Mimsy Review: Up the Walls of the World
As they go by, Ober’s mantle flaps upward, revealing his bulging Father’s pouch and a glimpse of the child’s jets. The pod-driver squeaks bright turquoise with embarrassment. Iznagel only averts herself, glowing amusedly under the conventional rosy flush of appreciation for the sacred Skills. Tivonel is used to the sight of such intimate gathering after the last months. That silly driver—Deepers forget the facts of life, she thinks. It’s better up there where people are more open to the Wind.
James Tiptree, Jr. writes an amazing novel about completely alien races—and avoids cliches that we don’t even always recognize as cliches.
|Author||James Tiptree, Jr.|
The evil strikes Tivonel in the bright joy of her life. But she is not at first aware of its coming.
After what looks like—but isn’t—a prologue, this line starts the first, alien, protagonist’s story.
I read Julie Phillips’ biography of Alice B. Sheldon a couple of years ago; and on the strength of the biography I picked up her Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home anthology. But it’s been sitting in my to-be-read pile ever since.
While traveling through Denver in June, I stopped at the Denver Botanical Gardens. They have a library, and their library has a small rack of books for sale—including very non-botanical fiction. I started reading a Tiptree novel from the middle like I often do when browsing new books, and I was hooked. I had to pick it up. It reminded me superficially of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love: opening it up in the middle was like reading an alien dialect of English, but one compelling enough to continue even though I didn’t understand it.
I often describe fiction in terms of the impossible thing that we accept toward the beginning. In Up the Walls of the World, the impossible thing is that a “human spirit” exists, with the corollaries that this makes ESP possible, that ESP is instantaneous, and that our spirits contain copies of our memories. In fact, the “copying” of memories from the biological to the spiritual is an integral part of the story.
I don’t want to say too much because a lot of this book’s joy is the joy of discovery—and that’s also a lot of what the book’s about.
The first three chapters introduce the three main viewpoints. The first is an all-capital mysterious entity, “solitary and huge [sailing] out along the dusty arms, a hurting entity slightly denser than a vacuum on the currents of space: vast, black, potent, and lethal.” The second is Tivonel, an alien—to us—who communicates in bioluminescence and jets around the winds of her world. The third is Doctor Daniel Dann, a paper-pushing medical assistant to an ESP project he doesn’t believe in.
Dann’s people are earthbound, in more ways than one; Tivonel’s people float above the turmoil of life, perhaps too much. The vast, solitary entity sailing the currents of space ties the stories of their lives together. How much of what we are is earthbound, how much is spirit? That’s one of the important questions of Up the Walls of the World.
Nowadays we also know that James Tiptree, Jr. is a pseudonym for Alice B. Sheldon. Science fiction fans within the fan community knew that Tiptree was a pseudonym, but they didn’t know who was behind the pseudonym until 1976 when Sheldon let loose too many particulars in correspondence. Up the Walls of the World is Sheldon’s first novel, published after her identity became known. Is the world of Tyree Tiptree’s world? Even the name is awfully similar: remove the middle consonants of her pseudonym and you have the world that half of the story takes place on. Much of the book is taken up with descriptions of the joys and fears of taking on new forms.
Besides being a brilliant novel of alien contact, this may also be a brilliant novel of writing under a pseudonym.
The only real flaw in the book is the poor editing. There are a lot of typos, and in a book that includes alien thought, it sometimes takes a couple of re-reads to determine that, yes, it was a typo. This is the Berkley Books edition; other editions might be better edited. Regardless, Up the Walls of the World is well worth a read or two if you can find it. Unfortunately it’s out of print, but you should be able to find a used copy for under $5.00.