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The Moral Responsibilities of Aliens
on 16 November 2003
Grass presents a very interesting alien world, one where the entire planet is covered by grasses of various kinds except for small treed areas, with a very original set of aliens. The Hippae and their associated Hounds are the type of thing that can give you nightmares, an enlarged, horrific parody of horses, capable of mentally controlling those around them, with a totally egocentric and blood-thirsty attitude. And the human society that has formed around the Hippae is also intriguing, somewhat modeled on the South American estancias, but with a strong English manor element, as the humans use the Hippae as mounts for the Hunt, a direct parody of the sport of fox hunting, with the object of the Hunt being the Foxen, a creature never really seen in its entirety, but only glimpsed from the corners of the eyes. The ecology and relationships of the various species of the planet form the major scientific underpinnings of this novel, relationships that are somewhat surprising and very interesting.
Into this world come Marjorie Westriding, her husband Rigo, her children Stella and Tony, Rigo's mistress Eugenie, and the family Catholic priests, sent as ambassadors from Sanctity, the controlling religious body on Earth, to investigate why Grass is the only known planet that does not seem to be infected with a fatal plague that is slowly wiping out humanity. The novel's action is driven by the consequences of family learning about the strange social structures and alien life forms of the planet.
While Marjorie, the main character, if fairly well drawn with a fair amount of depth, most of the other characters are very much stick figures that are supporting spear carriers only. This is a pity, as Rigo, Stella, and the dom Sylvan show intimations of being intriguing people, but they are never portrayed in enough depth to make them come alive. The total cast of characters is fairly large, and at later stages in the book it becomes difficult to remember just who each one is due to their limited portrayal.
Grass is at least partially an investigation of religion, faith, and original sin for both humans and for two different alien races. As such, it invites some comparison with other science fiction works that have dealt with these themes - Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz, Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead, and the one closest in theme to this, James Blish's A Case of Conscience. Unfortunately, Grass does not meet the high level shown by these other books, as the crisis of faith experienced by Marjorie and the Foxen is dealt with somewhat shallowly. There is little deep explication of the problems, ambiguities, and paradoxes that entail from the concept of original sin applying to an alien race that were so well investigated by Blish's work. Marjorie's own changing concept of God from the traditional Catholic picture to one where humans are mere instruments of God's will, a virus that He unleashed to perform a specific action, where individual humans are not known by name to God, is a better formed and portrayed concept, but still not at the depth and emotional level that Canticle for Leibowitz achieved.
This is an ambitious work, with many sub-themes twined around the main one, each of which is deserving of in-depth portrayal. As written, this book is just too short to do justice to either the sub-themes or the main theme, not to mention the need for greater character development. It probably should have been twice its current length to fully develop all of the richness of ideas that Tepper presents here. Still, a very original work, more focused on anthropology and with difficult thematic material than is common in science fiction, items which make this a worthwhile reading experience.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)