Welcome to this month's book club! On the fourth Monday of each month, we post a round-table discussion about a speculative work (or work of interest to readers of SF), and we invite you to join us for further conversation in the comments. August's book will be The Starry Rift by James Tiptree, Jr., and other forthcoming discussions are listed here.
This month's book is The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss. First published in 1997, Gloss's third novel describes the events surrounding the arrival of the generation starship Dusty Miller—designed and launched from Earth by Quakers—at its inhabitants' potential new home, after 175 years of journey. It was shortlisted for the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award.
Discussing The Dazzle of Day are:
- Octavia Cade, whose fiction and reviews have appeared in Strange Horizons, Apex, Aurealis and others. Her novella Trading Rosemary was published last year by Masque Books, and her novel The August Birds is out now. You can find her at ojcade.com or on Twitter @OJCade.
- Electra Pritchett, who lives in Tokyo, and splits her time between reading, research, and her obsession with birds and parfait.
- Kev McVeigh, who reviews books and music at Performative Utterance, and writes regularly for the SF Gateway blog.
- Martin Petto, who edits the BSFA Review, regularly reviews for Strange Horizons, and blogs at Everything Is Nice.
The Dazzle of Day is a work of psychological realism about people whose psychology is deeply shaped by their unusual environment. For example, space is seen as a place of comparative safety, and natural, non-cosmic spaces can inspire fear—an inversion of the more common notion that the immensity of space might cause a phobic reaction. How does Gloss use this inversion to influence the psychology of her characters? What else is notable about the novel's treatment of psychology and (mental) health? Is it significant that we see relationship counselling but no mental health counselling?
Martin Petto: I think I'd quibble with the idea that space is seen as a place of comparative safety. Yes, the planet they are heading towards is the truly terrifying concept. There is a great line at the beginning: "Standing at the head of a mast, people looked, not for the whole, but for what must be the true aspect of a World: something larger than the eye can take in" (p. 30). And it is true that when characters are outside the spaceship their environment is mediated through their spacesuits: a sealed, controlled, contained environment like the Dusty Miller. But space itself is death. The first chapter sees the viewpoint character, Juko, witnessing a fellow engineer, Al Poreda, commit suicide by cutting open his suit. This causes her to reflect on another colleague who attempted suicide by untethering themselves and launching into space. And these are not isolated incidents. So if the immensity of space doesn't cause a phobic reaction, it certainly exacerbates—or perhaps acts as a catalyst for—other phobic reactions.
These deaths are put down to the ŝimanas, a concept that is heavily referenced in the opening chapter. Juko repeats the thought within a couple of pages: "It is the ŝimanas, she thought, and took a kind of mournful satisfaction in it. All of us are gone a little mad these days" (p. 31) and "We are all gone a little crazy" (p. 34). A little later we have a fuller definition:
It was a sort of madness, an exquisite pain of utter and unspeakable aloneness. Their own. It was not a mall thing. In Juko's memory, perhaps a dozen people had killed themselves to end unbearable, unspeakable alienation; and when the clerk read the names of the dead at Yearly Meeting, these suicides seemed to lie at the center of all their lives, a heart of inexplicable grief. (p. 45)
All this suggests the issue of mental health is going to be integral to the novel but both Gloss and her characters take a bizarrely dismissive attitude to the ŝimanas. Far from having suicide being at the center of their lives, they weakly try to pretend that perhaps Poreda's death was an accident. They grieve for the death but they ignore the act and the implications. So, returning to the question, I'm not clear whether the cause of the phobic reaction is the approaching natural environment or their existing "safe" artificial environment.
I think Gloss's own definition of ŝimanas in the Esperanto glossary at the end of the book is revealing: "a spiritual malaise, exaggerated feeling of isolation and loneliness, leading towards depression, alienation, suicide" (p. 255). Exaggerated? They are the most isolated humans who have ever lived! “Spiritual malaise” is also a decidedly non-clinical description. Contrast this to the relationship counselling on offer:
"To marry a lover is fatal, people said. Everyone knew, the relationships of lover was transient, electrical, while marriage above other things much be a durable partnering, a system of mutual reliance, a friendship. Family and neighbours were expected to indemnify a marriage by anchoring it in patience, affection, and support; and Juko's family had mostly followed that charge. She had been given, in Humberto, a husband who was melancholy, passive, prone to chronic physical complaints—but some of tolerance and stillness, someone disposed to agree with her values and judgements, an undistinguished, predictably tender sexual partner, a conscientious father to their sons. The Senlima Clearness Committee had admired the tying of their knot. And counselled its unraveling. (p. 39)
Where is the Ŝimanas Committee? Where is the similar communal response? And look at how Humberto is described: the judgemental, archaic "melancholy" mirrors Gloss's use of "malaise" and both this and his "chronic physical complaints" are logged as character failings. I didn't notice anyone in the book being treated for depression.
Returning to Gloss's definition—and to pose my own question—how important is the word "spiritual" here? Generally the inhabitants of the Dusty Miller are shown to be empirical and pragmatic but these traits seem to be abandoned entirely when it comes to addressing the health of the community, both with respect to the widespread mental illness but also physical health such as the response to a character's stroke later in the novel. Why is science shunned in this respect?
Electra Pritchett: There's part of me that wants to relate the level of mental healthcare (rudimentary to non-existent) to the shockingly low tech base we see in the Dusty Miller in general. For a society whose entire existence literally depends on an artificial environment, most people seem not only ignorant about but downright unconcerned with the technological particularities that constitute their environment. In fairness, none of the viewpoint characters are on the Maintenance Committee, but even Bjoro and the others who take a small exploratory craft down to the planet don't seem particularly knowledgeable about how it operated, even before it crashed. On one level, there's definitely a high degree of psychological realism in that, but as a science fiction fan, I found it very frustrating at times.
It's worth noting that the level of medical care in general seems of a piece with the hands-off attitude to mental health. It's also, it seems to me, difficult to know to what to attribute this attitude. Is it a consequence of the particular context of this particular Quaker community as it grew in opposition to the rapacious society it left behind on Earth? Is it a consequence of the fact that the novel is nearly 20 years old and that our attitudes towards mental illness have changed radically (in some respects) in those two decades?
But I also think that the attitude towards mental health is of a piece with the attitude towards the apparently high incidence of birth defects among the population, as well as of that towards people with disabilities, and that all of these are rooted in the Quaker practices of the community aboard the Miller. Moreover, that is actually flagged in the book's first pages, before they've even left Earth, at the end of an exchange that begins with the question "What is impairment?" and notes that they'll be leaving high-level medical technology behind:
This woman stood up after a long, listening silence and said what everyone there already knew—one of the four cardinal principles of the Religious Society of Friends: "Something of the inner light of God lives in every human being." I remember the precise pitch and cadence of her voice, her precisely correct Spanish, and the way the air felt at that moment, charged and vivid. And afterward there was no further questioning about the disabled. (p. 16)
It seems to me that for the Quakers aboard the Miller, they've chosen to live in community in a certain way that takes people as they are and leaves their inner lives between them and however they define that inner light, a way that is absolutely constrained by the low tech base that they accepted when they took ship. The Clearness Committee can intervene in Bjoro and Juko's marriage because it's a matter between two people in the community; there's no committee for each person's individual inner self because the sovereignty of individual conscience is another central principle of Quakerism.
Having said all this—and I was troubled by these issues while reading the book too—it seems to me now that this is Gloss deliberately challenging the reader to grapple with these Quaker principles via how they play out in this community. I have a friend who is a Friend who recommends this book as a Quakerism 101 introduction, and I'm starting to understand why.
Kev McVeigh: Firstly I question the premise of this question. Is space seen as safe? I don't see it quite like that. In Dolores's doubting at the beginning of the novel she does talk of living "within its ceiled and narrow view, in a circumscribed world lying under fields of lamps. Never to see the sky! The stars!" (p. 10) but this is stargazing as spiritual quest not as haven.
Aboard the Dusty Miller the concept of ŝimanas is repeated, the intense melancholic longing for the void is not for safety, though possibly for escape? Juko has gone weeks carefully not looking out, not placing expectations on what she couldn't see.
So space isn't safe. It is awe inspiring, sublime. As Al Poreda says: "looking for a pattern. Not finding it."
On board the ship scale is an issue. Dolores says the toroid is about 2000 meters to walk around. Yet later it seems full of different environments, sub communities and spaces. A large number of people are named but in ways that emphasise familial links. The way people identify others is in the manner of small, insular communities. We see Meetings, but much of what we are shown is how people manage their part in the community rather than what the meeting may do. I'm not sufficiently knowledgeable to say that is specifically a Quaker approach but it does reflect on something Gloss said in an interview about a later novel, Wild Life:
"For centuries now, I guess, we've been carefully learning to separate our bodies (our hearts!) from our minds, and to distrust anything that comes into our consciousness on a tide of emotion."
I felt Juko's difficulties with empathy drew attention repeatedly to other people dealing with things organically. Juko is the rational failing viewpoint among holistic communities that seem to work.
So in such a world of community support and interaction, there has arisen a form of informal care. Dolores taking Arturo home is no big deal, collective grieving is normal, and it fails when the one who needs it is kept separate from the community. Bjoro is traumatised by the deaths on the planet, but has 60 days in confined space and limited company before he is back home.
I was interested that people saw marriage guidance counselling, because that one line about the community meeting counselling the end of the marriage didn't feel like that to me. I took that as a supportive approval of the divorce. Again, it was indicative of the community networks in action. It maintained a civilised veneer on things.
Octavia Cade: I'm the one who characterised space as a place of safety in The Dazzle of Day for the initial question, and I stand by it. Electra wrote about her surprise at the lack of technical capacity present in those aboard the Dusty Miller. And she's right. Granted, we don't see every profession represented by the handful of core characters, but the society as a whole does seem to fall towards the side of intellectual inertia—at least on technical and engineering grounds.
It's because, I think, they feel safe. The Dusty Miller is home. I mean sure, technically it's a migrant ship but generations have been born and died there knowing nothing else. The ship is a constant—and it's an idyllic constant at that. Bright birds, warmth, mangos and other tropical fruits . . . no wonder everyone gets comfortable. (Too comfortable.) No wonder there's dissent when the question comes as to whether or not they should leave for a distinctly less hospitable ecology. In their mental, social background lies Earth, despoiled and no longer home. Before them is a frigid landscape. It's the spaceship they're all used to; that's the place that feels like home and it's safe to be lazy there, because home is safe. It's the place you belong. Earth is frightful, the new planet is scary. It's space that's the haven, the place of we-don't-have-to-make-decisions-yet. The rhythms of life there are almost soporific.
It's also a commentary on mental health. (See, I'm getting to the point eventually. . . .) Juko thinks, "People shouldn't expect their husband or their wife to hold up too much of the weight of their happiness" (p. 46). It's really a very insular viewpoint; one that doesn't rely upon—one that explicitly distances itself—from external stimuli. No wonder their technical capacity is running down . . . the Dusty Miller is the community's mental health in a nutshell. As one can't expect other individuals to be responsible for one's own happiness, so the community can't expect other homes to hold any such similar responsibility. The Dusty Miller is it—not just out of (migratory) circumstance, but out of mental expectation. Consider: if technical capacity is kept up, it's because the community as a whole is dedicated to migration, to maintaining the ability to travel in order to get to another home. But relying on that potential home is giving it responsibility for future happiness—and that is anathema to personal responsibility. Let the scientific know-how wind down, and there's less opportunity to pick and choose that ultimate home. Correspondingly, there's less emphasis on external stimuli as a provider of happiness.
It's why, perhaps, there's so little emphasis on mental health. There's a very fatalist undercurrent: an insularity on a community and individual level. Even the marital counselling was basically some very calm people saying, "we're here, and we'll support what you decide." For a text so concerned with interpersonal relationships, it's curiously island-ish. Which is fitting, in its way, considering the island nature of the Dusty Miller in the first place!
Kev McVeigh: I think I'd interpreted "Space" differently. I was thinking of space as the environment outside the Dusty Miller rather than including the interior of it. So now thinking about it from your perspective, I still don't entirely agree. Space outside the Miller isn't safe, but the Miller itself is perhaps a little cosy.
The technology-lite society is interesting. We don't see a lot of earth in the opening chapter but we are clearly told the estancia is deliberately basic as limited protection from outside. The Dusty Miller reflects that and fits the Quaker environmental philosophy also seen in the main other Quaker SF novel I'm familiar with, Judith Moffett's Pennterra.
SF has often depicted post-technological societies, but rarely shown how they got from spaceflight to primitive. Gloss hints at one pathway for that process by first setting up a less tech-focused society—even a sailship is in some ways a tech-lite transport—and then justifies the decline in knowledge by lack of use. It makes sense, but it also fits Dolores musing in the first pages about the earlier toroid, the Crommelin, being a sterile, self destructive environment. I'm now wondering if there's something here about the insular Quaker society being damaging?
Octavia Cade: I haven't read Pennterra, but I reckon my interpretation has been influenced by outside sources. I don't know if any of you have read Harry Martinson's epic science fiction poem Aniara (seriously, it's book length epic, and is amazing), but it's like The Dazzle of Day was written in response to it, in almost total inversion.
The Aniara is a spaceship full of people sent hurtling off-course, travelling through the stars. It's not a deliberate home, like the Dusty Miller, but everyone on it goes insane and suicides, even killing their own children so that don't have to face the horrible immensity of their lives in space and spaceship. It's the sheer horror of cosmic immensity that does them in (much like Lovecraft with his "Astrophobos"). There's no sense of home, no real united community in the dark, as there is with the Dusty Miller, which is seen as a very real sort of sanctuary, I think. Perhaps the low-tech contributes to that (arguably false) sense of safety? It all does seem rather bucolic, rather utopian. . . . One doesn't really think of mental illness being a significant factor in a low tech agrarian paradise, though of course it exists as much there as anywhere, I suppose.
Your comment about the insular all-Quaker environment being possibly damaging (at least intellectually) is an interesting one. I wonder if that's not something that can apply to all communities though? If the Dusty Miller were full of, say, Methodists or Scientologists would the run-down be the same? There's no possibility of migration, of new bringing in new blood and new ideas. People can shift houses, of course, or move to a different spot on the ship, but wherever they go the culture's essentially the same. Is there a connection between this uniformity/homogeneity and rate of emotional problems? I don't know.
Electra Pritchett: On that note, I was struck by the contrast between Dazzle and the other Quaker SF novel I've read, Still Forms on Foxfield by Joan Slonczewski. (There are only four "Quakers in space" novels I know of; Slonczewski's The Wall Around Eden is the other one besides Pennterra.) I think one of the most interesting contrasts between Dazzle and all three of the other Quakers in space books is that they present the Quaker communities they portray in contrast with other societies and/or alien species—in Foxfield, for example, the Quaker colonists of a planet are caught between their friendly relations with the local alien residents, with whom they've learned to live harmoniously, and the demands of a United Earth government that wants them to rejoin the concord of humanity, but only on its terms, not theirs.
Before I read it, I had the false impression that the conflict in Dazzle revolved around finding intelligent life on the planet and that discovery being the reason for the disagreement about whether or not to carry out the colonization plan. If three books can be called a tradition, it's clear that Gloss is deliberately playing against that Quaker SF tradition in this book, and I do think the Miller feels claustrophobic in multiple senses because they are so isolated in just about every sense. There's no possibility of new ideas coming into the community from outside, or of new people joining, and I initially struggled a bit with the Quakerism of the Miller because it is in some ways unlike the Quakerism I know, precisely because everyone on the Miller was born into it rather than being convinced.
Martin Petto: You'll probably have noticed in my earlier comment that I was dancing around the word "Quaker." I know nothing about them and—unlike everyone else!—haven't read any Quaker SF. I wasn't even clear if Gloss is one and couldn't guess at whether her intention was Quakerism 101 (as Electra suggests) or a thought experiment regarding a particular Quaker community (as Octavia suggests). Either way, I don't find the depicted community very attractive. It is interesting Octavia mentioned Scientologists, because that is the group I was put in mind of whilst reading the book. In terms of public perceptions, Scientologists are clearly seen as "bad" whilst Quakers are seen as "good," but they are essentially advocating the same approach here: a rejection of evidence-based psychiatry in favour of some form of personal spiritual healing. The page 16 quote Electra mentions is one that jumped out at me too. It is a suggestion that disability is divine. Now, there are obviously massive issues of self-identity and disability rights here (I'm most familiar with those relating to the Deaf community) but I thought this was an extraordinarily glib remark that the book holds up as profound.
Separately, I don't think I'd agree with Octavia that the marital counselling is non-interventionist. When the Clearness Committee come to visit Juko after her rape, their approach that could perhaps be described as bluntly spoken home truths: "She said that people knew there was trouble in their marriage when Bjoro butt-fucked his wife as if this were an entitlement rather than a matter for mutual consent." There is a whole mix of gossip and pragmatism here but it most definitely isn't passive. So even with the aversion to clinical approaches, I'd have thought there would be more of a community level approach to shared issues of mental health. And since they all clearly love having meetings to discuss—exhaustively—community issues, it is strange that this extremely pressing issue is never covered. Surely it is a community issue rather than merely one of sovereign individual conscience? But perhaps this is a case of me fundamentally not getting Quakerism.
What is the novel's attitude to science in general, or to different kinds of science? Gloss deliberately sets up some tension between science/engineering and farming/craft, for instance, but does she also choose sides?
Martin Petto: From the comments so far, I think we're all a bit baffled!
Structually, Gloss pulls a double trick on the reader. The prologue is resolutely counter to traditional SF, but then we have a first chapter which is as full-throated sensawunda hard SF as you could want. Ah ha! thinks the reader, she was playing off our expectations. But then Gloss immediately abandons this approach and noticeably it is the last time any of the characters interact with "high technology." Electra mentions the "shockingly low tech base" that we see, but this is offset by the fact that this is still a fully functioning interstellar spaceship (with attendant smaller space shuttles). At first I thought that Gloss's lack of focus on this side of life and the characters' indifference was because they were preparing for a self-sufficient low-tech life on their new planet. Which makes sense but is rather undercut by the suggestion near the end of the book that what they should really do is rebuild the Dusty Miller on the planet's surface. There is no suggestion that this is inherently unfeasible, so I have to think that the shockingly low tech base was all just a bit of smoke and mirrors.
That notwithstanding, there is low-tech and there is low-tech. It might very well be the case that mid-twenty-first century tech doesn't survive a generations-long journey but does that mean you have to jump back to the mid-nineteenth century rather than the mid-twentieth century? The section before that page 16 quote about disability refers to there being no advanced prostheses and no insulin on the Dusty Miller as if they were the same thing. The setting clearly suits Gloss's social SF but she doesn't try very hard to integrate this with her hard SF. She also occasionally shifts from low-tech to anti-tech: I mentioned the response to Humberto's stroke earlier, where the response is basically the laying on of hands. I'm not expecting advanced neurosurgery (though I don't think that would be inherently absurd) but is that really the pinnacle of medicine for a space-faring community? No speech- or physiotherapy?
Octavia Cade: I don't know if Gloss so much as "chooses sides" as chooses interest. It seems to me that she's more interested as an author in the farming/craft side of things, as opposed to science/engineering. Now when writing science fiction, personally I'm far more invested in the biological rather than the physical sciences myself, so I can't really blame her—but in this case, the farming/craft also works better with the themes and Quaker philosophy. No wonder it's what she chooses to emphasise, then.
One of the passages that really struck me was the communal discussion about the leaf-cutter ants. There are two enormous colonies that are (potentially) causing problems, and the community comes together to decide what to do about them. A partial solution is reached through consensus, but it's also partially tabled, really, for another day. (It's the same with the ongoing discussions about what plants can be transplanted to the new planet.) They can do this because there's some give, ecologically, and I think that's the core of how Gloss deals with science. She's less interested in the scientific disciplines of concrete answers—if an engineering problem arises, for instance, there's not really going to be a meeting discussing whether F=ma is going to apply in that particular case. Concrete answers, by their nature, don't require much consensus. There might be debate as to whether or not to fix a specific issue, but how to fix it is a much less malleable problem. There's not the scope for discussion and disagreement and consensus-building as there is in the farming community. Perhaps that's why Gloss shows less interest in the physical sciences? They're there, but there's not the same sort of authorial engagement. At least, that was my impression.
Kev McVeigh: I've been thinking about this all day. I'm not sure I have a lot to add to Octavia's response.
This isn't an anti-science or anti-tech novel, but it looks at a tech-light society. There's a faint hint of technology being neglected as unnecessary, when Bjoro thinks about the boots being designed from old books, but no other comment on the absence of technology.
As noted we don't see medical care but Bjoro does recall "a surgical repair, when he was seven or eight, a benign cyst, and coming up from the anaesthetic afterward" so I think it is just a case of Gloss's focus being on the land.
In the interview about Wild Life she says, "I'm not always writing about wilderness, but the landscape and the way people relate to it are always a part of whatever else I'm writing about."
Electra Pritchett: I agree with Octavia and Kev—on the heels of my thought about the Miller having a shockingly low tech base, I found myself thinking that it wasn't necessarily that it's a low tech base (they are in space, as someone pointed out) but that in a more traditional science fiction novel the authorial and the characters' focus would be on technology as their means of relating to and interacting with their surroundings. (I found myself thinking of movies like Interstellar here, however imprecise the comparison may be.)
So I suppose I've come back around to agreeing with the first question; space seems safe because the people on the Miller aren't obsessing about its physical conditions the way they are about the planet's. Both the actual interior of the torus and the new planet itself, and how people react to them and in them, are clearly way more up Gloss's alley.
As has already been mentioned, The Dazzle of Day is filled with individuals negotiating their place within their community, each chapter taking a different perspective. Which perspectives work best? Which are less convincing? How do the novel's structure and focus on psychological realism challenge the conventions of the SF genre—either positively or negatively?
Octavia Cade: Usually when I read a book that's structured under multiple viewpoints, I'm irritated by something (e.g. not enough Sansa; oh God, is it boring bloody Bran again?) but oddly enough, The Dazzle of Day didn't bother me so much on that front. I was interested in all the characters. Juko I think was my favourite, but there was no-one I disliked, no-one I was uninterested in.
It helped, I think, that they were all so closely tied together. It's a very interconnected novel, and because it takes place in such a limited, enclosed setting for the most part you can see the repercussions from one chapter ripple through to other chapters, other characters. I suppose that's part of Gloss's ecological holism, again—everything's intertwined, everything matters. Hence the focus on small details, the minutiae of daily life (making food at the funeral, bathing practices, the focus on the usual farming chores . . .). In that sense , I suppose, characters are related to actions—the little ones matter as much as the big ones.
So often SF is themed around big events, the sort of special effects overkill that focuses on spectacle rather that the quiet moments of daily life. The Dazzle of Day doesn't do that—or rather, it's more accurate to say it doesn't privilege that. The explorer team crashes on the planet, two of them die, and it's a struggle to get the remainder back to the relative safety of the ship—but this doesn't hog the focus. There's still leafcutter ants to deal with, the care of a stroke patient. . . . I got the sense, reading, that Gloss found all these things equally narratively important.
Kev McVeigh: That interconnected nature is highlighted I think by how so many peripheral characters are defined as somebody's relative or (ex-)lover. That's typical I think of many small, insular communities but Gloss seems to deliberately intertwine her characters in multiple ways. Frequently in fiction people are linked in singular ways, but several generations in a smallish community is clearly going to have multiple bonds as depicted here.
I did have a favourite though, the one who isn't connected. I would love to have had more of Dolores. Her natural, real anxieties about leaving earth combined with her excitement and desires about the new, unfamiliar trees and plants set the tone for the voyage. Nothing aboard the Dusty Miller offers the old fashioned sensawunda of spaceflight. Nor is there any note of jaded, cynical distrust of Space that we might have seen in the New Wave and subsequently. This too is a holistic view, definitely of Space exploration, perhaps through that a minor critique of SF's tendency to come down on one side or the other? There is a degree of simple acceptance of the situation in Juko etc. that is unusual, but realistic.
Electra Pritchett: I'd agree that Dolores's perspective is the most SFnal, while the coda section on the planet is the one that reminded me most of Le Guin, to whom a lot of the blurbs on my paperback copy made reference. I don't think it's entirely accidental that both those sections are the least connected to the core of the book itself, given that I agree that Gloss is deliberately choosing not to privilege SFX or the "sense of wonder" aspect of the story, however you prefer to characterize it. In some ways, given that climate collapse on Earth is the foreground and foundational premise of the story—and that this is a much more plausible idea amongst the general public now than it was in 1997, when the book was published—I'm not surprised that there's not much sense of wonder here. But if Hollywood were telling this story, there would definitely be a much more heroic cast to it, and much more of the special effects sequences that Octavia mentioned; I suppose that's where my comparing the book to Interstellar came from.
Instead, it's a much quieter story, and it's about a community rather than about any one or even two heroic individuals. So in that respect, Gloss couldn't have told the story using anything but these multiple interconnected perspectives; in concert, they place a very different emphasis on the relative importance of events than just Juko or Bjoro or even both of their perspectives would. So the book operates by Quaker principles at the level of its own structure as well as at the level of the events it depicts, which is something that I really appreciate about it.
Martin Petto: Jumping back to a previous point, if Gloss's focus is on landscape then it is very much the landscape of the Dusty Miller's interior. She actually devotes exactly the same amount of time—one chapter—to both the landscape of space and the landscape of the planet (I'm ignoring the prologue and epilogue that bookend the novel here). So I'm not entirely convinced that space is ignored because it is known and the planet is obsessed about because it is unknown. It is the community of the Dusty Miller that is everything; I'd agree that she is more interested in farming and craft and this works better with her focus on Quaker philosophy. Which rather begs the question, why set the novel in space?
This is not to say I don't appreciate it as a science fiction novel. The minutiae of daily life that Octavia mentioned are so often neglected in SF and it is something I really appreciated here. Le Guin was mentioned, but it also put me in mind of Kim Stanley Robinson, whose Antarctica was published the same year as The Dazzle of Day and shares some similarities regarding the accumulation of ritual in new societies (something that is also obviously very important in his earlier Mars trilogy).
He is also someone who uses multiple perspectives to deliver insight into his created communities, something I thought Gloss was less successful at. It is true that there was no particular character I was bored or irritated by but nor was there any character I was particularly interested in. I'd agree that we get the fullest sense of life from Juko but my favourite character—although that is a bit strong—was Kristina. Still, I couldn't help wondering where her sense of humour was. The ŝimanas is in full effect: the characters are an unleavened bunch, the tone of their thoughts similar, the spark of vitality almost gone out. There are good reasons why this might be but the author doesn't explore them and it doesn't make the reader's task any better.
The Dazzle of Day is just under 20 years old. You've talked a bit about it as Quaker SF, and you've mentioned similarities with the work of Le Guin and with Robinson. Do you see it as being part of any other other traditions (SF or otherwise), and if so, in what ways, what dialogues is it engaging or ignoring? Or from another angle, to pick up on Martin's question: why is it set in space?
Kev McVeigh: Kim Stanley Robinson is very much the obvious reference point for me. I think Gloss shares with Robinson an interest in process more than results. All those Meetings. . . .
Martin Petto: On process versus results, I think Robinson sees all those meetings as a form of praxis; the point is always progress, even if is is slow. For Gloss's characters, the meetings seem like they are much more an end in themselves. So I was surprised that The Dazzle Of Day wasn't more in the vein of utopian feminist science fiction. I was expecting advocacy, even evangelicism, but instead found something much more passive. I guess that fits with the Quaker approach: that the silences are as important as the words and that internal revelation is the key thing.
Electra Pritchett: As a Quaker, I can very much vouch that the Meetings are the end in themselves, whether they're meetings for business or Meeting for Worship. (NB: I can only speak for unprogrammed styles of Meeting, which is what the Quakers on the Miller practice.) So I'd agree with the assessment that this is not a novel about processes—which is perhaps symbolized by Humberto's speaking in the final meeting, since it comes as something of a revelation and turns the minds of people in the community of the Miller accordingly. Another tip-off is the fact that there are disputes on the Miller that have been unresolved for 100 years because no one has been able to reach consensus on them, which is mentioned in passing and is also very Quaker, and very much a kind of inefficient way of doing things that isn't usually seen in SF narratives. Consensus is the ends, but also the means.
I do want to register that I read the novel as deeply feminist, and that the Quakerism and the feminism of the book are two sides of the same coin. We've talked about Gloss eschewing heroic narratives and Hollywood-style action set pieces, and about the importance of the community rather than the individuals in the novel, and both those strategies seem deeply feminist to me. The content of The Dazzle of Day is definitely much less overtly feminist than, say, Slonczewski's Still Forms on Foxfield, but both books employ similar feminist, Quaker strategies at the level of method.
Octavia Cade: At the risk of stating the obvious, it's set in space because that's the quickest and easiest was of making the community an island. It's a closed system, deliberately so, which I think concentrates the "Quaker-ness" of it all. I don't know how long the Meeting structure of the community would last if the community was open to outsiders.
But the island nature is interesting, biologically speaking. One of the SF traditions this book falls into is, clearly, terraforming. There's an ongoing concern about what types of organisms can be usefully introduced to the new planet, in order to make habitation easier, for example. And I think the final chapter shows just how great the ecological change is—though of course some of the mentioned plants/animals might well be native, it's just that the readers didn't encounter them on the scouting mission.
Both the planet and the Dusty Miller are islands, of a sort. Biologically, islands can be highly diverse, each with an extremely specialised set of organisms—think of Hawaii, for instance, or my own New Zealand. They're places where adaptation is king. The Dusty Miller is not dynamic at all—socially or ecologically. Yes, it's got a number of species but there isn't the time for them to evolve, for one, and even if they did, non-productive variants are likely to be weeded out by the human factor. So you take this very concentrated, insular "fake" island, and transplant it to a different type of island? It makes me wonder how long that essential "Quaker-ness" will last, because environment shapes organism. (Will the birds become flightless in the absence of predators? Will their little finch beaks change?) Let's not forget that one of the reasons that this Quaker society left Earth to begin with was that they were being encroached upon, that they were losing the ability to keep themselves separate.
Now obviously in this world, in our world, Quakers function perfectly well integrated in with the rest of society. But I'm wondering if Gloss hasn't exaggerated the desire to be separate in order to 1) provide an impetus for the plot, and 2) underline (or even undermine, there's an argument for either) the whole social philosophy of it.
For further discussion:
- What does the prologue add to the novel? More broadly, does science fiction have a problem with prologues?
- The Dazzle of Day's answer to the old question of space exploration—"what will we find out there?"—is a very prosaic, "Only what we bring with us." The Quaker principles of inclusion by which the Dusty Miller's inhabitants choose to populate the torus in the prologue come full circle in the climax, when a man whose speech is unintelligible due to a stroke nonetheless brings his Meeting and eventually the entire community to consensus about the overarching concern of their entire journey. How do the Quakers' attitudes towards disability (and, for that matter, technology) compare with other SFnal portrayals of characters with disabilities?
- Circles, in fact, appear or are mentioned regularly in the novel; the process of the Meeting is described in the prologue as "not back and forth, but circling around," the Dusty Miller itself is a toroid, and so on. How else does Gloss use circles in The Dazzle of Day, as image, as structure, as theme?
- To what extent is the novel explicitly a critique of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny?
- The combination of psychological realism and Quaker principles underlying the plot pushes the limits of the SF genre in some extremely unorthodox ways. Does it work? Is the novel still "science fiction"—and what's at stake in that question?
- Does the text suffer from avoidance of big issues, especially when it spends so much time focusing on very minor conflicts? For instance, one can argue that, by raping his wife, Bjoro is taking out his horror at the natural, inhuman space of the planet on the nearest available warm body. He's not so specially psychologically defective, however—if his reaction is typical (and there's no reason to think it won't be), how does the Quaker avoidance of conflict in favour of consensus plan to address this coming enormous social problem?
- Having completed what some call a "Quakerism 101" book, what do you think is the point of using Quakerism to tell this particular story? What's the payoff? What are the drawbacks?
- For all the emphasis on holistic ecologies, and the equally strong emphasis on consensus, there is little discussion of the ecology left behind. Not Earth, but the Dusty Miller—organisms such as tanagers and mango trees aren't going to survive on a planet of, essentially, tundras and frigidity. There will be a whole ecosystem left behind on the dying ship. What responsibility do the colonists have to it, when they were such an essential part of keeping it going? Can they justify its abandonment?
- A lot of people have compared Gloss's writing in this book to Ursula Le Guin's work. Is that comparison is productive or apt? Why, or why not?
- Is this the most depressing utopia ever written?
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