Up the Walls of the World

This book is absolutely bonkers. Mad. And completely wonderful.

This was Tiptree’s first novel, but naturally enough many of the concerns and interests of his short stories are present here as well. I am so sad that he did not write more novels; this made me so happy, as did Brightness Falls from the Air, that I do wonder what else could have come from that amazing brain.

Let’s start by talking about the authorial situation and get that out of the way. This was published in 1978. Tiptree had been revealed as Alice Sheldon at the end of 1976.  I was surprised therefore to discover that the brief bio in the end flap (oh hard backs I really do love you)  makes no mention of him being her, although it does acknowledge Tiptree as a pseudonym. But I guess that pre internet, how are people going to know about the identity? Via Locus maybe, and fanzines, and word of mouth. Tiptree was not such a big deal that the New York Times was going to run an expose. Presumably therefor with this publication your more casual, less crazy SF fans aren’t going to know who Tiptree ‘really’ is – and Tiptree is enough of a name (… and male…?) to make it worth keeping the pseudonym. But THEN I turned to the back and the back cover image is Sheldon! Now I’ve seen the pic before and it’s quite obvious to me who this is; but others have suggested that this could, actually, be an ambiguously gendered person. I’m not entirely convinced. But anyway, there’s that.

Now, to plot. I’m going to be entirely spoilery because I really want to think about what Tiptree is doing here.

The story is told for about the first half or so from three alternating perspectives. The first, IN ALL CAPS BECAUSE  THAT’S HOW A LEVIATHAN OUGHT TO BE REPRESENTED THANK YOU VERY MUCH, is some sort of being that is mammoth on a scale humans cannot comprehend. The wee beastie doesn’t get that much page time, but it’s enough to set up a vague sympathy; it’s alone and cannot fulfil its duty. SAD. This being doesn’t have much of a plot by itself, although it does play crucial roles in the lives and deaths of others.

The second is told mostly from the perspective of Tivonel, a flighty female of Tyree who enjoys hunting and gathering and is happy to leave such momentous tasks as Fathering to the Fathers; she’d rather be out flying on the High Winds. Because she is of a race of enormous manta-life beings who live in the winds of their planet, rarely interacting with solid matter. These beings mostly just live normal lives, thinking about who will Father their next child and whether to stay in the Deep for a long time or go flying the winds… until their scientist-equivalents report that the stars in a certain section of the sky are going out, and that they are receiving telepathic signals (which is how they communicate) from dying planets. And this wave of death is coming closer. So what can they do to save themselves and their children?

And there’s the third part of the plot. The human one. Here, Doctor Daniel Dann is helping out with. Trial into the use of psionic skills with a ragtag group of people that he doesn’t believe are capable of any such thing, with paranoid military types looking over their shoulder, and meanwhile he’s heavily dosing himself with  all sorts of not-meant-for -recreational-use drugs. He falls in love or lust or wonder with their computer analyst, and the discovers himself on Tyree. Because what the folk of Tyree discover is that they can swap minds and bodies with others. Of course on Tyree this is a life-crime, but if it’s aliens and it’s to save the children it doesn’t really count… Right?

Eventually the plots join up, with Dann rather enjoying himself on Tyree and then some of them ending up with the GREAT LEVIATHAN TYPE THING IN SOME SORT OF MYSTERIOUS WAY. Its duty is revealed which is nice. Although then it’s subverted which is for the good of others but I can’t help but feel sad for a being whose entire existence is coopted by tiny little atoms of life who have the arrogance to think they know best.
Let’s stop and consider for a moment that Tiptree is writing a story about experimental psychology, basically, using humans as test subjects. And the military and some sort of covert operations people are watching with paranoid glee wanting to control what goes on. Also quite a lot of this can be seen as first contact and exploration fiction. This, people, is what happens when someone with the life experience of Sheldon, and the imagination of Sheldon, writes a novel following Hemingways injunction to write what you know.

Anyway. The characters. Oh the characters. The humans are definitely the most interesting but I’ll start by talking about Tyree, where Tiptree is setting up a a little gender mischief just because . You might have picked the idea that there, it’s the males who care for the children. Fathering is considered the greatest and most important of skills and as a consequences the Fathers are the biggest, the strongest, the most revered. At the time we come to Tyree there are some females who are agitating for females to be allowed to develop Fathering skills, in the expectation that this will help them to develop their life field and you know, be more respected. OH THE LOLZ. Tivonel is our main focus here, and she’s not one of these uppity females. In fact she doesn’t really see the point in it all; why would you want to be tied down with children when you could be off exploring instead? She changes a little over the course of the story, becoming a but more reserved and interested in thinking beyond her own experiences, but that’s about it. This isn’t to say I didn’t like her, I did – I don’t know that she really needed to change all that much. It wouldn’t have made  sense for her to become the equivalent of a woman’s-libber, since the planet is destroyed by the end and she’s staying to be a part of the crew of the leviathan for possibly all time.

The humans, though. This is where Tiptree does some lovely things.

Dan isn’t an especially nice person, although he takes his job seriously and tries to help those who need it. He’s too caught up in his own grief to really comprehe d those around him, which begins to change when he has an experience with Margaret Omali in which they experience the worst event of the other’s life. For him, that was his wife and child dying in a fire and the fear that he could have saved them. For her, it was a cliterodectomy in her early teens. Yes this is a book that mentions that this really happens. More in her in a minute. This is the beginning of Dan becoming empathetic, and he genuinely evolves and becomes more sympathetic as a character. Through him Tiptree explores the impossibility of knowing another human and the possible consequences if we did know another. We become more human. If we’re not scared off. Also that taking lots of drugs is a bad idea.

Margaret… scarred physically and emotionally as an adolescent, incapable of having human relationships of any sort and far more interested in computers, is a cousin of the Parson women in “The Women Men Don’t See.” As soon as she’s given an out she takes it, flying into the galaxy as pure life and taking up residence inside the great star beast/ship and far more at. Home there than on earth. Where, by the way, she is not alone because there’s a Computer program – a ghost program from an early version of the Internet – – which has also made its way there. Of course. It is sad that Tiptree presents Margaret as incapable of even friendship because of that psychic scarring, although at the same time it’s not necessarily so unlikely either, since it was inflicted by her stepfather and her mother seems not to have interfered. That’s going to lose you trustIn humanity. She changes because she uses her skills to interact with something so completely alien as to be virtually unknowable, and she also starts to have friendships, on her own terms and because she wants to in her own way, not because she’s expected to. And she is respected for what she is able to do.

The people who are being tested for their psychic abilities are the humans who get the rest of the page time, and it’s the women who are most present. At first this is became of the way Dan looks at them, again like in “The Women Men Don’t See.”  But ultimately they develop as their own human selves and Dan acknowledges his errors. The generic housewife type, Winona, is disregarded by Dan as having no brains to speak of and completely frumpy besides. But when she gets to Tyree, she is hugely valued because of her skills in Fathering,  which of course is as it should be. She is more than just a mother though, contributing to their survival in real ways. Which don’t involve sex.

Valerie, whom Dan regarded as basically a nice body and not much else, comes into her own once she is out of a system where men are all around ogling her body, as Dan had been; she flourishes in experimenting and investigating. Which is a bit hard on her friend, Fredericka, known as Frodo. Theirs is clearly a lesbian relationship, if so discretely described that I’m sure you could pretend not to see it if you wanted to. Frodo doesn’t have that much to do aside from me a bit surly, but her moment of realising that Valerie doesn’t need her as her only friend anymore and that this makes her sad is one of the more poignant and human-true moments of the story.

Most of the men are crazy. Noah, the investigator into psychic abilities, isn’t, but he’s largely ineffectual. The military man is nuts, the maybe-CIA man is definitely nuts, and the male psychic subjects are also basically nuts. Except for the young twins, who once they are reunited with one another are basically human and not nuts.

Things that this reminds me of: FarScape, since the leviathan beastie is somewhat like Moya. It also reminds me of the mysterious creature in Marianne de Pierres’ Sentients of Orion series. There are some similarities to Paul McCauley work, although I can’t pinpoint details. And with Margaret Omali being a computer programmer, with the TOTAL program inside the leviathan, and the possibility that our heroes are all actually existing as energy bundles within the synapses of some sort of a computer in the end, there are clearly some connections to cyberpunk too.

This book is crazy and awesome and trust me, I have not completely spoiled it and you should totally go out and read it. If you can find a copy. I’ll lend you mine if you promise to return it.

One response

  1. […] Aurora: Beyond Equality; Up the Walls of the World, James Tiptree Jr; Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, Samuel […]

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