Frank Herbert’s Dune casts a long shadow over science fiction. The epic masterpiece is a classic that towers above other genre works, and has many imitators. Grass by Sheri S. Tepper is a good example of a sci-fi book which wears its influences on its sleeve, as it borrows the single ecosystem planet, the quasi-feudal power structure and the sense of mysticism interwoven with science, but Tepper’s book has depth beyond this – she has created a rich world, as distinct and original as Herbert’s own.
In the future. humanity is dying rapidly due to the spread of an incurable plague. Only one place in the galaxy is free from sickness, the planet Grass. The Westriding-Yrarier family are sent to Grass to investigate the reason behind the lack of plague, and to discover whether it could lead to a cure. Upon their arrival on Grass, they find an insular society based on hereditary privilege. The wealthy ‘Bon’ families engage in the sport of riding Grass’ native mounts, fearsome beasts much larger than horses. However the mounts have a strange power over those ride them, one which the Bons refuse to discuss. This, coupled with the disappearance of several teenage girl riders, leads Marjorie Westriding-Yrarier to suspect that Grass and the mounts hold a dark secret.
At first glance, the world of Grass will look familiar to sci-fi readers. We have a future society more akin to the past than present, and an alien world populated by strange creatures. Tepper has created a fascinating mystery to inhabit her world; not a scientific quest, but a more a familiar intrigue, based on a closed community with a deadly secret. Grass is a community hostile to outsiders that hides murders behind a wall of silence. The real drama of Grass does not come from alien creatures or intergalactic plagues but from something that could occur in the real world.
Tepper has a distinct voice for a sci-fi author, not only as a woman writing in a male-dominated genre. Her background as a mystery and horror writer is evident as Grass sweeps you up and carries you along. In some ways it owes more to the closed militaristic community of Anthony Price’s Gunner Kelly than to Dune. Unlike most sprawling sci-fi epics, Grass doesn’t have a sprawling cast of characters, and all have real humans flaws and tragedies. Aside from having to deal with deadly plagues and monstrous beasts, Marjorie is confronted with a family under pressure.Female protagonists in sci-fi can be problematic as many are reduced to sex symbols.
Some authors try to avoid this with another trope: the aggressive warrior woman, a female protagonist with traditional male traits. However, it is important to remember that a strong character who is female is not necessarily a strong female character. Grass avoids both of the above problems; Marjorie is richly developed and faces real human problems. She is also a mother, a somewhat unusual trait for a sci-fi protagonist, something she shares with Dune‘s Lady Jessica Atreides.
The substance of Grass owes a lot to Dune. There is a family ripped apart by the circumstances of this strange world. There is the mystery of the planet’s animal inhabitants, and the degree or their intelligence. There is the wider picture of a future society centred on a single powerful figure backed up by a religious order. This said, Grass avoids many of the major pitfalls of attempting to imitate Herbert’s masterpiece. As a novel, it does not feel bogged down, the plot moves quickly and the sense that the central characters are under threat is ever present. It keeps the reader interested in the story and turning the pages. Eventually the implied threat becomes manifold in a series of heart-stopping action scenes which were among the most engrossing pieces of writing I have ever read.
Grass is a good example of a novel firing on all cylinders; it is well crafted, engaging and very exciting to read. Tepper’s great strength is her experience writing novels that are rooted in reality. It makes her characters easy to relate to and gives her narrative strong pace. In a few scenes towards the climax of the novel she really excels in writing gripping drama. Grass owes a large part of what it is to Dune but a closer look revels the book has more substance than others who have tried to mimic the best selling science fiction novel of all time.