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Up the Walls of the World

The government's psychic experiment brings about first contact—or is it a prelude to invasion?

*Up the Walls of the World
*By James Tiptree Jr.
*First published 1978

Review by A.M. Dellamonica

D octor Daniel Dann is comfortably parked in a government research job, monitoring a number of supposed psychics who are trying to prove they might have military value. His duties are light—monitoring his patients' health before and after experiments—and leave him plenty of room for soothing old emotional wounds by taking prescription drugs in limitless quantities. All Dann wants is to be left in his pharmaceutical cocoon, tending to his low-maintenance patients and nursing a wistful crush on the project's computer programmer, Margaret Omali.

Our Pick: A

Suddenly, though, his peace is shattered. The marginal research project begins to yield solid results, and naval security on Dann and the others tightens alarmingly. Questions are asked, restrictions imposed and the ESP test subjects are as frightened as the people testing them. Their fear is well-founded, because soon enough it becomes apparent there is an external reason for their success. With an outside force acting upon the psychics, everyone must ask—is that force benevolent?

The answers lie far away from Earth on a world called Tyree, where fantastic beings inhabit the skies. The fliers, as they are known, wield psychic powers stronger than anything the human science team has imagined. Tyree is in danger of destruction, though, and some of its people will do anything to escape with their children. Using their immensely focused minds, the fliers have punched through to the thoughts of America's little clump of psychics. Doctor Dann and his patients are the subjects of a new experiment—one which will determine whether the people of Tyree can escape the coming death of their world by taking refuge in human bodies!

A well-stocked cosmic candy store

Written in 1978, James Tiptree Jr.'s Up The Walls of the World combines the bright optimism of Golden Age SF with rock-solid characterization and a pleasingly chewy ethical complexity. Its setting is indisputably rich, and the fliers of Tyree are one of SF's most convincing alien races. At first, it seems there can be nothing human about the fliers—they have never lived on the surface of a planet, and do not even possess a sense of sight. But even as these creatures surf the skies, listen to the electromagnetic radiation of their sun and stars and swap memories back and forth telepathically, they also struggle with power and politics—questions of right and wrong, even the role of gender in a society where child-rearing is the most prestigious of jobs.

The guide to Tiptree's tour of this society is an adventure-loving female named Tivonel, whose zest for life is so infectious it fairly leaps off the page. Compassionate and energetic, she is at the heart of the flier effort to find an honorable way to save their young from death. Despite her efforts, the contact with Earth is messy and violent, driven as it is by crisis. One faction of flier Fathers is determined to escape the doomed world by any means necessary. To Tivonel's dismay, their efforts maroon Doctor Dann and his friends on Tyree, human minds caught in flier bodies.

Up The Walls of the World is like a well-stocked candy store—everything it offers is entirely sweet and thoroughly compelling. By turns, readers can sample Dann's emerging friendship with Tivonel, a mystery that threatens the safety of a galaxy, and the humans' delight in flying, which cannot be wiped out even by approaching death. The human-alien interaction, the fliers themselves and the mounting tension as Tyree's disintegration approaches all exert a grip on the imagination that is purely unbreakable.

This book has an upbeat tone, a lack of cynicism, that makes it seem less recent and less sophisticated than it in fact is. It's worth revisiting, even if you have read it once or twice before. — A.M.D.

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