The novel “Brightness Falls from the Air” by James Tiptree Jr. was published for the first time in 1985.
Damiem is a planet on the edge of the galaxy where the Dameii live. They are beings who’ve been exploited for a long time for a horrendous traffic of a drug called Star Tears. They exude a substance that has remarkable effects on humans, especially when a Damei is tortured to produce it. The Federation has captured or killed all the people involved in that traffic and left on the planet some guardians who watch over the natives.
A star has been transformed into nova during a was and that’s why it’s called the Murdered Star. The nova-front is reaching the planet Damiem and there’s a group of tourists come to see the show or for reasons connected to the temporal alterations related to it. However, some of them are not who they seem and in the planet’s station starts a spiral of violence.
James Tiptree Jr. is the writer Alice Sheldon’s pen name and for many years she hid her gender. Her career has been based primarily on short fiction with only two novels. In “Brightness Falls from the Air” various typical themes of her stories are included, in particular death.
The title is a line from “A Litany in Time of Plague” by Thomas Nashe, part of a work whose theme is suitable to the novel. “Brightness Falls from the Air” is in some ways a detective story that in some ways can recalls Agatha Christie but it’s above all a big tragedy. It can be said that in the story there is a basis of cosmic pessimism because everything that can go wrong goes even worse.
On the other hand, we’re talking about a writer who in the course of her life had emotional issues and eventually committed suicide after killing her sick husband. It’s inevitable that such a situation ended in some way to influence the Sheldon / Tiptree’s work and in “Brightness Falls from the Air” the circumstances seem really to rage against the characters.
Not surprisingly, the story is based on two tragedies whose consequences cross path on the planet Damiem. The natives of the planet are beautiful creatures who have been the subject of terrible cruelty by really ruthless drug dealers. During a war, a star was destroyed by a weapon that turned it into a nova wiping out an entire civilization. The nova-front reaches Damiem, a unique show also for the strange temporal effects it causes.
It’s this unique feature of the nova-front that drove one of the characters, the Lady Marquise Pardalianches, to come to Damiem. Her twin sister has been in a vegetative state for years after an accident and she hopes that this strange phenomenon may somehow awaken her. Evidently the author thought that there weren’t enough tragedies at the beginning of the novel.
The guardians who have the task of protecting the Dameii, the natives of the planet Damiem, welcome a group of tourists arrived for the nova-front but some of them are hiding something. Throughout the story, the author gradually reveals the dark side of various characters and also on some who are innocent we end up discovering things that can be quite shocking, such as Zannez, a manager and director who works in the soft-porn industra.
The story takes place over about a day so the action and especially the various tragedies that occur on Damiem are really intense. Despite the limited time frame, the events are so many, also because of the temporal distortions caused by the nova-front. The pace is really fast but for this reason only some of the several characters are really developed but the protagonists are given a considerable depth.
“Brightness Falls from the Air” isn’t an easy read because the level of the tragedies is really depressing and Sheldon / Tiptree doesn’t spare any brutal events that may occur in the course of the novel. Surely the author’s negativity has its impact because with a better balance in my opinion the result would’ve been better.
Despite these problems, I think “Brightness Falls from the Air” has a depth, also emotional, that mostly compensates them making it a good novel. If you love intense stories and the toght teams don’t upset you I recommend reading it.