Brightness Falls From The Air is one of Tiptree's few full-length novels; it's also a strong demonstration of the tragedy of that scarcity.  A space opera with both a beauty and horror implicit across the whole novel, and with a series of interlinked plots happening in the same place at the same time (in a well-worked manner, thankfully) and some thoughtful science fictional concepts, this is a speculative novel that really does dare to dream.

The plot of Brightness Falls From The Air concerns the planet Daimiem, and the three humans who stay there to protect the Daimeii (beautiful, winged insect-descended humanoids); at the start of the novel, a ship offloads a number of tourists onto the planet in order to watch the aftermath of an exploding star wash over the planet: a shell from a supernova, whose electromagnetic effects are visible in their impact on the atmosphere, and have a strange other effect too... but not all the travellers are what they seem, and Daimiem has been the sight of a very lucrative and vile criminal smuggling operation in the past, and some seem to want to restart that enterprise.  The plot seems complex - and, indeed, it is complex; but it's told straightforwardly, start to finish, with other elements of plot and with backstory integrated really well, and the use of multiple character viewpoints builds the plot slowly; the one major problem is that there are a number of points where characters appear to be wilfully or purposefully blind purely in order to advance the plot, rather than for character-related reasons.

The second greatest strength of Brightness Falls From The Air is the cast; whilst their actions do occasionally let the novel down, they themselves don't.  Each character breathes with a life of their own, and the large cast - there are fourteen major players in the novel! - is handled so well and so effectively that they're not only easily distinguishable, and not only understandable on their own terms, but even individually and separately interesting and empathetic (with a couple of notable, intentional exceptions up towards the end).  That each character has time to grow and move in their own world, and act on their own terms to show off their strengths, is wonderful; and that all of them are so powerfully and evocatively written, without anyone being a superhero but rather every figure a really believable person, is an incredible achievement.

However, the greatest achievement in Tiptree's novel is the style that she brings to bear in her writing.  Brightness Falls From The Air is a beautiful, evocative and powerful novel; throughout, there are major aesthetic considerations to be taken into effect, and Tiptree really does have a strong eye for the beauty of those aesthetics, and a vivid imaginative landscape to create a world that lives and breathes to the point where we can imagine it, and the creatures in it.  Equally, she seeds tragedy throughout the novel; whilst there is bravery and happy endings for some, Brightness Falls From The Air is also a tragedy, and a tragedy of human making.  Tiptree's vision of human nature is not a happy one, and the darkness throughout this novel is so well worked in and so beautiful as darkness that it really does take the whole thing to another level.

I really do highly recommend this as beautiful, well-plotted and well-charactered science fiction, but more than anything I would recommend Brightness Falls From The Air as a stunningly well-written, and moving, tragedy of human nature...

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Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

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