Book Review: Brightness Falls from the Air

Of the past few Sword & Laser picks, Brightness Falls from the Air, by James Tiptree Jr./Alice Sheldon ended up being a bit more of a controversial pick – and I definitely get why, as it gets into some squicky subject matter, and not necessarily in an elegant way.

On paper, Brightness Falls from the Air is a bottle mystery, with a bunch of people who have traveled to a remote, exotic environment, only for a couple of them not to be who they say they are – and instead have sinister ends. It is up to our main characters’ survival to find out who is up to no good and stop them. In this case, it’s the alien world of Damiem, which is about to be hit by the blast wave of a supernova from a star that had been hit by a nova bomb several years prior – nothing dangerous, but instead making for a rather impressive spectacle.

Further, the indigenous population of Damiem had previously been exploited for a tremendously valuable compound they excrete while under stress and are thus protected by the serial-numbers-filed-off United Federation of Planets. This compound is one that people would – and have – not only killed for but gone to war for, so the threat of two members of the group misrepresenting their identity to get access to the locals is real.

All of that said – that’s the part of the story that’s handled remarkably well. It feels almost like something that could fit into the Discovery/TOS era of Trek, with the Federation trying to protect an indigenous population in a situation where the Prime Directive is no longer on the table, as the peoples’ culture has already been contaminated beyond any hope of recovery by third parties, so the best the Federation can do is fix what damage they can and try to prevent further damage.

The part that doesn’t work is specifically related to a chunk of the supporting cast. Specifically, a filmmaker from a “grid world”, and his cast. The filmmaker wants to make a documentary about the supernova shockwave but has been commissioned to make pornography. Pornography with a cast made up of adolescents, in the approximate range of 13-14, and this is just played as normal. Several of the characters make comments to the effect that it feels inappropriate, but the minors are in turn portrayed as enjoying the work.

Further, the story uses those characters to take a sort of odd tangent throughout the book to stress that sex work is work, and that it’s wrong to shame people who engage in sex work as a profession, whether they have alternative methods of making money at their disposal or not. Those are all laudable sentiments, and ones I agree with. But they’re being presented with sex workers who are minors, and in a society where this is viewed as acceptable and is normalized, and which is otherwise almost indistinguishable from Star Trek. It’s all kinda icky – and it’s icky in a way that doesn’t feel like it was authorial intent – which actually makes it worse.

I wanted to like this story a lot. I wanted my first experience with James P. Tiptree to be a positive one. This had a deeply promising start, and I wish it followed through on that – but instead it makes a truly bizarre unforced error that makes the story considerably harder to recommend without some real asterisks.

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