Review: Brightness Falls from the Air, James Tiptree Jr.

The beginning: A group of humans — including two who should not have ended up there, and seem to be (but are they?) furious about the mistake (if it is one) — gather on the planet Dameim to witness the passing of a star whose explosion many years ago destroyed an entire race of aliens. Focused closely on the logistics of such a large group, the three guardians stationed on the planet do not act decisively enough to prevent a murderous plan from being set in motion.

Tiptree’s writing is admirably clear and entertaining, considering that so many of the early passages here are exposition. There’s still a feeling of intentionality that I like a lot, and I also feel — y’all know how this sometimes happens? — this sort of love-at-first-sight-y kind of feeling about her writing.

The end (spoilers in this section only, so skip it if you don’t want to know): Oh man. What a great ending. Evidently I have missed quite a bit of action, but it looks like Cory has been aged several decades by powers unknown, and more wonderfully, it looks like the beauty of the Dameii is due to some sort of malignant beauty space virus. I can’t describe exactly but Tiptree describes it wonderfully. And there’s this:

People say be realistic. As though reality needs encouragement…[I’ll] tell you, Pace…reality doesn’t need friends.

I want to have that sewn onto a pillow. My love-at-first-sight feeling about James Tiptree Jr has only been magnified by this ending. Malevolence under a guise of beauty is one of my favorite creepy things.

The whole: I love being excited about a new author. I love, love, love it. This could only be better if James Tiptree Jr had written a whole bunch of novels, instead of only two plus a lot of short stories. Short stories are not as good for me as novels. But if the internet is to be believed, Brightness Falls from the Air is a lesser lesser lesser work of Tiptree’s, and her short stories and novellas are where the real action is at.

At first blush, the book seemed like it might be too wacky, what with the tottery old doctor, and the mentally unstable noblewoman with her ailing twin, and the adorable and competent young royal, and the porn stars that dream of becoming interplanetary soldiers (see how I made it sound way too wacky, just by describing it?). Reading the end sorted out my fears on that front. Although the book ends happily in some ways, it’s the kind of happy ending that involves a tremendous amount of compromise — the happiness is far from unqualified, and what there is of it might fall apart in the next minute.

(Also contributing to sorting out my fears on that front: learning from the internet that this was James Tiptree Jr.’s last book before she shot her husband and then herself, leaving behind a suicide note that she had composed years earlier. I was sure the internet was making all this up in aid of adding color to an already colorful life, but no. It is real.)

And of course, I am on record appreciating books that tell the entire story under one assumption, and then at the very end, sometimes quite casually, they drop in a remark or two to make it clear that what you thought was happening was never really what was happening, and with that knowledge you have to look at the book a whole different way. Brightness Falls from the Air is one like this, and it made me want to rush out and read everything Alice Sheldon ever wrote.

12 thoughts on “Review: Brightness Falls from the Air, James Tiptree Jr.

  1. Oh, man. Reality DOESN’T need friends. I love that quote! Also, everything you say about James Tiptree is intriguing and makes me wish I still read this sort of thing. Maybe I will! Maybe I can reclaim my lost youth!

    • I KNEW you would like that quote. I want to have it stenciled on the wall in the spare bedroom/study of my future apartment. Also, I will investigate some more James Tiptree Jr and let you know what stories of hers are best. I will keep you posted.

  2. For me, part of getting older is being less often surprised; I guess or read ahead to what was always happening and so rarely get that twist from what I assumed to what was actual. Since I haven’t read Tiptree yet, perhaps this will spur me to it.

    • Ah, well, I don’t like being surprised. I am happy as a clam to not be surprised. I suppose the reason I like a small knife-twist at the end is that it jogs at authorial and reader complacency. The author suddenly makes you pay attention to something that you weren’t paying attention to before, and emphasizes the intentionality of how she was writing the story. I like that. It washes back over the rest of the story in a pleasing manner.

      • Ah, I love that in 18th-century satires. You’ll get partway through and the author will put in a little dig about something you should have known, if you’d read the fourteen different prologues and dedications.

    • Yes! A lady! Called Alice, actually. Alice Sheldon. Back in the day, everyone would be all like, Oh man, James Tiptree Jr writes awesome lady characters and that is proof that sci-fi is not gender-biased and also James Tiptree Jr is the manliest manly man ever to man around in sci-fi. But then they felt foolish later because it turned out James Tiptree Jr was a lady all along.

  3. Wacky as a description is one thing. What you’ve said about the story however is yes, really wacky. And also very intriguing. Interesting that it was ‘James’, rather than initials.

  4. I have a biography of James Tiptree, and whilst her writing is probably not quite my thing, I cannot wait to read about her life, which was extraordinary by all accounts. So I’m glad you love her writing. It’s good to know that someone like you admires her (I can put her writing to one side as a known quantity!).

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