Up the Walls of the World by James Tiptree Jr.

Up the Walls of the World by James Tiptree Jr.Unlike many stories of first contact this book does neither rushes the development of a basic comprehension of language and motivation nor makes the possibility of confusion the sole plot.

The story is built from three narratives: a being journeys from star to star, knowing that it has been separated from its fellows but able to remember neither what happened nor its purpose, seeking contact in a galaxy apparently lacking in intelligent life; on Tyree airborne mantas discover a being, the Destroyer, bent on destroying their world, and desperately seek a means of escape; on Earth US Army experiments in ESP are suddenly disrupted by mysterious interference and bouts of madness.

The creation of the alien races is well handled. The Tyree have different senses from humans, which – rejecting the temptation to invent new words – Tiptree describes using synaesthesia; this prevents the reader from carrying out a simple mental substitution of human terms for alien, producing a tension between confusion and familiarity which captures how perception can make a common reality uncertain. Lacking the examples of social interaction a similar unravelling of the conceptual framework of the lonely traveller is left for later in the book.

A second difference between races is their culture. The children of the Tyree are raised by the males, who are both mentally and physically more powerful so are, to the Tyree, better suited to the vital task of rearing the next generation. When they first encounter humans they naturally assume that human women are larger and stronger because they raise children. However – despite the obvious commentary on human society – the Tyree are not portrayed as more advanced for having this concept. There are female Tyree who want to raise children but their motives are not completely pure; as well as some who believe the ability is not sex specific, some are seeking it not for the act but for the status it brings. The reader is left to decide whether the arguments for equality can be transferred between races, or whether biology has made some tasks the province of specific sexes.

The culture clash from the human perspective is similarly nuanced. The rigid military minds have the greatest difficulty adapting to the Tyree’s communication through electromagnetic energy extended from minds loosely centred on rather than held within their physical bodies, whereas the ESP subjects adapt more rapidly to the concept. However, their comprehension of the immediate experience does not bring understanding of context: one subject initially parses the experience as entry into the spirit realm, while another falls into paranoia that their every thought and desire will be read from a distance.

Although the book raises interesting concepts of social structure and perception it is written in the style of a unexceptional pulp action-adventure. This does make some of the descriptions of mutual confusion veer into tedium and lead to some passages where the reader is drawn forward by the desire to read the answer to a question instead of carried forward by the quality of the prose.

Overall I enjoyed this book, more for the concepts than for the prose. I would recommend it to readers seeking a feeling of “what if” or a dose of Golden Age Sci-Fi, but not to those seeking a rollicking adventure.


10 thoughts on “Up the Walls of the World by James Tiptree Jr.

  1. Heh, that indeed describes it very well. For concepts more than for prose. I remember reading and enjoying this book, exactly because of engaging the story on a conceptual level. The style of writing, I kinda took that for granted because it came with the tale, so to speak.

    Thanks for bringing it back to memory with this review!


    1. Glad you liked it.

      There are many great stories from that period, but it certainly was not the age of literary science-fiction, so I suspect the style was what was expected back when it was first published; I wonder if Tiptree wanted it to read like that, or if he fought with an editor who would not accept risky prose?


    1. Applying a time-based taxonomy you are correct.

      However, from a style perspective it felt more like classic pulp than modern, so I classified at as a dose of that to capture the texture of the writing.


        1. This is always the issue with reviewing books that are not written in the common style of their period: unless it is a blatant homage/satire, one person’s replication is another person’s critique.


            1. I went through books with a fine toothed comb for English A-Level and analysed many legal documents, but found too much analysis tears the fun from things. My blog reviews are based more on reading the book than de-constructing it, because that is what I enjoy, and also what I feel is of greatest use to the general reader.

              I will freely admit I might have missed some nuances of the style; however, that equally means she might have failed to make some nuances as clear as they could have been.


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