Brightness Falls From the Air (James Tiptree, Jr.) 5*

First, it’s bizarre.   Bizarre in a fantastic fuck-your-genres way.  Some thousands of years in the future, soon after the conclusion of serious galaxywide warring, people discovered that terrible atrocities had been committed upon a fragile alien race on the planet Damiem.  The beautiful and sentient aliens, when tortured, exude a substance that can be processed into the most expensive and addictive drug in history.  All humans were cleared off the planet except for three soldier-scientists.

Damiem is also the one place in the galaxy where the nova of the Murdered Star can be seen, and a small convoy of ultra-rich tourists have been cleared to come view the phenomenon.  They include four teenaged porn stars, a noblewoman and her comatose twin sister, an artist whose specialty is “light sculpture,” a retired professor, a boy prince, and two extra passengers who were lifted from cold-sleep by accident.  It’s a countryhouse murder mystery with xenobiology and time flurries.  Under a gorgeous, dangerous auroreal sky.

From the outside, the book makes no sense.  From the inside, the planet is fucking beautiful. Somehow Tiptree swings it, porn stars and everything.  Her angle of approach on sex, sex equality, and childhood is immensely refreshing.

“Some ancient philosopher…He said, Keep the child away from other children.  Don’t waste his best early years learning how to be a child.  So they put him with grown-ups right from the start.  Bright grown-ups, the best.”

I picked up the book after reading reviews for the James Tiptree, Jr. biography that came out last year.  She was a CIA intelligence officer, co-owner of a chicken farm, and a literary enigma.  There’s something touching about aging in this story, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that this is her last novel, published just 2 years before she shot her 84-year-old husband and then herself.

If you’ve read it, is it as special as I think it is?  What other books are this genre-busting?


8 responses to “Brightness Falls From the Air (James Tiptree, Jr.) 5*

  1. I have now added this to my facebook “wanna read” list. Sounds like a trip. Have you read Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville? I read it in the spring and still can’t figure out what I think of it. It’s the most fantasy-leaning sci-fi I’ve ever read, so I have a hard time judging it as anything but “different.” Your review reminds me of it: Mieville paints a city as fetid as your auroreal sky is gorgeous.
    PSS has a science called thaumaturgy, piles of xenobiology, water sculptures, and AI, and touches on sex politics of race and gender. These light sculptures you mention, however, bring Dan Flavin to mind, who is my least favourite artist in the entire world. I first saw his work taking up a vast expanse of Marfa, but he has some shit in the Tate as well.

    • Safe to venture that light sculptures in the future will be less craptacular.
      I can’t tell if you are actually recommending Perdido Street Station — fetid don’t sound too good.
      I want to read that Tiptree biography. She really was something.

      • I can’t tell if I’m recommending it either, so that was kind of what I was going for. The city was amazing; he seemed as interested in bringing that place to life and taking you there as in having you meet his characters. His language is intriguing too; I’d read about five pages thinking “holy crap, I need to look up these words,” before I realized he was making them up. Most people make up nouns, not adjectives. But at the end of the day, it’s more of a wacky story for the sake of it, rather than communicating many beliefs about the nature or future of man, which is (to me) the heart and soul of sci-fi. A friend of mine was like, “oh, it’s totally Marxist,” and I guess so, but not in an insightful or subversive way. It’s just an obvious police-are-bad-guys motif, but there were a few great moments of moral ambiguity.
        It was good for me, anyway, because it definitely pushed my suspension of disbelief. Maybe I would have liked Do Androids better if I’d read this first… I just couldn’t get over Dick’s crappy science. With Mieville, etc, I’m kind of making an effort to read British authors while I’m here. The best recommendation I can give is, “reading PSS was not a waste of my time.”

      • Very well. I will run into PSS someday in a secondhand shop.

    • Hey, wait, did we see a Dan Flavin exhibit together at the Tate years ago? I remember two monochromatic rooms. One was yellow and made people look nice; the other green and made people look deathly ill.
      It wasn’t art, but it was a fun little playground.

  2. I second Leslie. You’ve done an exemplary job of selling this book to the reading public.

    • I’d describe it as a spiffy mini-break where I saw unbelievable scenery, met some cool people, and observed interesting local practices. It just so happens that it was on another planet and far in the future.
      If you want to go backpacking, three’s a book club.

  3. Pingback: James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (Julie Phillips) 5* | Living by Fiction

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