Sheri S. Tepper loves a good mélange. She's always stirring the word cauldron for a variation on the standard recipes, and using a fanciful spoon like broomsticks from Fantasia to give us one delightful taste after another. More often than naught, however, it seems these complex mixings of sidebar stories into the arterial plotting, plus a shaker or two of excess characters with a modicum of personality peppering landscapes that are divergent, alien, and elusive to visualize—well, it tastes overly-spiced, leaving the climax and resolution heavy with feeling mere accomplishment for just finishing the novel.
But I wouldn't change a single, solitary word of the marvelous alphabet soup of Grass.
Sure, there's problems. Author Tepper loves writing too much. Just look at her oeuvre. But everyone should read at least one of her novels. There's usually a pillow fight going on in the subtext flavoring an ecofeminist PoV without the pithy seasonings sometimes affecting the sex wars. Befittingly, father figures are adversarial and/or deluded, drawn by their hate and bigotry. And Grass' hunt-addicted aristocracy on their estates called estancias is certainly a glib-tipped dart at the historically-suffocating patriarchy of the Medieval Ages.
The settled protagonist is Marjorie Westriding Yrarier. She's got Nurture, Motherhood, Determination, Communication and Facilitation tags pinned to her lapels. The plot is similar to Griffith's 1992 Ammonite and dozens of others, in that observers are sent to figure out why Grass is the only planet in the human, one-hundred world universe that doesn't contain the plague that's been decimating mankind for the last twenty years. She's in a subservient marriage to Roderigo "Rigo" Yrarier, the sent ambassador and representative of the civilized worlds dominated by a religious/political ultra-conservatism inundated with reactionary, para-military philosophy and ruthlessness. Ironically, it calls itself Sanctity and offers its acolytes community and comfort with buzzword slogans like "Sanctity/Unity/Immortality", baked in typical Orwellian dissimulation. Then there's the "Moldies"(Bantam PB, ISBN 0553285653, 1993 ed., p.40), extremists who want to cull the population very, very drastically and in opposition to Sanctity's enslavement policy of the overpopulated masses. But with the stagnation implied by the quip, "Nothing grows. Nothing is acknowledged to die"(p.37), Sanctity's cheap labor force is being euthanized by this inexorable pestilence. At this point, Sanctity's forthcoming despots don't want to stop this species-destroying plague as much as they just want to survive it. They desire the secrets of Grass to be, ah, legalized, but only for a chosen few.
Down on this very lucky planet unique incongruities flip its biosphere, the most radical being "indigenous variants"(p.90) where the core animal is big, sentient, even somewhat psychic, and "think they have a right to kill everything but themselves"(1). Known as hippos—I mean, Hippae—they evolve a multi-metamorphosis I can't adequately explain, except that the important end result is a species known as Foxen who are invisible and telepathic. A "moving mirage of trembling air"(p.387), Foxen are the only other intelligent beings man has found in the universe, and they are smarter than we are. Another important fact is that although they transmogrify from Hippae, the Hippae suffer from major denial that they are killing a form of themselves.
This weird intrinsic anomaly has also trapped the human colonists into a deadly variation on the traditional English manorhouse fox hunt. Originally a prestige-based harking back to aristocratic governance, estates were built on Grass by "pretenders of nobility"(p.88) who had enough clout to escape the overpopulated, human worlds. Pompous, proud, and not terribly educated or vocation orientated, the "bons" work at being waited upon and play by turning killing into a sport. Lame to the Hippae's psychic whispering of genocidal encouragements, the families of quasi-aristocrats mount these creatures like horses, and, along with another species called Hounds(2), hunt down Foxen until they're treed and killed.
Adding multiplicity to the plot is another race once on Grass called the Arbai. Arriving in transporters, there is not much known about them except they were benign beings who embraced the Hippae and went extinct because of it. That "they seem to have had no concept of evil,"(p.349) didn't help them much against homicidal monsters. The Foxen floated along and let it happen, which led to a collective guilt and their current widespread state of despair. "They felt responsible without wanting to be responsive"(p.339) and went passive against the Hippae. The Arbai left two ruins: a summer tree town filled with long-dead video holograms memorializing their existence, and a winter bunker, currently being excavated by The Green Brothers. And they are finding a lot of dead bats.
There are four groups of human habitants on Grass, each one reeling out characters of importance. Topping the list is Marjorie and Rigo Trarier and their two children, Tony and Stella. This is the new ambassador's family and entourage—including his mistress—and is the trigger group that fires the important action of the plot. Marjorie is the novel's Artemis, and Rigo is her emotional jailer, always punching the pride and masculinity buttons on his machismo card. The kids are mini mirrors of their parents. The key to this group is emancipation.
The second hub spewing characters is the penitential encampment of Friars digging up the Arbai city. Most important are Brother Mainoa who makes initial contact with the Foxen, and Brother Rillibee Chime, notable as an example of a New Age, enlightened man. The Green Brothers frairy offers up two minor villains: Bro Fuasoi disseminator of plague death via Moldy doctrine, and Highbones a cirque du soleil wannabe wearin' the coonskin cap of the bully boy from 1983's A Christmas Story.
Third base is the eight estancias, home to the intransigent pseudo-nobles and their small, attached villages of farmers and servants. Theirs are shallow lives orbiting two, obsessive components: "feeding one another puffery"(p.147) and The Hunt. They're a fascinating conclave of madness, especially when their daughters don't return from the Hunt, only to wander in days later, naked, brain wiped, and sexually violated by swamp animals.
The final group is Commoner Town, divided between the local craftsman and merchants(3) and the transient commerce of a Commercial District and active Space Port. They are all minor characters that function like cairns to keep steady on the plot trail.
Resembling the irascible Hippae throwing a temper tantrum with their dead bats, the novel drops many hot topics through rose-colored filters like Mercy (p.358), Original Sin or just Plain Sin (p.251), real Conversations with God (p.353), Exegesis' verity (throughout), and even sex with Aliens (p.337). But overshadowing it all is a plea for understanding, compromise, clemency and equality within the social/sexual relationship between men and women, and, to some extent, the Earth. Execution of storylines showing this thematic content parallel themselves like mirrors turned into each other: the Foxen's wishy-wash of Hippae atrocities, including the Arbai's fatal mistake; Hippae mental domination over the Aristos; unwavering Feudal structure of the estancias; Marjorie's interconnection with Don Quixote—her horse—exampling proper intimacy and direction; the primary relationship of the novel being Marjorie and Rigo's crumbling marriage illustrating all the pesky details of this headbasher's dance around dominance and compliance, intimacy and manipulation, protection and it price.
It is not a completely fair declaration, however. Marjorie is a fully-fleshed, very bondable character with actualized emotional range making pro-active decisions that aren't easy but necessary. Rigo, and in-cahoots daughter Stella, are cutouts lipsynching tired, male-dominated restrictions, comparatively. Following that thinking, Eugenie—Rigo's sideways sex puppy—is a cliched lump of wifey-poo hopefulness, and the sympatric male minor casts are all Dudley Do-Rights from the ecofeminist classroom.
And, if you're wondering, yeah, it was the dead bats that started the whole, stinkin' thing.
3) They did "old-fashioned things, things nobody else did—woodworking, pottery, gardening, making things with their hands, growing things in the soil."(p.129) Ah, the Elysium Fields for modern technological malcontents!
A review of Tepper's 2003 The Companions can be found here.