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Grass: SF Masterworks 48 by Sheri S Tepper
(Gollancz, £6.99, 540 pages, paperback, first published 1989, this edition 14 February 2002; ISBN: 1-85798-798-5.)

Tepper's Grass is, with hindsight, one of the most significant works of 1980s SF: a spacious, well-plotted, wise and thought-provoking book with an exceptionally cover scanwell-drawn central character and a beautiful twist on the 'beauty and the beast' mythos at its heart. Gollancz's reissue of the work, in a characteristically handsome 'SF Masterworks' paperback is long overdue. Those who have not read this powerful masterpiece should be herded with cattle-prods out to the bookshops until that situation is remedied; those who have read it should take this opportunity to re-read the work. Like all great literature, it repays re-reading and close attention.

The human population of the planet Grass is dominated by the aristocratic 'bons', an elite caste of close-knit families whose life is dominated by hunting -- not hunting foxes with horse and hound as on Earth, but hunting a more fearsome alien 'foxen' (a shapeless blur of teeth and claws) with alien 'hippae', velociraptor-like creatures of great cunning and intelligence. The world is close-knit and doesn't welcome outsiders, but it seems to hold the cure for a galactic plague, and so the horse-loving Earthwoman Marjorie Westriding Yrarier and her family travel to the planet to try to insinuate themselves into the world of the 'bons' and learn the secret of Grass's immunity. Westriding's journey towards this knowledge also unlocks the mystery of the circle of life on the planet, and mirrors her own ongoing estrangement from her unsatisfactory husband, via the possibility of a love affair with one of the bons, to a startling but much more satisfying conclusion. The apparently savage foxen are revealed as victims, the persecuting hippae as diabolic, and the relationship between the two hides an intriguing secret.

Amongst its many other qualities, Grass an unusually literate piece of SF. In particular, the experience of re-reading this work brings out what struck me as three prominent literary influences on the novel, all from classic American literature. This reading of the book in terms of 'literary influence' (as opposed to reading it as most critics do, in the context of environmentalist and feminist discourses) is, I think, appropriate, because this is a book intimately involved in questions of lineage and descendance, and one therefore for which its literary inheritance is going to be peculiarly important.

Not that Tepper hides her strongest influences. Her vividly imagined prairie world, covered entirely (apart from some small exceptions) with various sorts of grasses strikes the reader immediately as what the Washington Post Book World called, on the book's first publication, 'a kinder, gentler Dune'. Dune, of course, stands at the head of a fertile sub-genre of SF: what we might call the monocrop novel, works set on a world characterized by one over-riding environmental circumstance. Dune's planetwide sandy deserts function as the locus classicus for this sort of novel; but worlds covered wholly in ice (such as Le Guin's Gethen), in water (Robert Silverberg's Face of the Waters), in jungle, in small islands, in salt, marsh, mountains and forest have all provided SF writers with interesting locales. Tepper replaces Herbert's barren desert with planetwide grass, but the parallels are unavoidable.

As in Herbert's novel, a fundamentally religious and only secondarily environmental story is focused on the interactions between native humanity, aristocratic immigrant humans, and indigenous and monstrous alien life, acted out on a world which holds the sole solution to a galactic problem (the cure for the plague in Tepper's work, spice in Dune). What the parallel with Dune points out to us is the self-reflexivity of Grass: this is a book primarily about the American experience, even more obviously than is Herbert's novel, because the physical elements of the plot are direct correlatives of frontier American experience. It is a Great American Novel from the period (between Dos Passos's USA and DeLillo's Underworld) when so many great writers were fascinated with the project of writing the Great American Novel.

A straightforward reading of Grass might describe it as concerning escape from religious persecution to an unspoilt world, a world characterized by its grasslands, across which the best mode of travel is by horseback: a paradisiacal new world, but one in which the newcomers are endangered by aboriginal life lurking in the plains and prairies to waylay them. An analogue to the original white settlers of America, in other words. I wouldn't want to lay too much stress on such a reading: the book is much more complicated than a simple allegory for the colonization of America, and Tepper would surely be horrified at the suggestion that she had consciously demonized the Native American population in the bestial, violent form of the Hippae. Nonetheless, in Tepper's representation of the attractions and perils of wilderness there is the unmistakable smack of Classic Frontier ideology, albeit one modified to shift the burden of heroism from a representative male to a representative female figure, Westriding herself -- her very name seems to hint at a female cowboy persona, riding around the 'wild west'. And the Hippae, with their tribal gatherings at which complex war dances are executed ('prancing in intricate patterns upon the cavern floor, interweaving and paralleling, twos and fours and sixes becoming eighteen, the files of them turning and braiding in complicated design', 138), not to mention the stiff sharp spines along their neck like a red-indian head-dress -- the Hippae do have some of the attributes of Native American tribesmen, at least as such peoples have been represented in mainstream American literary and cultural traditions. The figuring of the Hippae as monstrous, 'joy-to-kill-strangers' savages also has its parallels in Western representations of Native Americans, of course.

This harking back to Frontier ideology is an aspect of the book's indebtedness to two classics from the American Renaissance: Moby Dick and Leaves of Grass. Both these texts, of course, are in part about the definition of a new nation, a new world, and Tepper is able to draw on both to anchor her own world-inventing to a solidity. We might argue that Melville's great novel has been one of the inescapable influences on all twentieth-century American literature; and Tepper is clearly aware of this half of her inheritance, sometimes almost self-consciously so (as with the way Highbones introduces himself for the first time, aping the famous opening of Moby Dick: 'the foremost among those standing ... struck a posture and announced, "Call me Highbones!"', 209). The oceanic qualities of the grass-covered planet are amongst the first points made by the narrative:

Millions of square miles of it; numberless wind-whipped tsunamis of grass, a thousand sun-lulled caribbeans of grass, a hundred rippling oceans, every ripple a gleam of scarlet or amber, emerald or turquoise, multicolored as rainbows ... Sapphire seas of grass with dark islands of grass [7]

The scale, of course, is also human: this planet is all grassland (we are told) as if grass stretched all the way from the tsunamis of the South Seas to the Caribbean; the multifariousness part of Tepper's larger project to make variety and interest out of a terrain (and a social set-up) actually characterized by its monotony, its unchangingness. She does this wonderfully, of course; our interest never flags across the whole of this big book. More than this, by setting up and then reinforcing this sort of language -- in which grass is described in terms of sea, solid in terms of fluid -- Tepper manages elegantly to suggest a slipperiness, an ambiguity without having to preach it at us. Dimity bon Damfels, her mind wandering from the agony of her first hunt, comes closest to making this subtle descriptive subversiveness explicit.

Dimity had once seen a picture of a real ocean when she went with Rowena to Commoner Town to pick up some imported fabric. It had been hanging on a fabric merchant's wall, a picture of a sea on Sanctity [Earth]. She remembered saying at the time how much the imaged expanse of water looked like grass. Someone had laughed at this, saying it was the grass that looked like water. How could one know which looked like which? [25]

The point seems to be one about cultural relativism, an appropriate one in the scheme of the book, particularly when articulated from the consciousness of a scion of the arch-conservative aristocrat rigidity of the bons. But the parallel is more than simply a surface one (Dimity goes on to suppose 'that one could drown in water' as a means of differentiating them, only to qualify herself: 'musing on this, Dimity surprised herself with the thought that one might almost drown in grass as well', 25).

Grass makes deep sense as an ocean planet: the Hippae, for instance, are more like terrestrial sharks than any land-animal. On a symbolic level, the image of the sea, with its separation between explicit surface and hidden depth exactly captures the situation on Tepper's planet, where things are very much not as they seem. And the notion by which Grass elaborates a Pequod-style trek does parallel land and water. Marleen Barr [in her critical study Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond (1993), 130] notes the parallel with Moby Dick, seeing Grass as a deliberate inversion of the earlier text: instead of seeking the great white whale in order to kill it (as the Hippae and their riders do with the foxen), Marjorie falls in love with her Moby Dick, the queasily shape-uncertain foxen she knows as 'First', and at the very end of the book sets off to explore some distant world with him. Barr quotes Leslie Fiedler's famous study of nineteenth-century American fiction (Love and Death in the American Novel) to argue that Tepper rewrites the classic American novel away from its obsession of male-male relationships as the primary emotional truth.

Marjorie learns that her ultimate emotional experience involves loving foxen while she is located outside patriarchy, not hunting them to prove her manhood. She chooses to love a male Other to manhood whose species is persecuted in the name of proving manhood. She experiences splendor in the grass with an alien who is the counterpart to Melville's hunted white whale. Grass is certainly 'not one of the "boy's books"' that 'proffers a chaste male love as the ultimate emotional experience' [quoting Fieldler].

Like Dune, then, Grass is a novel about a world as an analogue for the Frontier American experience, a novel about the human relation to the environment. Like Moby Dick, it is a novel about the hunt, both a literal hunt (for foxen) and the metaphorical hunt (for a cure to the plague) which inverts our expectations about hunting. On another level, a narrative level, the book is a hunt too: we as readers follow the story to uncover the secrets that link Peepers, Hounds, Hippae and Foxen. Like both these works it is a big book, a world-spanning and mythopoeic work.

The third literary antecedent relevant to the novel is Whitman's Leaves of Grass -- an intertextual reference almost too facetiously obvious to be worth mentioning if it were not for the fact that Tepper's Grass is so redolent with allusions to Whitman's collection (and 'Song of Myself' in particular) as to suggest direct homage. Tepper picks up on Whitman's central image, quoting one of the Biblical passages that is resonant in his poetic text as her own epigraph: 'A voice says, "Cry!" And I said, "What shall I cry?" All flesh is grass...' [Isaiah 40:6]. Of course, for Whitman as for Tepper grass is less an emblem of mortal transience, and more a focus of pantheistic wonder. Like Whitman's work, Tepper's novel is intermittently awestruck at the beauty and variety of the (wholly alien) leaves of grass that cover her planet. More specifically, like the 'Walt Whitman' narrator-figure of 'Song of Myself', Marjorie Westriding finds in 'grass' a focus for meditation and growing self-knowledge. The novel, of course, is a bildungsroman, the story of how Marjorie's religious doubts and her trials on Grass help her to grow into a new awareness of herself. Indeed, the fact that neither Tepper as narrator nor any of her characters spend any time exploring the rich symbolic and metaphorical significances of grass may be due to the fact that Whitman has so famously already done so:

A child said What is the grass fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic
[Whitman, 'Song of Myself', 99-106]

This famous passage rehearses, as it were, the predominant themes of Grass exactly: grass as an emblem for, firstly, individual identity and self-discovery; secondly for religious enquiry (the Othello allusion in 'God's handkerchief' picking up also Grass's repeated trope of the sexual jealousy of men, which Marjorie is able to short-circuit by pairing off with the god-like foxen); thirdly the issue of childhood, and in particular a parent's relation to her children; and fourthly the general epistemological and hermeneutic question that frames the whole narrative.

In Grass this decoding and interpreting is focused on reading the hieroglyphs of the Arbai (an ancient and wise alien race that has disappeared without a trace) and determining a cure for the plague. Other questions of epistemological anxiety (Marjorie's Catholic doubting particularly) are explored only secondarily. In Grass's sort-of sequels (Raising the Stones, 1991 and Sideshow 1992) this questioning becomes, to quote the latter book, 'the Great Question of Man ... what is the ultimate destiny of mankind?', and finally 'What shall we become now we are no longer man?' But this decoding the quotidian, reading the heiroglyph found in the apparently mundane blade of grass, is exactly Tepper's aesthetic. All her fiction uses SF props always to examine the emotional and spiritual lives of individuals; the one is subordinated to the other and not vice versa.

For instance, Marjorie's first sexual (or pseudo-sexual) encounter with the foxen is a crucial moment in the narrative development.

Claws touched her, gently, drawing down her naked flesh like fingernails, sensation running behind them, shivering ... the edge of his tongue touched her naked thigh, sliding like a narrow, flaming serpent into her crotch. [407]

This sort of 'Story of O' rhetoric is, perhaps, a little awkward; but the erotic encounter, and (significantly) the equation of this vision of the Masculine with landscape (she wakes up 'lying on the short grass against his chest, between his forelegs, cushioned in the softness of his belly hair' -- in not on we notice, and the parallel between grass and fur is one made elsewhere in the novel), is surely derived from Whitman:

Blind loving wrestling touch, sheath'd hooded sharp-tooth'd touch!
Did it make you ache so, leaving me?
Landscapes projected masculine, full-sized and golden. ['Song of Myself', 642-7]

Parallels with Leaves of Grass are many, and there is little point in my listing them all here. The point is the way Tepper's book specifically engages with these various classics of American literature, and the way therefore this becomes a novel about the American experience, its dangers and its potentials. In one respect only does Tepper's vision depart from American ideology as it is conventionally conceived, and that is in the protagonist's (and the author's) Catholicism. There seems to be an opposition in this text between the old world and the new that represents the latter's belatedness as necessarily ersatz.

The Yrariers (the family Marjorie has married into) are from Spain, European aristocrats from the Old World who believe in the Old religion (consistently called 'Old Catholicism' in the novel). They hunt in the fashion of European (in fact, English) aristocracy: dressed in red, on horses, after a fox: Stella's first experience on the Grassian hunt so blanks her mind that she imagines herself back in one such Old World Earth hunt. Against these Old World protagonists are set the new world of Grass-America, with its imitation aristocrats and its imitation hunt that copies the forms of the old but turns out to be a perversion of it. As against the Old Catholic religion of Marjorie, and her Old Catholic religious anxieties, there is Sanctity, a powerful religion of fanaticism and hypocrisy dedicated to the suppression of individual identity. In fact Sanctity is a rather clunking satire on Mormonism, with its mammoth project of listing names: 'in the depths of Sanctity is the name of every man and woman who has ever lived in all of human history ... Every day, in each of a thousand chapels, parts of the list are read by the machines, read aloud, dawn to dusk, dusk to dawn. When the list has been read in its entirety, the machines start over' [53]. In other words, the European religion is pitted against the most distinctively American sect of Christianity.

Actually, though, Tepper's oppositions are never as straightforward as this binary suggests. Westriding's Catholicism is as at fault, in its own way, as Sanctity's pseudo-Mormonism; enslaved to an irrelevant past, misogynist, hidebound. And, as with her other literary antecedents, Tepper draws on another lesser-known but nonetheless classic American novel as inspiration for the theological problems of her protagonists. In James Blish's A Case of Conscience (1958) a Jesuit priest is sent to an apparently Edenic planet, a world whose alien inhabitants live in perfect peace and harmony with one another, and yet who have no notion and no conception of God. An Eden without a God -- is this seeming paradise actually an alien paradise, or could it be a trap by the Devil? Blish's aliens, faced with religion, adopt it passionlessly and follow its logic as they read it to crucify their missionary; fall and parodic salvation collapsed into a single moment. Tepper's Edenic aliens, the Arbai, have long since died out, and cannot have encountered Christianity. Their problem is that, lacking any sense of evil themselves they cannot comprehend it in others, and they are slaughtered by the diabolic Hippae. They exist now only as holographic representation in the unspoiled forest-dwelling of the last Arbai village.

The moral topography of the novel is significant, of course. The Arbai's very name, with its suggestions of trees, is not arbitrary: it is their woodland village in one of Grass's rare swampy forest-areas that provides sanctuary for the Marjorie and the others against the onslaught of Hippae. As against the threatening terrain of the grasslands, in which humans are at risk from Hippae attack and from fire, forests and trees figure as home and safety in the novel's terms for foxen and humanity both. Rillibee Chime's ecstatic reaction to the forest ('heaven ... died and gone to heaven') is matched by narratorial description of unusually overwritten poeticism ('A small wind came through the trees, bearing a cloud of winged pink blossoms. When the wind died, they perched all together, turning a sapling into flame. Larger wings the color and scent of melons beat slowly from trunk to trunk, the creatures at rest assuming the shape of cups in which golden light pulsed ... darts of violet and a blue so pale it was almost white', 286-7). Location, and landscape, are linked in the novel's aesthetic scheme to identity and morality: the classic environmentalist equation. It is this, I think, specifically American and intertextual form of 'environmentalism' that informs Tepper's work, not the more nebulously conceived discourse of 'green politics' that critics usually invoke. Almost all of Tepper's novels are concerned with American environments first, and environments more generally only secondarily: which is to say nothing more than that she is a great American novelist first and foremost. And it is out of her dialectical engagement with three strong texts by American male authors, Dune, Leaves of Grass and Moby Dick, that this particular Tepper novel produces its feminist perspective. The complexity and fertility of her cross-textual references weaves a novel of unusual depth and subtlety. It is one of the genuine, and one of the most genuine, classics of twentieth-century SF.

Review by Adam Roberts.

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© Adam Roberts 11 May 2002