The Dazzle of Day – Review Book by Molly Gloss Reviewed by Carl Abbott
Here’s a challenge: Write a novel in which a Quaker business meeting is the dramatic pivot point . . . and make it a compelling read.
That’s the challenge that Molly Gloss meets in her science fiction novel The Dazzle of Day.
The story begins in a Quaker community in Costa Rica. Residents are trying to decide whether to join the interstellar journey of the starship Dusty Miller, which is about to embark on a multi-century voyage in search of a habitable planet. The body of the novel then jumps 175 years ahead, when the ship is nearing a star system with a planet that is habitable but far from ideal. The passengers will have to decide whether to risk adapting to a cold, windswept environment or to continue their search in an aging and slowly deteriorating ship. Being steeped in Quaker ways, they will engage in a lot of talking before they decide – and a business meeting will mark the point of decision.
In a universe that respects Einsteinian physics, the speed of starships is limited by the speed of light. Without wormhole or warp drive as a convenient work-around, a ship will take decades or generations to reach even moderately close star systems. The generation that launched the ship will die before it reaches its destination. Only their grandchildren or great-grandchildren will see a new world. In the meanwhile, successive generations live in a massive ship-world that is large enough to maintain a fully functioning ecology.
Molly Gloss is a Portlander who writes both science fiction and historical fiction. Set in the American West, her historical novels – including The Jump-Off Creek and The Hearts of Horses – highlight strong, independent women. In The Dazzle of Day, women are the glue that keeps their supremely isolated community functioning.
Gloss is a meticulous researcher, as her historical novels demonstrate admirably. For Dazzle of Day, she put in research time at the library of George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. Not herself a Friend, Gloss also studied a variety of meeting minutes stored in the George Fox University and Northwest Yearly Meeting archives.
The book introduces Quaker practice gradually. We first sit in on a First Day meeting for worship, attended by half the adults in what amounts to a small co-housing community. Over several pages, the meeting’s participants offer a series of disconnected messages. Members of the Ministry and Counsel Committee, responsible for sensing the time to close meeting have been “erring on the side of inaction.” One character likes their “inefficient spiritualness” better than the approach of earlier committee members who “were without sufficient silence.”
As the story proceeds, Gloss reproduces other familiar aspects of Quaker process. A committee meets to deal with some practical matters and goes around in circles. Different clerks have different styles. One lets the opening silence at business meeting stretch longer than many prefer. Another gets flak for sitting atop a table so she can see everyone: Isn’t she putting herself above everyone else?
The housing in the spaceship clusters into eight neighborhoods with regular monthly meetings. Attendance at Alaudo Monthly Meeting is usually fifteen or twenty people, out of two hundred adults, everyone else being willing to leave things up to the few folks who either like to talk or to get things done. With the momentous decision about the ships’ future before them, however, seventy or even eighty people have been turning out, leading to rambling meetings that the clerk can’t keep from straying into debates about details. “Lately it was the same dozen or so who would stand and offer their voices, people not known for the weight of their judgment, but for not being timid.”
Like a cozy, ingrown meeting, the Dusty Miller has become a mental cocoon through its familiarity. The ship encapsulates and protects its inhabitants, but at the expense of creating a quietly mounting sense of unease and dissatisfaction. Something has to be done. A decision will have to be made before the ship’s trajectory carries it past the planet.
In the crucial meeting for business, speakers voice practical concerns about the new planet and, simultaneously, their comfort with the familiar – all in ways that echo the caution with which a comfortable meeting may approach any new venture. If they are seriously thinking about dismantling their ship to reuse its elements on the new planet, why not stay in the ship and save the trouble? “I don’t see why we need to come out into the sunlight,” says one resident. “We’re doing pretty well, after all. . . . We ought to just stay right here.”
As the meeting continues, other voices rise. The voyagers may fear the new, but they also fear for the future of their ship. Social pressure can be intense in a community with no physical escape valve – no hills to head to, no rivers to cross. Many suffer feelings of loneliness and powerlessness that lead to depression and sometimes suicide. Systems may function smoothly from day to day, but as one voyager says, “We’re living in a mechanical thing, eh? And we’ve got to work hard to keep it from going to ruin.” Having started with ideas about reproducing a protected environment on the planet, then veering into arguments for avoiding the surface entirely, the group finally acknowledges that the Miller is frightening as well as comforting. They begin to hold up the excitement of taking the planet on its own terms and reentering the natural world: “We ought to be listening to this New World instead of asking it so many questions.”
The meeting ends without obvious resolution or summarizing speeches, but with a growing sense that the ship has locked minds and spirits onto narrow tracks and that there is no option but to choose the planet. “If we want to live there,” says one participant at the pivotal meeting, “it ought to be on the old terms, eh? as the old Quakers lived, joining our hands to the world God made.”
Gloss does not follow this understated climax with more dramatic action. She doesn’t care to show any details of parallel discussions in other villages or the follow-up decisions or the initial colonization. She simply lets readers realize that things have fallen into place, that a sense of the community has coalesced. The epilogue skips ahead by decades to show planet-born inhabitants now adapted to a new life, having found through much trouble what kind of place the new world had for them.
Gloss’s version of Quaker process is spot-on in the essentials, even if a bit off in occasional details. She recently wrote me, “I took some liberties, since I was writing about the future and a community that had been isolated from Earth (evolving their own ways of doing things) for 175 years. And I gave myself leeway for things to work out well. Utopia, and all that. Fiction, and all that!”
The climactic business meeting reminds me of weighty decisions in my own meeting – how to deal with the question of same-sex marriage when it arose for us in the 1980s, whether to remodel our Meetinghouse or find another location. It is easy to favor the familiar. Sometimes the mild voices are the ones that can call forth unexpected agreement. Decisions for change come with incremental steps and then seem to fall into place, leaving us to wonder why it took so long to get there.
Quaker-themed science has often focused on the public presence and testimonies of the Society of Friends – Judith Moffett’s Pennterra or David Morse’s The Iron Bridge, for example. In The Dazzle of Day, Molly Gloss manages to make Quaker process engaging, suspenseful, and compelling. ~~~
Carl Abbott’s most recent book is Imagining Urban Futures: Cities in Science Fiction and What We Might Learn from Them. He is a member of Multnomah Friends Meeting in Portland, OR (NPYM).