Reviews of Brightness Falls From the Air (1985)
Review by clong (2007-03-10)
I am a big fan of both James Tiptree, Jr.ís short fiction and her novel Up the Walls of the World, so I brought high expectations to this one. Brightness Falls from the Air is a book that starts somewhat slowly, but builds plenty of suspense through a second half that keeps you turning pages right to the bitter end. Overall, I say that while there were indeed things to admire about it, itís not really up there with her best.
Tiptree is an author who never shies away from probing the bleak depths of humanity at its very worst, and we certainly get a strong dose of that here. There is something seriously screwed up in a universe where sadism and profits go hand-in-hand, or where a career in child pornography is the best thing that could happen to you if you have the misfortune to be a youngster born on (or stranded on) one of the particularly ugly planets. More than in some of Tiptreeís other works, however, in this book we find this darkness largely mitigated by the resolution, sense of responsibility, and willingness to take risks to help those in need demonstrated at various times by the good guys.
The characterization is not a strong as it could have been. I think in part this is due a cast of characters that is too large and overly eccentric. It is exacerbated by jarring changes in point of view that we get at key junctures in the story (often just when you were starting to build rapport with the narrator of the prior section). I thought the Dameii themselves really failed to reach their potential, serving as little more than a prop in the story. The aliens in Up the Walls of the World were much more interesting and compelling.
There are some clever turns in the plot, but ultimately I felt that it was driven by too many coincidences, some of which seem profoundly improbable. The more you thought about some of the key plot points the less plausible they seemed. In the end it was hard to believe that the bad guys fell apart so quickly, and that the good guys came out so well (and for those couple who didnít make it there was something right about that anyway).
In an odd way, it felt like Tiptree was struggling to sew together four different stories that might have worked better on their own: a novelette about Zannez and company, and their meeting with Prince Pao; a short story about Baram and Linnix; a novelette about the Dameii and Star Tears; and a novella about Cor and the murdered star might have made a very effective collection.
Having said all of that, I would still say that less Tiptree at less than her best is still worth your timeógive it a try.