A Second Life for a First-Rate Science Fiction Novel: The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss

The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss—first published in 1997, this week reissued in a new edition by Saga Press—is the kind of novel that got me into science fiction in the first place. It is full of careful character study, richly detailed environments, and a society that is both familiar and strange. While I don’t much fuss over hard science as a reader—I will allow a lot of latitude in service of metaphor—I’m aware of when it’s done well, and appreciate the care taken to get things right. I’m even more impressed when the hard science can dovetail into the larger themes without sacrificing one or the other, but enhancing both. Molly Gloss checks all the boxes. Which is to say, man, but The Dazzle of Day is a fine novel.

The narrative is bookended by the reminiscences of two older women as they contemplate the environments and societies they inhabit. The first of them is a resident of Earth, awake in the small hours and unable to sleep. In the morning, she plans to take the shuttle up to the generation ship that will bear an international community of Quakers to a far distant planet. Or maybe she won’t; her mood is one of anticipatory nostalgia, ruminating on the failing crops, the vanishing species, the dying earth. The other woman is the inhabitant of another world, recounting her life through the lens of one stunning event—the kind of watershed moment that brings about thoughts of the tides of life and the undercurrents of death that make up a person, and a world.

The novel between these parenthetical vignettes largely takes place on a generation ship which has finally arrived at its destination planet (or the first of two possible planets). It is a cold, geologically active, and sere place—a stark contract to the environment of the ship, which roughly approximates the Costa Rican origins of many of its original occupants. (People from Japan and Scandinavia also joined that years-ago voyage, with Esperanto used as the ship’s language; a smattering of words in that language make it into the text, and all names rendered with Esperantan spelling.)

Pushed into the transition between travelers and colonists, the ship’s population must decide whether to stay and make a go of life on the harsh, primordial world, or to press on another two generations to the next plausibly habitable planet. Complicating the issue is the age of the ship and the inevitable wear and tear of the voyage; the vessel and its ecosystem are fragile and, in some cases, failing. Several species of plants and animals have gone extinct onboard, and birth defects are common due to the constant exposure to the high radiation levels of space.

Our time on the ship is spent in the company of a loose family of people: a husband and wife, his mother, her son and his father. The time laps, and the concerns of their lives—farming, maintaining the ship—are as least as urgent (if not more so) than the question mark that is the planet below, and whether they will stay. The story is made up of the kinds of events that happen in the punctuated equilibrium of lives lived, and we often only get the resolution of one person’s story as a glancing observation from another’s point of view—or not at all: a shuttle suffers a disastrous landing on the planet, but the reunion of one of the survivors with his wife is yet more devastating. A man goes about his day, and then has a stoke. A woman’s companion in mending the ship’s sails inexplicably commits suicide, and she must pull his body inside to his waiting family.

The title comes from one of Walt Whitman’s poems in Leaves of Grass, “After the Dazzle of Day,” a single quatrain about how it is silence that perfects the symphony. The allusion dovetails nicely with the ethos of the society onboard the generation ship: the primary makeup of that first crew, more than a century ago, was Quaker, and Quaker worship has always been rooted in expectant waiting—in listening in the silence for the quiet word. Not everyone is particularly faithful, but the structure of life of the ship—from its reliance on consensus over majority rule to the unprogrammed, leaderless meeting style—flows out of Quaker practice and philosophy.

The Dazzle of Day is a beautiful, quiet, thinking novel, filled with introspection and a vibrant sense of place. I missed its publication over 20 years ago—a span of time that feels surprising, given how relevant it feels to the here and now. I am grateful Molly Gloss’ recent literary resurrection has brought this lovely novel to my attention.

The Dazzle of Day and two more of Molly Gloss’s SFF novels are available now from Saga Press. Her first collection of short fiction arrives this summer. 

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