Brightness Falls From The Air

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“Brightness falls from the air” is a line from A Litany in Time of Plague, a death-themed Elizabethan poem by Thomas Nashe:

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkes will devour;
Brightness falls from the air,
Queens have died young and fair,
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

The line, both unlikely and modern, is perhaps what Nashe is best remembered for: T.S. Eliot wrote about it at length, and, in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the protagonist Stephen Dedalus meditates on it extensively, despite misremembering it as “Darkness falls from the air.” Unfortunately, most literary scholars believe “air” is a typographic error; Nashe probably meant “hair,” which makes considerably more sense in the context of the poem. If the typo hadn’t occurred, Nashe would almost certainly be a footnote in poetic history; could he have known that one misplaced letter could make his name? Doubt not the power of well-chosen (or accidentally-chosen) words to make history.

In any case, the typo prevailed over the centuries, and the line eventually became the title of a science fiction novel by James Tiptree, Jr. Unfortunately, the title is probably the best thing about Tiptree’s novel. Brightness Falls From The Air is a good story, involving an isolated outpost of keepers on a distant planet, charged with studying and protecting a vulnerable, beautiful alien race that had been roundly abused by humans in the past. There are some interesting themes, about the destruction of beauty and how it’s the worst of all crimes, and Tiptree has an elegant style. Nevertheless, the whole thing is encased like in a block of lucite in a deep and complicated parlor drama among its characters, a motley crew of “wacky” aliens and people, thrown together in extenuating circumstances like a long, tiring sitcom (or space opera).

This isn’t to say that I hated this novel or have anything particularly virulent to say about it. There was story, but nothing subversive, funny, no subtext, nothing for me to get excited about. No gristle.

I had great hopes about Tiptree, because of the writer’s history: James Tiptree Jr. is actually Alice B. Sheldon, a lady science fiction author who decided to cut through the crap and just pretend to be a dude for most of her career, in order to get published. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that her true identity was revealed, much to the embarrassment of critics who had praised “his” work over the decades. She’s known now as being a catalyst for the overall maturing of SF at the end of the 20th century; The James Tiptree, Jr. Award is given in her honor every year for a work of science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender. Besides, she seems like she was a really cool woman: a liberal bisexual who worked for the CIA. Of her pseudonym, she said, “I had the feeling that a man would slip by less observed. I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation.”

From what I can gather, Brightness is both Tiptree’s best-known and least-liked work, and the short stories are what’s really good, so I will be happy to give him (well, her) another chance.

NEXT BOOK: BRIAN ALDISS’ GALAXIES LIKE GRAINS OF SAND

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2 Responses to Brightness Falls From The Air

  1. thom Dunn says:

    Spot-on critque of Brightness Falls From the Air. I look forward to reading any and all reviews. I’m a retired English teacher who once wrote publish-or-perish articles about SF and collected stories about human-machine interface in science fiction. Member SFRA.

  2. Steve Goodless says:

    The title was also used in the book “The Man Who Fell to Earth”. I wonder if Sheldon knew it from there. I had very sismilar feelings towards the book and was wondering if anybody sees a similarity to the movie Avatar.

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