Brightness Falls from the Air

One of the most interesting things about this book as an object is that nowhere (that I could find) does it mention that James Tiptree Jr is actually Alice Sheldon. Neither, though, is there any personal pronoun used for the author. This is really only interesting when you know something about the history of Tiptree, I guess, but it is revealing. It came out in 1985, which puts it only a couple of years before Tiptree’s death and several after s/he had been ‘outed’ as Alice Sheldon. So was the publisher trying to cash in on the Tiptree name and people now knowing the ‘truth’? Was it Sheldon/Tiptree’s decision? I’d be fascinated to know.

Going in, I thought this would have some of the terribly interesting gender discussions that many of Tiptree’s short stories have, and that – combined of course with the reality of Tiptree’s life – led to the Wiscon award for  gender-bending in SF/fantasy being named after her. However, it’s not there. This isn’t to say anything against the story itself, which I’ll get to, but it was something of a surprise for me. There are awesome female characters; a female in command of a base, who is never questioned by the males under her, and a bunch of other women playing vastly different roles from one another – very few of the female characters or their dialogue had me cringing, which is laudable. There’s a homosexual relationship that’s neither more nor less obvious than the hetero ones… and everyone is referred to by the same honorific…. hmm. Ok. Maybe it actually is quite gender-subversive, or at least was for 1985.

Mild spoilers

There is a certain attitude in books and films that I – no doubt derivatively – refer to as the Agatha Christie Vibe. A group of people get together somewhere nice, mostly unknown to each other, and you just know that something very bad is going to happen. Brightness Falls from the Air, by James Tiptree Jr, is strong in that vibe. A planet where few humans live in order to monitor (in a good way) the indigenous sentients is about to experience a phenomenal cosmic event, and a select few tourists get to land for the show. Hello, sinister vibe.

I’ll admit, somewhat guiltily now, that I went into this book not entirely sure that I was going to enjoy it, but figuring it would be worthwhile because yo, it’s Tiptree, right? Yes, well. This is one of the best action-SF books I’ve read in a long, long time. The characters are awesome, the plot is skilfully drawn and brilliantly brought together, the worldbuilding is exquisite, and the issues it addresses – because there are some – are relevant and not overdone. Also, the writing: I could Not. Put. It. Down.

Whoever would have thought that a book which includes kiddie p0rn could have me waxing so lyrical?

Yeh. Kiddie p0rn. When I realised what was going on I was initially horrified – and, honestly, still am. It’s not a major focus of the book, but I have to put it out there, as I imagine it was picked up by contemporary reviewers. So: there’s a group of four teenagers who, with their manager, are among the tourists who arrive on the planet. It’s clear from the outset that they are TV-equivalent stars. But it’s only maybe a third of the way through that you discover there’s a sexual element to their stardom, and that there has been for a number of years. There are a number of fascinating things about this element, which account for why it didn’t immediately make me want to throw the book across the room. For a start, the manager is not the one exploiting them – he’s sympathetic, and looks after them as well as he can. For another, they’re mostly doing p0rn with each other; there’s a vague suggestion that they have been in such situations with adults, but it’s unclear. The main thing that makes this… not acceptable, because it is still horrendous, and Tiptree never suggests that it’s a good thing, but… easier to read about, is the adolescents themselves. They don’t suggest it’s a wonderful life; they’re pragmatic about their careers; and it’s never actually a central element of the story. I don’t think I’ve explained this at all well, to be honest, but all I can say is: despite its presence, I am not hesitating to recommend the book.

So, the characters. They’re marvellously entertaining. There’s an aloof one, a slightly crazy one, the teens, an on-the-surface pleasant one, sensible and earnest ones – and all of them, basically, are given interesting backgrounds, sound motives for all of their actions, complex and intriguing interactions with everyone else, and individuality. Seriously, Tiptree was a master at characterisation. There’s maybe one character who doesn’t get much explanation overall, but that’s not bad in such a large ensemble.

The plot? As I said, there’s an Agatha Christie vibe: something is clearly going to go disastrously wrong. And it does… in fact, several things do. I anticipated one of them, but the other major plot point was totally unexpected – in a good way: it made perfect sense, and upon revelation I could see where Tiptree had been leading up to it by stealth. And the two disasters weave around one another, without tripping the other up. One is an intensely personal disaster, while the other is on a more mercenary level, which is really nice; they deal with different issues and allow Tiptree to explore different reactions, emotions, and all that stuff.

Finally, there’s a really interesting element of, essentially, post-colonial critique, particularly at the very end. I have no idea whether Tiptree was into literary theory – I should hurry up and read that bio I guess – but I know post-colonialism was starting to be discussed at around the time the book was published. There are aliens on this planet, and they were terribly abused by humans in the past. Now, humans have taken it on themselves to try and rectify that… but of course, that’s still a colonial, paternalistic attitude, assuming the aliens are completely incapable of looking after themselves. Towards the end, then, there’s a suggestion of how this could change. It’s neat.

It should be clear that I adored this book, of course. It’s brilliantly paced, full of awesome characters, deals with meaty issues without getting moralistic, ponderous, or annoying, and the plot is just wonderful.

One response

  1. […] fiction novel, which confused me immensely since I thought Tiptree only wrote two, and I have read them both. Anyway, it became a bit clearer as I read: this is three short stories linked together […]

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