Confessions of a bad SF fan: Up the Walls of the World

Book cover: Up the Walls of the World - James Tiptree, Jr (silhouette of a human face in profile on a field of blue)Daniel Dann doesn’t believe in ESP, but he’s monitoring telepaths on a top secret Navy project. The Navy wants to talk securely to submarines, but across the galaxy a desperate race on a dying planet latch on to the little group’s signals as their last best hope to save their children. Whatever the cost.

It’s fair to say that Up the Walls of the World is completely different to the other books I’ve tackled in my Confessions so far. It’s not ‘Golden Age’ SF – nor is it written by a man, in spite of the name –  and it shows from the start. It results in an unexpectedly modern reading experience (in spite of the Cold War setting), which tempts me to take a step back from ‘things I should have read by now’ and just go and read Le Guin, Russ and the other female authors who stamped their mark on the 70s.

The novel is narrated primarily from three points of view: Daniel Dann, heavily dependent on anti-depressants and unable to deal with other people’s tendency to confide in him; Tivonel, an excitably alien female living in the clouds of a gas giant in orbit around a dying star; and the Destroyer, an outcast who can manipulate time and space and is FULL OF ALL CAPS ANGST.

Dann tends a small group of oddballs recruited for a Navy project he refuses to believe in (in spite of early evidence that one of his colleagues has telekinesis; clearly that was just a drug-induced hallucination). This little human cabal are polar opposites to the SF protagonists of yore, and includes the drug-addicted doctor, a self-aggrandising paranoid, a lesbian couple, and an elderly housewife in chronic pain.

The only square-jawed military men in sight are clearly cast as antagonists: in the opening scene it is heavily inferred (untruthfully, as it turns out) that Kirk (on the nose naming, much?) has made unwanted sexual advances to computer Margaret Omali, and she has fought him off.

Classic SF that not only frowns on rape, but allows a woman of colour to save herself? Sign me up. The 70s, man. I should’ve known.

Still, I thought I was in for an unfavourite trope when I realised that Margaret Omali is – inevitably – young and beautiful, and Dann – inevitably (yes that’s my teeth grinding) – develops a fascination for her. But it was okay: we’re not in Kansas any more. While the doctor is old enough to be her father, his exoticised and sexualised gaze is not rewarded. Although the two slowly develop a rapport, Margaret is disinterested, and Dann has to make do with a cool friendship.

The telepath plot line focuses heavily on the states of mind of the little group rather than on what the Navy are actually up to. There are the usual paranoid twitches and suggestions of a Cold War conspiracy – don’t trust the government – but the main focus remains firmly on how isolated the telepaths (and the doctor) are. They can be disappeared.

Of course, none of them suspect it won’t be the Navy that disappears them.

Across the galaxy, a race of telepathic alien squid – or possibly manta rays (and yes, the fact they’re described as both bothered me slightly; I ended up envisioning them as indistinct and fuzzy, which turned out to be more helpful than I expected) – have discovered that an unknown, unstoppable force (THE DESTROYER – yes, all caps, I can’t help it) is sweeping through their part of the galaxy destroying worlds.

Tivonel, an exuberant hunter-gatherer, hopes to reconnect with her former mate (in a nod to either classic SF tropes or the time of writing, she’s really just looking to get laid, as they had such good sex last time they met. And she’s female). Through her, it’s immediately obvious that the Tyrenni have rather different ideas of gender roles: Fathers bear and raise children. Her former lover Giadoc is not your typical Father, however: having successfully raised their son, he’s joined the slightly disreputable male intellectuals stationed in the upper atmosphere trying to contact other planets (not raising children? Shocking).

While the role reversal is initially promising, there’s a lot to unpack here, because Tiptree wasn’t making things easy: male Tyrenni may raise the children, but female Tyrenni are still lower status, physically smaller and less telepathically adept. There’s a repeated assertion that the males won’t allow them to raise the young, and can physically stop them because of their size.

This results in (for me) a slightly weird form of feminist discourse, in which you have female aliens who live free, unencumbered, self-determined lives but who are still fighting the structural sexism of their society because they want to raise children. I liked that both the Tyrenni and the female telepaths on Earth were much concerned with their place and status in the world, and desired to be their own women – but it bothered me that it was all tied up with child-bearing. While it makes sense in context, it still made my head spin.

As the plot develops – the Tyrenni becoming desperate to escape their planet as the Destroyer comes ever closer, the focus shifts to the ethics of what is acceptable in the face of destruction. Should the Tyrenni commit ‘life-crime’ and telepathically evict the humans from their bodies – abandoning the humans to die as confused aliens on Tyrenn – for the sake of their children? We’re back at children, and I’ve never been a wild fan of arguments that things should be done ‘for the children’.

…but it’s not a particularly balanced argument – all our Tyrenni protagonists disapproved. In fact, if I have one criticism of Up the Walls of the World, it’s that it isn’t particularly balanced in any of its arguments. It’s an impassioned fantasy of breaking social constraints, embracing difference and superceding our prejudices and our context: striving for life beyond life, acknowledging the mind (or soul) as more important than the body.

The final act took an unexpected left hand turn (which I won’t ruin with spoilers), moving from telepathic struggle to ethical debate to transcendence – I didn’t see it coming (although perhaps I should have), but I was fascinated throughout. I ended up deeply satisfied. I would probably find this wanting if I approached it as modern SF – the untarnished idealism stretches credibility; several things that are more than a little too convenient – but I recommend it as an unexpected if unusual happy ever after.

Also (SPOILER, mouse over to read): the black lady becomes a goddess. SERIOUSLY. Awesome.

All considered, I can only imagine how much Tiptree rocked the boat  – but I also want to take a moment to reflect that this book was written by a woman who had retired from the CIA and was in her 60s. Yet it feels so modern in its outlook. She must have been a seriously wonderful lady. Thank you, Mrs Sheldon. It’s been a delight to make the acquaintaince of your work.