Brightness Falls from the Air, James Tiptree Jr

brightnessBrightness Falls from the Air, James Tiptree Jr (1985)
Review by Kris

Like most readers, I am a big fan of Tiptree’s short fiction but had not read any of her novels. These do not have a strong reputation but, I feel, in this case at least that they deserve a second look.

To compare them to the genius of her short stories is decidedly unfair when talking of one of the greatest short story writers of the 20th Century. That is not to say it is a novel without problems, but it is one of the most imaginative.

Setting up the world we get the standard science fiction protagonist of Kip and Cory, the captain and their partner (albeit with a gender switch from the standard dynamic). However we are soon introduced to a vast array of disparate people who reflect the fascinating ideas of this Galactic Future:. We have a “light sculptor” who is not all he seems; we have an “Aquaman”, a genetically engineered gilled human the other seem to treat with a degree of awe; the equivalent of acting celebrities are soft porn actors; we even have a prince whose actual name is Prince but also is referred to as Superboy (in a relationship which I won’t go into); and then there are the faery like natives of the world Dameii who are central to the tale. The whole first half of the book is like a gorgeous painting described in bright colourful hues. In each word another element of the world we are creating is built until we have a composition like Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

However, like a painting or a tableau I don’t think it is made to be in motion. Once the nova hits it is meant to switch into a dark thriller. There are many interesting ideas about identity and genocide but these are written in a very clichéd manner, like something closer to the pulp novels of old. A good comparison for the book, both in terms of plot and feel, is the Doctor Who episode, ‘The End of the World’. There we are introduced to a wide array of aliens which show how obsessed with money, beauty and purity many people in the future still are. Yet they do so little after this introduction that could not be placed in any other story for the most simple of motivations.

Further, the world-building in many ways makes it more confusing. For example, most of the character have multiple names which are relevant as they show different traits and interrelations between the characters. Yet when you have a character called “Prince”, “Pao”, “Prince Pao, “Prince-Prince Pao” and “Superboy”, it is hard to be exchanged in an action sequence when I have to flick back to the appendix to remind myself who exactly is referring to whom.

And yet, there is something fascinating in watching this art being build up and then torn apart. We would assume at the start this may be some hippy utopian society with all these different people living in harmony and art allowed to be as free as possible without censorship. Then we discover the dark secrets at the heart of all these people and it results in many that did not deserve it suffering.

I would not recommend this as a showcase of the best of Tiptree’s work but as another side of a master of their craft or if you enjoy complicated character pieces it is definitely worth checking out.

This review originally appeared on Cloaked Creators.

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Star Man’s Son 2250 A.D., Andre Norton

starmanssonStar Man’s Son 2250 A.D., Andre Norton (1952)
Review by Guy

This is Norton’s first science fiction title. She notes in an Algol Profile by Gary Allan Ruse, “As I started producing more, it was at the same time that science fiction became saleable,” she says, “So from then on I went into science fiction. Before that I had written spy stories, and adventure stories and historical novels. Things of that kind. You see, you couldn’t sell a science fiction book prior to 1951.” The publication of science fiction novels really took off in the 1950’s, before that science fiction appeared primarily in the pulp magazines and even longer works were serialized in several issues of a magazine. Despite an appearance of her story ‘People of the Crater’, as by Andrew North, in Fantasy Book Vol 1 No 1 in 1947, Norton, unlike most of the science fiction writers of her generation really did not publish much short fiction.

It is two hundred years after the Blow-up, the Atomic War which has decimated the world and Fors of the Eyrie has been passed over for admittance to the Star Hall. The Star Men are explorers who search the wilderness for forgotten knowledge and goods for the Eyrie. Fors has several strikes against him: his mother was a outsider, a member of the plains tribes and Fors had been brought to the Eyrie as a child, by his father Langdon. Langdon, a Star Man himself, was killed on his last trip and so cannot speak for him. And most importantly Fors has enhanced hearing and sight and his white hair clearly marks him as a mutant. So that night Fors pillages the Star Hall for his father’s bag which contains a map to a pre-blow-up city and sets out into the wilderness with Luna his great hunting cat, a beast the size of a mountain lion but marked like a Siamese. Dogs have died out and been replaced by these larger versions of domestic cats who have the ability for limited unspoken communication with some people and they are the companions of the Star Men. Now for Fors his adventures begin, he moves across a devastated and largely unpopulated landscape that is returning to the wild. He encounters more and more remnants of the pre-blow-up civilization and obtains a horse that has strayed from the plains tribes. Eventually he finds the city pictured on his father’s map. Once in the city Fors rescues a black youth Arskane from a Beast Thing trap. Arsine is a scout for a clan of black sheep herders who are migrating into the area. Together they have encounters with both the Beast Things and the plains tribes and things get really exciting as they realize they are caught up in a much larger conflict.

Star Man’s Son 2250 A.D., is an enjoyable read. It was originally marketed as a juvenile novel but the later Ace publication made no mention of this and the book seems to have sold well. Donald A Wollheim, the head of ACE Books at the time, notes in his book The Universe Makers, “I was thinking the other day of ACE Books’ most unsuspected best seller, a novel I reprinted and whose title I changed to Daybreak, 2250 A.D., it was written by Andre Norton as a juvenile novel, and it was her first science-fiction book-length work. She called it Star Man’s Son. It has sold continuously and rapidly for fifteen years, in printing after printing, with steady price rises to meet the rising costs of production, has broken the record for any book ever published by what has become a major paperback publisher and continues to sell with unabated interest. Well over a million copies would be my conservative estimate of its total sale to date. There is nothing in our ACE edition to indicate it is supposed to be a juvenile novel” (p 60). Wollheim also discusses how readers of Norton’s novel, as well as other science fiction novels of the time which took for granted that an atomic war could happen, and the result could well be a devastated world inhabited by mutated survivors.

But this does not seem to have been an important consideration for Norton when she wrote the novel. Paul Walker interviewed Norton for his book Speaking of Science Fiction and raised this point.

PW: Of your books, my favourite is Star Man’s Son. I wonder if it reflected your own anxieties about the Bomb?

AN: No, I was not thinking of the Bomb, except as a means of the plot beginning. What had always fascinated me was trying to imagine my home city of Cleveland as it might be as a deserted ruin. Cleveland, then is the city of that book – only distances in it have been telescoped.

Star Man’s Son 2250 A.D. is a great introduction to Norton’s work since many of the plot elements appear again and again in her work. The protagonists are often young orphans or outcasts. Robert D Lofland conducted a long interview with Norton in her home for his MA thesis, ‘Andre Norton, A Contemporary Author of Books for Young People’, in 1960. In speaking about Norton he notes “she feels the hero must be an orphan in order that his parents cannot interfere with his actions”. Norton will often introduce minority characters, examples include Fanyi of No Night Without Stars, Hosteen Storm of Beastmaster, and Travis Fox of Galactic Derelict. In the same thesis Lofland states “she does feel strongly about racial prejudice and does not feel it should exist”. One of the most obvious threads running through her novels is some level of communication between humans and animals which can be found in many other novels including Catseye, Beastmaster, Storm over Warlock, Moon of Three Rings and No Night Without Stars.

So why did I like this novel so much as a teen and adult? Fors has a sword, a bow and a giant cat, for a pet crazed kid with hamsters, wow. As enemies the Beast Things are pretty scary and clear cut. Like almost all protagonists in YA literature Fors is unappreciated (weren’t we all at that age) but wins his place in the world in the end. While Norton states The Bomb did not influence her thinking in this work, but as a child who was taught to crawl under his deck in a Windsor public school in case the big ones launched from Cuba, it certainly influenced my reading and my thinking. Norton books were common in both my school library and the public library across the street and I loved authors with a big backlist, as knowing there were many more books by them to enjoy had great appeal. Often I would read one book, be it a historical novel, mystery etc, and then seek out and read all the other books by that author without embracing the entire genre.

So Star Man’s Son 2250 A.D. was just the beginning, Andre would take me out of my own life, across the galaxy, into our future and our past, with aliens, animals and adventures galore. Thanks Andre!

This review originally appeared on Star Born.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin

TheLeftHandOfDarknessThe Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin (1969)
Review by Victoria Snelling

I put The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin up for my book club to read. There was a point before I’d read it where I was getting worried that it would be really hard going, because two people had given up on it only a few pages in.

But I have two hours of commute and I was determined to see it through to the end. As I am quite interested in gender representations in literature and keen to avoid problematic stereotypes in my own writing, I felt that this was an important book to read. Le Guin sends a male protagonist, Genly Ai, as an ambassador to a world in which people are not defined by gender. Each person has a monthly cycle in which they are sexually active for about a quarter of the time and pairings change into male/female pairings depending on the interaction of hormones between them. Every person will be male sometimes and every person will be female sometimes. Every person will be both father and mother.

The first third of the book is hard going. There is fantastic depth to Le Guin’s worldbuilding and there’s a lot to take in. The narrator of this section, Genly Ai, is also highly unreliable, although that doesn’t become clear until later in the book. While reading it I was disturbed by the judgements Ai was making, in particular the negative qualities he clearly identified with the female. The book was written in the late sixties and reflects a very stark correlation of masculinity and positivity. I’d like to think that is less true today, but perhaps it’s just less boldly stated.

Anyway, the world that Ai is visiting is split into nations and there comes a point at which Ai goes to another nation. Here the book changes. Another character, Estraven, becomes a POV character. Through Estraven’s eyes we see things differently and realise just how unreliable Ai is as a narrator. The pace of the story picks up and in the last half is quite the adventure story.

I was awed by Le Guin’s worldbuilding. Her world is worked up from the bottom meaning that everything is different and new and we can’t make any assumptions. After having read so many fantasies lately where the worldbuilding has been quite superficial, this was both inspiring and intimidating! The writing is wonderful; I really enjoyed the lush, detailed language. The characterisation is subtle and effective. If was going to make any criticism it would be that the various voices could be more differentiated, but it’s a tiny point. The Left Hand of Darkness is amazing; go and read it now.

This review originally appeared on Boudica Marginalia.

Don’t Bite the Sun, Tanith Lee

dont_biteDon’t Bite the Sun, Tanith Lee (1976)
Review by Ian Sales

The unnamed narrator of Don’t Bite the Sun is Jang, which means she – and, once or twice, he – is a pampered teenager in the city of Four BEE, living a life of hedonistic pleasure in a far future utopia. Unfortunately, this proves not enough and the narrator has several goes at finding something meaningful to do. She asks to be uplifted to adult, but is told she must be Jang for at least a century. She decides to become a “maker”, ie a parent, but fails to find a suitable partner. She travels to Four BAA and Four BOO, sister cities, but also fails to find a suitable partner in either place. She asks for a job, but the authorities turn her down. And she joins an archaeology expedition into the desert… Before finally coming to the conclusion that she can only do what is expected of her as a Jang.

Don’t Bite the Sun seems to be quite well regarded among sf readers – it was in print for three decades, and is now still available as half of an omnibus, Biting the Sun (with its sequel Drinking Sapphire Wine). And yet… it often reads like an attempt to rewrite A Clockwork Orange in the sort of science-fictional language used by Samuel R Delany, but has neither rigour of the former nor the poetry of the latter. Partly this is due to Lee’s decision to pepper her prose with Jang slang words, definitions of which are helpfully given in a glossary at the start of the book. Unfortunately, the slang words themselves are too ridiculous to take seriously. Groshing, “fabulous, marvellous”, is one thing – albeit not that far from horrorshow. But attlevey for “hello” is unnecessary and silly, farathoom for “bloody, fucking hell” is plain daft… and as for floop, “cunt”, that’s just complete rubbish. The use of such invented words – a practice often known by the phrase “calling a rabbit a smeerp” – adds nothing to the world-building or narrative. If anything, it makes the narrator seem even more air-headed than she actually is.

While the Jang slang reads like the product of a tin ear, the setting is sketched in so thinly it’s not clear what supports it or how it manages to exist. During the narrator’s trips through the desert to Four BAA and Four BOO, Lee displays a nice turn of phrase in describing the landscape, and the descriptions imply some form of catastrophe in the distant past… but the cities themselves seem to be post-scarcity, without any actual available resources. (Although the narrator shop-lifts for much of the novel, it’s clear things should be paid for – but we’re not told where the Jang get their money from.) Most of the work is done by androids – referred to as Q-Rs – although many adults appear to be employed in make-work jobs. The only “professional” who gets any real time in the narrative is a Q-R psychologist who interviews the narrator on several occasions.

Despite the shortcomings of the world-building, the prose at least is readable and entertaining. Perhaps it focuses overmuch, if not almost entirely, on people’s appearances; but given the narcissistic nature of the Jang, that’s hardly surprising. There’s a narrative thread about friend Hatta, who always chooses ugly bodies, because he loves the narrator and wants her to love him for who he is and not what he looks like. There’s also a running joke regarding an animal the narrator steals from a shop, and which she calls her “pet”, and that has its amusing episodes…

But when all’s said and done Don’t Bite the Sun is as shallow as its narrator, of all the Jang in fact; and anything meaningful it tries to say about teen years of state-sponsored hedonism as a precursor to lives of adult responsibility gets lost in the silliness of the narrator and her various pursuits and relationships with her friends and lovers. The books lacks a foundation – in its world-building and in its plot. It’s entertaining enough fluff, although I suspect it felt a little dated even in 1976; and I suppose its colour and silliness give the novel some charm…