Tuesday, October 01, 2019

On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

The really impressive creators are the ones who seem to be able to do anything -- who jump from genre to genre semi-randomly, going wherever their latest ideas take them.

My go-to example of that for the last couple of decades has been Neil Gaiman, whose first six book-sized objects were each honestly described as his first something. But I'm thinking that I might be able to freshen up that example if Tillie Walden continues the way she's been going.

Walden is young -- still on the uphill side of her twenties -- and burst into wide notice with her 2017 memoir in comics form, Spinning. Before that, she did a few shorter books, which I haven't seen yet. (I believe they're mostly in the vein of realistic fiction, but I'm starting to think that belief underestimates Walden.) Spinning was, more or less, the story of Walden's teen years: her life in competitive figure skating, her coming out, her realizing who she wanted to be. Her big follow-up to Spinning is this book: On a Sunbeam.

Now, if you come into the publishing world through the memoir door, there's a certain pressure and expectation to do that again the next time. Or, at least, to tell a fictional story about someone who could be you, in a world like the ones you know well.

Walden was having none of that.

On a Sunbeam is a soft-SF story, set in a wide universe sometime in the medium future, with weird technology that feels semi-biological and which Walden presents as thoroughly lived in. She never stoops to an infodump; this universe exists and the people in it do, too -- she may have figured out the details in her head (or maybe not; it's not necessary), but there's no look-at-how-clever-I-was-to-make-all-of-this-up gloating. She just has a story to tell, about a young woman named Mia who maybe has a little problem with impulse control.

We first see Mia at about nineteen. She's just joined the crew of a ship -- whose name we don't learn for a long time, so I won't mention it here -- run by a small team that rehabilitate ruined buildings on assignment. (I don't want to say that On a Sunbeam's world doesn't make sense, because that's not the right way to put it. It does feel like we're in a very odd, quirky corner of that world, though -- the cultural equivalent of something like artisinal bread-making or microbrewing, a haven for oddballs and weirdos.) She's just out of school, and almost equal parts quietly confused and excitedly racing.

But we also see a younger Mia, about five years before,when she was still at her fancy private school Cleary's. (The school may fly around space on its own: this isn't entirely clear.) She was not a terribly good student, and she was not a terribly diligent student, but she did OK. She desperately wanted to play Lux, the weirdo sport that involves racing small fish-shaped flying spaceships through convoluted tunnels in the dark, and she was even more impulsive than she would be at nineteen, but the Cleary's plot -- despite at first seeming that way -- isn't the story of how she just barely avoided being expelled or worse.

No, it's the story of her first love: Grace, who showed up unexpectedly the middle of that year, quiet and self-contained and sure she was going to become a writer.

The two stories do intersect, and combine, before the end, as they must: that's how a book set in two time-periods works (particularly if they're so close in time as this one). Grace is from a particularly strange and dangerous part of this universe, and Mia's new crew has to go to that place before On a Sunbeam is over.

Walden does subvert the expected teen-love-conquers-all tropes looming over it all: more than once, actually. Mia and Grace are nothing like Romeo and Juliet, and nobody's going to die for love if any of the characters can help it.

They might die for other reasons: the planet called The Staircase can be pretty deadly.

There's one further quirky thing about this universe -- well, only quirky if you're not familiar with a long strand of SF, from Sheri Tepper on back through Joanna Russ all the way to Charlotte Perkins Gilman. They're all women. [1] This is not mentioned or remarked on, the same way they never point out that they eat food to stay alive or that clothes are worn on the outside of the body. It's just the way this society is: men do not exist.

(I'll forgive Walden for erasing my entire gender, since it was in service of the story. As long as erasing huge swaths of humanity doesn't become a habit.)

On a Sunbeam has a lovely loose line, moody colors, an often over-enthusiastic young cast, a big weird universe to wander around, and a lovely (and completely non cloying) first love story to recommend it. So I do. And I expect the next Tillie Walden book will be something else both completely different and deeply familiar: some other young woman finding her way in a complex, messy world.

[1] One character, Elliott, is called non-binary, and "uses they/them pronouns". Both of those things seem entirely the wrong terms for this fictional world, frankly, and show a failure of Walden to think through what she's created. You can't be non-binary if everyone else is unitary.

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