices. Her novels were often controversial, at times even off-putting. But for fans who like their speculative fiction to be a feast of ideas, they were rich with tales of human societies in turmoil, both internally — in regards to power dynamics, gender roles, faith and ideology — and externally, as humanity encounters other forms of life and wrestles with new and unfamiliar knowledge.

The Hugo-nominated Grass is widely considered to be among Tepper’s two or three best books. It’s excellent, though definitely flawed. But the flaws aren’t enough to diminish the things it does so well. A sprawling far-future science fiction quasi-western, it’s the story of a frontier planet where the fragile interactions between settlers and natives are spiraling towards chaos. But it’s also the story of one woman’s journey towards her spiritual and intellectual emancipation from a life controlled by an oppressive culture and the role she was brought up to play as a woman in it. Make no mistake: Tepper is in full fuck-the-patriarchy form here, but we’re not burdened with any polemics. Grass is first and foremost an often jaw-dropping widescreen cinematic melodrama that, in its best moments, is as thoughtful as it is thrilling. A well-made streaming series could do wonders with it.

Human civilization has spread among the stars, most of it still under the sway of Sanctity, a theocracy entrenched on old Earth that, in true theocratic form, suppresses knowledge in the pursuit of power. As a terrifying plague with a 100% fatality rate begins sweeping through all the colonized worlds, Sanctity maintains an official narrative of denying its existence (hmm, that sounds familiar). But Sanctity’s own leader, the Hierarch, Carlos, is dying of it. Secretly, the church dispatches an emissary, Rodrigo Yrarier (an Old Catholic who happens to be the Hierarch’s nephew), to the one world where it seems the plague is incapable of spreading. That world is known as Grass.

Grass has drawn numerous comparisons to Dune, mainly for its premise of a world defined by a single ecosystem being the only source of something indispensable to humanity’s survival. Tepper adds to this an exploration of religious notions of good and evil, sin and redemption. Right from the jump, Tepper is offering some absolute god-tier world building. In a brief opening chapter setting the scene, Tepper shows a command of language that is breathtaking and poetic without being pretentious, as she describes endless prairies, not just amber waves of grain, but rippling oceans of grass of every color under the rainbow and every size and texture, from little mats of mossy scrub to towering stalks like forests. Few SF novels have invited us to immerse ourselves in the physicality of their worlds quite like this.

Rigo travels to Grass with his wife, Marjorie Westriding, and their two children as well as a full retinue. Rigo has drawn the derision of some critics for being a caricature of the entitled, controlling, but deeply mediocre patriarch, so indifferent to his own hypocrisy he sees no problem in seething with jealous rage that Marjorie might be attracted to another man while he himself has brazenly included his own mistress in his entourage. And I suppose I’d agree, if recent years hadn’t repeatedly proven that powerful arrogant men who suck at everything except sucking are a dime a dozen. But it’s Marjorie who’s the story’s heroine, and it’s mostly through her viewpoint that we see events unfold.

Rigo and Marjorie have been chosen as emissaries to Grass because Marjorie is a world champion equestrian, and among the human colonists on the planet are a group of self-styled aristocratic families who think of themselves like the landed gentry of the past. Calling themselves the “bons,” these families actually just huddle in their walled estancias, while the actual running of the colony is left to all the normies living in Commoner Town, where they have a spaceport and a hospital and trading posts and bars and restaurants and all the things actually interesting to people who have a life. The bons enjoy the old-time English sport of fox hunting, of all things. But on Grass, it’s a little different.

Grass is home to a species called the Hippae, which can best be described as “what if velociraptors but make them horses.” The bons ride the Hippae, who just turn up at the estancias on their own, in a hunt through the grasslands for massive telepathic invisible tree dwelling creatures called foxen. It’s immediately apparent none of these creatures are mindless beasts, but highly intelligent and cunning alien beings with intentions of their own. But the bons just live in the thrall of their aristocratic fantasies, despite the fact the Hippae occasionally do things like kidnapping their daughters for no known reason.

I still haven’t said much about Marjorie, even though she’s a remarkable protagonist whose journey towards greater understanding of the many mysteries of Grass strengthens her growing alienation from, and inspiration to leave, a restrictive life mired in a dogmatic culture of ignorance, misogyny and a refusal to abandon the past. But so many other characters make a strong impression as well, such as Rillibee Chime, a young acolyte banished to Grass by Sanctity for refusing to shut up about the plague, which killed his whole family. Rillibee joins a group of penitents called the Green Brothers, who are excavating the ruined city of an ancient alien race called the Arbai, whose inexplicably abandoned cities remain on many worlds, and whose disappearance plays a key role in understanding the link between Grass and the plague.

Grass is a sprawling epic of worlds in collision, and people in collision with those worlds, with their beliefs and their true desires, and finally each other. As I said, it’s not without its problems. Hard science nerds will probably roll their eyes at some of the revelations about the Hippae and other native species, as well as the how the plague works, with Tepper seemingly just pulling her own wacky pseudo-biology out of a hat. But in the context of the action, it’s not impossible to allow yourself the suspension of disbelief. Taken in full, Grass is an extraordinary achievement that tests the limits of what science fiction allows our imaginations to consider. And if the scene where Marjorie experiences her first orgasm riding on the back of a wild foxen can be reasonably judged as laying it on just a bit thick, well, all I can say is go, girl!