Sat
Dec 26 2009 12:55pm

Quakers in Space: Molly Gloss’s The Dazzle of Day

The Dazzle of Day is an astonishing short novel about a generation starship.

There have been plenty of books set on generation starships by everyone from Heinlein to Wolfe, but thing that makes this stand out is how astonishingly real the characters are, and how well fitted to their world. Gloss has an immense gift for getting inside people’s heads. This story is about people both like and unlike us—they are culturally Quakers and they’ve been living on the ship for generations, which makes them very different, and yet they’re unmistakably people. They’re my favourite kind of characters, people I can understand and get inside their heads, and yet very different from the standard kinds of people you get in books. They’re very much individuals, not types, and they’re very much shaped by their culture and experiences.

The book opens with a piece of a memoir from a woman on Earth who’s considering going on the ship, then the middle section consists of the rotating points of view of an extended family a hundred and seventy-five years later as the ship is approaching a planet, then it ends with a piece of memoir from a woman living on the new planet a hundred years after that. The way they live, the expectations they have of family and work and decision making are all very unusual, but they take them for granted and so I absorb them naturally as I’m reading. The characters, whose ancestors came from Japan, Costa Rico, and Norway, speak Esperanto, and Esperanto is used in the text for a few words for things we don’t have, which gives it an unusual flavour.

This is only the second time I’ve read this, as I completely missed it when it was published in 1997. I think of a second reading of a book as completing my read, a first reading is preliminary and reactions to a first reading are suspect. I loved this book just as much the second time. It’s very well written and very absorbing. It isn’t a cheerful story though—thematically it’s about worlds and boundaries, and it’s about those things very much on a human scale. This very much isn’t a fantasy of political agency, one of the things it faces is the knowledge that change can be frightening, that responsibility can, but that the answer to that is not refusing to change or refusing to accept responsibility. I sometimes read something and think “I’d have loved this when I was eleven.” I’d have hated The Dazzle of Day when I was eleven, it’s all about grown-ups, it has a lot of older women as significant characters, and while being on the generation starship is essential to everything, everything that’s important is internal. But I love it now for those very things. If there’s an opposite of a YA book, this is it.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

16 comments
James Goetsch
1. Jedikalos
I have to stop reading your reviews--since I always go and buy the book afterward! I need to ration myself to one review per week!

But seriously: thanks for calling my attention to all these lovely books I somehow missed along the way.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
Jedikalos: Thank you. And really I can't be sorry to have more people reading good books.
paulsokoloff
3. paulsokoloff
I read this book when I first moved out on my own, and those themes of change and responsibility really resonated with me back then, this book is still one of my favorites.

Echoing the above: thanks for the pointing this one out.
Kenneth Sutton
4. kenneth
I need to see if I still have my copy. I loved it when I read it the first time.

And as a Quaker, it amazes me that we are used so often in science fiction. I suppose there's the allure of the exotic (accurate or not) while still being regular people.
pete hindle
5. petehindle
Coming from a sci-fi loving Quaker family, I think I'm going to have to check this book out.

Although, unlike Kenneth (above), I can't think of any other SF where Quakers turn up. Any hints?
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
PeteHindle: Judith Moffett's Pennterra leaps to mind.
paulsokoloff
7. debraji
PeteHindle: A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski seemed to me to be deeply influenced by Quaker principles.
paulsokoloff
8. Rush-That-Speaks
I should really read this as Wild Life was so good. Jo, have you read Wild Life? It does one of the most beautiful gradual inversions of points of view I've ever seen. But for some reason it never occurred to me to hunt up her others.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Rush: I have it on order from the library.
paulsokoloff
10. judithmoffett
Google alerted me to the reference to Pennterra, and I followed the trail to this site.

When I was working on Pennterra, in the mid-1980's, there was only one other "Quaker" sf novel out there: Joan Slonczewski's Still Forms on Foxfield, written while the author was an undergraduate at, I think, Yale. Amazon still has a few copies. A Door Into Ocean is permeated with Quaker values but Still Forms on Foxfield is *about* Quakers in space!

Pennterra was recently reissued by Fantastic Books as a trade paperback, btw. Maybe nonviolence is becoming a hotter topic?
paulsokoloff
11. Other Alias 2
Crossfire, by Nancy Kress. One of the main characters is a Quaker.
paulsokoloff
12. OtterB
I read this a couple of months ago and enjoyed it quite a bit. I tend to have my radar tuned for that rare breed of book (rare in general, but perhaps especially so in our genre) where characters' spiritual beliefs are an important part of their lives, and the characters are neither (a) superstitious fools being taken for a ride by a charlatan, nor (b) rigid dogmatists who are scheduled to Learn the Error of Their Ways. One of the reasons I liked this so much.

I have The Hearts of Horses - historical, not SFF - on my TBR pile and should dig it out; thanks for the reminder. And then look for Wild Life in the library.
paulsokoloff
13. Stasa
Slonczewski did her undergraduate at Bryn Mawr, a Quaker college outside Philadelphia. I have really enjoyed her work. The scene in Still Forms on Foxfield with the Quaker re-enactors puzzling at the "real life" Quakers over Meeting for Worship floats to the front of my brain every so often at unexpected, sometimes irreverent, moments. I totally agree about Quaker principles in Door Into Ocean. (Must go re-read both of those, and find some of her newer work.)

Molly Gloss is amazing. I had the privilege of meeting her this year, twice: once, she read from The Hearts of Horses; the other, she read a short science fiction story. She really is fabulous in person as well as in print. I was rather surprised to learn that she's not Quaker, because Dazzle of Day is so true to my experience as a Friend! Immersion research works, I guess; she said she pretty much lived at the Meetinghouse while working on that book.

Wild Life, for which she won a Tiptree, is her other science fiction novel. She said she does more science fiction in her short stories, but that in her short stories and her novels, she is always looking to tell the untold women's stories. You can certainly see that in HOH, too, as well as in the rest of her work.
Neil Blonstein
14. neil_nachum
Dear Bluejo,

1.I've been studying the relationship between Esperanto and Quakerism.
2.I joined just to convey to you that as a long-time esperantist, I met in the early 1970's with the head of the New York Esperanto Society, Mark Starr, at a talk by Isaac Asimov (at a large synogogue) to convince him of the virtues of Esperanto. Mark spoke publically for a minute and Isaac responded for a minute-but I don't remember details of his response.
I occasionally mention it and more recently was exploring the Esperanto Office of New York and found an article by Nanette Asimov, Isaac's niece. I found her e-mail (in early January 2010) and she downloaded a copy for me of her interview of several Esperantists for the San Francisco Chronicle (1986) . She still writes for the Chronicle.
Otherwise it was never on-line before. PS Do we know eachother--since I've been to Montreal among Esperantists a few times. neil_nachum
Jo Walton
15. bluejo
Neil: I'm not an Esperantist -- I struggle enough with French.
Benjamin Safford
16. benjamins
I knew I wanted to read this book when I first read this post, but I had to move to Austin to do it (where it was among the first pile of books I checked out from the library). I ought to have just bought it when I read the post, though, because I'm certainly going to now.

I'm too overwhelmed by how beautiful this book was to say much else. Thank you so much for bringing it to my attention.

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