Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Grass by Sheri Tepper

I was so behind book reviews for a while, and now I'm almost caught up. However, that means I'm now trying to review books I read a couple of weeks ago. I'm not sure how that will change this review. Let's find out!

Sheri Tepper has never been my favourite science fiction writer. I've only read two of her books, and while I thought The Gate to Women's Country was interesting feminist dystopia/utopia, I really disliked The Fresco. I thought the solutions in that one were very deus ex machina, (although the bit about impregnating right-to-life male senators with alien babies was very amusing), and that if you need to have unbiased aliens to come fix all your problems, and they'll do it perfectly and be perfectly understanding, you've just reintroduced the idea of God in alien clothes.

Grass is, I believe, from earlier in her career. So I wasn't sure what I would think of it when an online science fiction group I'm in and co-moderate decided to read it. And actually, I like it. I don't love it, but there are some interesting ideas here.

Marjorie is a Catholic on an Earth (and a galaxy) now dominated by what appears to have formerly been the Mormon church. As such, she's caught between two religious patriarchies, one of which controls her environment, and the other of which constrains her soul. Got the metaphor? Or the...symbolism? At any rate, she's caught, body and soul, in believing in a system that does her, as a woman, no favours whatsoever.

Of course, the third representative of the patriarchal trinity is present in the form of her husband, who wants complete emotional surrender, but allows her no space to be herself. So she holds herself aloof in order to salvage some threads of self.

Marjorie and her family are sent to the world of Grass, a strange human colony that seems the only one not affected by a plague sweeping through all of human civilization. The humans who have lived on Grass for a very long time have created a mock-feudal society, where the nobility spend much of their time in fox-hunts - but not fox hunts as we know them. These are much more sinister, and the creatures they ride and hunt are more than dumb beasts.

Outside the faux-feudal structure, the "peasants" have a much more interesting society that they simply fail to inform the "nobility" about. The Mormon-equivalent in this fictional universe, Sanctity, has a monastery for failed priest-trainees. Some of the work they do is to excavate alien ruins that are found all most known worlds.

The book centers on Marjorie's husband's attempts to insinuate himself into noble culture, which seems to be strange in ways completely unguessed. And on her much more successful efforts to get to know the commoners. The role of the "horses" in the hunt, the abilities of the "foxes," and the disappearance of young women during hunts all play a role in the subsequent events.

This is supposed to be a commentary on patriarchy, I'm sure, but given that we're not given any indication that the indigenous animals are gendered in anything like the same way humans are, it does strike me as curious that they pick young women exclusively. There's no indication what would make human female young more useful for their purposes than young men would be. It's a weird assumption of gendered roles that is in other ways not supported.

It's also a weird theme in two of the three Tepper books I've read that the human women can only find true emotional and sexual satisfaction from non-humans. Men seem to be constitutionally incapable of not oppressing the women around them, and aliens have none of that baggage. Of any sort of baggage related to gender or anything else that would make up our present ideas of intersectional identities. That's the idea, anyway. It's even there in a much different (non-alien) form in The Gate to Women's Country. Men are incapable of change, incapable of being partners, incapable of seeing women as equals. Pessimistic, and a bit depressing.

I'm also skeptical that we'd meet aliens that are blank slates and so totally understanding and fulfilling at the same time.

But for all that, this is a pretty solid book. The aliens are interesting, the galaxy under the continued thumb of religious patriarchy a bit heavy-handed, but intriguing for all that. It was definitely worth a read. And didn't frustrate me the way The Fresco did.

Booklinks:

I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

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