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Deeds Not Words

Grass  (Arbai, volume 1)

By Sheri S. Tepper 

23 Jun, 2016

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I’m not a huge fan of Sheri S. Tepper, which is why I’ve only now read her 1990 novel, Grass. Not even the 1991 Hugo nomination was enough to tempt me. Why read it now? Someone commissioned this review. I apologize if the result isn’t quite what they expected.

Grass is the first volume in Tepper’s Arbai trilogy; it is set on the planet after which the novel is named. Comparatively few humans call Grass home. There are the bons, self-styled aristocrats, obsessed with hunting and indifferent to the outside world; there are the port city Commoner Town and the friary of Green Brothers. Not much to attract off-world visitors, particularly in an era when the dominant Great Power, Earth-based Sanctity, sees colonies as hotbeds of apostasy and chaos. 

But it is of some interest that Grass seems to be the only world where people do not die of a mysterious plague. This not-officially-acknowledged disease seems likely to wipe out the entire human race1. While the theocrats of Sanctity are comfortable with the idea of a mass cull, particularly of heretics, heathens, and non-believers, they would just as soon not see humanity, including themselves, go extinct. 

Marjorie Westriding Yrarier and her estranged husband Rigo are tapped to take a closer look at Grass. They are selected because officials hope that their equestrian background will endear them to the bons. It’s not a terrible idea, although Marjorie soon notices some subtle differences between the old hunting cultures of old England and of Grass. For one thing, the bon’s mounts are closer to kaiju than horses, the misnamed hounds are equally alien, and the deadly foxen they hunt are nowhere near as endearing as Terrestrial foxes. In fact, the whole affair is so dangerous that outsiders cannot understand why the bon are so insistent that the hunts continue.

Grass has other mysteries as well. For example, like many of the habitable worlds the humans have settled, it was once home to an alien civilization called the Arbai. Nobody is sure what wiped out the Arbai. The Arbai on Grass seem to have been subjected to two winnowings, one fast and one slow; perhaps some survived one or the other, but none of the Arbai survived both. 

What Marjorie will discover is that yes, there is a reason humans on Grass do not catch the plague. What is not clear is whether or not she and the other humans will have the chance to put what they learn to good use before they are silenced forever by Grass’ true masters.


Fair warning: I suspect my interpretation of this novel is coloured by essays like this one and interviews like this one2, not to mention the vast gulf between Tepper’s personal brand of misanthropy and my own. Although Grass was written decades before the essay and the interview to which I just now linked, Tepper has held similar views for a very, very long time, views shaped by having worked for CARE and then for Planned Parenthood-World Population (a 1960s offshoot of PP that advocated relaxed abortion laws). Tepper appears to have emerged from the experience outraged at the policy-makers responsible for laws curtailing reproductive choice for women — but also soured enough by her work that she evinces a striking callousness towards the victims of those restrictive policies. 

In the world of Grass, for example, women on Earth are trapped between the draconian population control laws that make more than two children illegal, denied basic services and consigned to hellish lives, and the official faith, Sanctity, which makes it extremely difficult to obtain the means to avoid pregnancy or end it. It’s a sadly believable situation. I would not have to look far to find contemporary analogs, such as poor women denied birth control, then castigated for having kids. 

I cannot help but notice that the victims are not portrayed particularly sympathetically. By the time the book opens, Marjorie has come around to suspecting that the people she is trying to help would be better off dead. 

It’s possible to read Grass as a fun-house mirror of Mormon mythology, something that might not have occurred to me if Sanctity didn’t seem to have been inspired by the Church of the Latter Day Saints. You will probably be happier if you don’t choose to read Grass through that particular lens, at least if you know the backstory to the Curse of the Lamanites. The true masters of Grass fall (well, in one case fell) into three alignments: Always Chaotic Evil, Too Good for This Sinful Earth, and Useless Good. I am sad to say that being too virtuous to survive and being too principled to actually do anything means that it’s the first group who set policy. It also means that this is a novel where the only moral short-term choice is to massacre the natives3.

Modern readers may find aspects of the plague plot rather odd, but Tepper seems to be drawing on HIV/AIDs care in the 1980s. In those days, the prognosis for people with the disease was very poor. At the same time, governments were reluctant to even acknowledge AIDS. This meant that even though there was a lethal disease spreading through the population, the powers-that-be were reluctant to promote basic prophylactic measures that might prevent it (condoms! condoms!) because admitting the spread of disease and explaining the preventatives would be just too embarrassing and polarizing. It was simpler to cross one’s fingers and trust that the disease would remain confined to populations that those in power despised (gays! gays! and Haitians). People curious about this moment in history would be well advised to hunt down a copy of And the Band Played On.

I am just going to walk quickly past the subplot wherein (some) plague victims deliberately spread the disease. 

Another way to look at this book is as an argument that the finest principles in the world are no good if they do not lead to constructive action. It’s even worse if those lofty beliefs blind the holder to the existence of pure, unmitigated evil. This is a Tepper novel and there will be pure evil with which peaceful coexistence is completely impossible. Also, at some point you’re going to need some applied eugenics. 

This was very much not my sort of thing, but awards and sales figures tell me that I am very much in the minority. Grass can be purchased here.

  1. Yet another example of an SFnal plague with a one hundred percent infection and mortality rates. This one manages to do it to two completely unrelated species from entirely different planets. But I guess the stakes would not be high enough if we were only talking the 80 – 95% of the post-Columbian Exchange epidemics.
  2. A certain former customer of mine will point out that back in the 1980s I was complaining that the male protagonist in the Ettison duology was exceedingly stupid. That was actually a different category of complaint: I think people can be forgiven for not believing in the supernatural the first time they encounter it. I am less forgiving the second time, especially when the person warning them is the same person who saved them from the demon in the first book.
  3. Followed by a vigorous eugenics program because really, a Tepper novel without eugenics is like a day without paper-cuts.

    The backstory to What Went Wrong on Grass reminded me in a weird way of the evolutionary backstory of the antagonists in Poul Anderson’s Satan’s World. It just goes to show that you should promptly eradicate your mutants, lest racial purity be lost.