Brightness 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.