On Monday 3rd of June, the LSFRC reading group met at Birkbeck to discuss James Tiptree Jr.’s novel Brightness Falls from the Air (1985).
The novel follows a large cast of characters on a single night, who have travelled to the far reaches of the galaxy in order to witness the passing of a stellar phenomena, only visible from the planet Damiem. Many characters hold secret motives or undisclosed pasts, and their presence is complicated by the existence on the planet of the indigenous population, the Dameii, who have been brutally treated by previous human colonisers. As the night plays out the motives and dark pasts are revealed with explosive consequences.
I was not in fact present for the discussion (though I very much enjoyed reading the book). However I have been able to piece together the mysterious events of the reading group through the discovery of fragments from Katie Stone’s and Francis Gene-Rowe’s diaries:
The group began with a discussion of Tiptree’s pronouns. James Tiptree Jr. was the writing pseudonym of Alice Sheldon, and for many years readers assumed Tiptree was a man, and Tiptree did not correct them. It was suggested that the name Tiptree was both taken on as a professional name to distinguish from Sheldon’s other work (she worked for a time at the CIA, though before she took on the Tiptree writing name), as well as an exploration of her/their/his complex gender identity; i.e. the Tiptree name may have been an exploration of what would now be called transmasculinity.
It was suggested that the exploded star might be the spreading of capitalism. After the star has passed, the indigenous population (the Dameii) ask to be allowed to access to markets in order to sell their product, ‘Stars Tears’. Stars Tears is a liquor distilled from the naturally occurring nectar produced by the body of the Dameii, whose taste is particularly intense for humans, and whose potency can be increased via extraction of the liquid while the Dameii are in distress. Stars Tears was described by the group as the perfect commodity and there was discussion of the implications of the violent extraction process. Beauty itself becomes a commodity in the novel. Prince-Prince Pao ‘buys’ one of the characters, Stareem Fada (known as Star), to be part of his hareem.
There are many different forms of Labour in the novel. The Gridworld actors (Snake Smith, Eleganza (Bridey McBannion), Hannibal Ek, and Star) produce pornography; Ser Xe Vovoka is apparently a light-sculptor; Dr. Ochter, Dr. Hiner, and Mordecai Yule, are on the surface all academics, but actually criminals. Tiptree sympathetically portrays sex workers, though is critical of the Gridworld economic system which produces the pornography as it does not treat its workers well. The Federation (the interstellar alliance of planets in the galaxy), does not officially approve of Gridworld (Snake and Ek are not allowed to join the military because of their profession), but Gridworld is none the less an integral part of the wider economy of the Federation. There are a number of Doctors, or dabblers in medicine. Although Bram is the Doctor of the outpost of Damiem, the previous supervisor of the planet, Pace, becomes a doctor, and Zannez (the leader of the Gridworld troupe) performs doctorhood. It was suggested that medicine was not treated as a fetishised profession like in many novels but labour like any other work.
The Federation is sketched quite hazily. However, it does become apparent that the Federation, like with the Federation in the Star Trek franchise, considers itself to be a force for good. They even appear to have a similar concept to Star Trek’s Prime Directive, (i.e. a rule for non-interference in the affairs of indigenous populations). Illegal activities take place on the fringe of the Federation, such as the crimes against the Dameii people and the Gridworld exploitation. However, the treatment of the Dameii by the Federation either aims for their assimilation or to hold them in a reservation as ‘noble savages’, both of which are colonial behaviours.
Tiptree represents the image of the child in a complex manner. Cory commits a war crime as a child, while Prince (12 years old) seems almost entirely adult and is involved in procuring/buying a concubine for himself. It was suggested that Tiptree takes seriously the idea of childhood autonomy and resists the image of children as innocents, in need of saving from an Other. The Dameii are in a sense an image of the childish/innocent noble savage – a prelapsarian race, in need of protection. However, as with the child characters, Tiptree gives the Dameii autonomy over their existence (albeit by their choosing to enter into capitalist relations).
There are many kinship and relationship models in the novel; the romantic/parental relationship between Linnix and Bram; the working relationship between Kip and Cory which is also a sexual relationship; the friendship/work/love relationship between the Gridworlders; Prince-Prince Pao’s socialisation amongst adults; the intimacy of the Lady Pardalianches and her sister; the social organisation of the Dameii. Someone pointed out the kinky power-dynamics in many of these roles, power dynamics which cross age, social status, and dis/ability.
The novel takes the form of a detective novel. A series of characters from across class/gender/race, are brought together to be witness to, and take part in a crime. The form allows an examination of power dynamics from a cross-section of society. However, the whole novel is strangely paced, with a long set-up of conversations, an hundred page cinematic action sequence, and a large amount of resolution at the end. The time eddies which are produced by the passing star, threatens to create alternative narrative lines, which nevertheless do not fully materialise.