19 December 2007

Yesterday's Tomorrows: James Tiptree, Jr.

by Graham Sleight

from Locus Magazine, June 2007

James Tiptree, Jr. (1983)
James Tiptree, Jr. 1983 Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, James Tiptree, Jr. (Arkham House 0-87054-160-9, $25.95, 520pp, hc) June 1990. Cover by Andrew Smith; (Tachyon Publications 1-892-39120-1, $15.95, 508pp, pb) 2004. Cover by John Picacio.

Brightness Falls from the Air, James Tiptree, Jr. (Tor 0-312-93097-6, $14.95, 382pp, hc) March 1985.

Meet Me at Infinity, James Tiptree, Jr. (Tor 0-312-85874-4, $25.95, 396pp, hc) February 2000. Cover by John Harris.

So far as I can remember, I've always believed that James Tiptree, Jr. was a woman. I'm pretty sure that the first time I saw the name was as a teenage Interzone-reader. The magazine announced the death in 1987 of Alice Sheldon and her husband Huntington and that Alice had written SF under the name Tiptree. So when I first encountered Tiptree's work, through a library copy of her second and last novel, Brightness Falls from the Air (1985), the lack of biographical information on the book was filled in by what I knew already. Soon after that came the Arkham House edition of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (1990), one of the first hardbacks I ever bought and still one of my most read. Its introduction by John Clute set out clearly some more of the facts of Tiptree's life, including Robert Silverberg's famous assertion that her writing was "ineluctably masculine." I was in the position of seeing that Tiptree's gender had been problematic for others without having that problem myself. (Or so I thought.) I'm sure that almost everyone now reading Tiptree must be aware of who she really is; and for many, like me, it seems there never was a veil to be torn aside.

We're now in something of a Tiptree renaissance. Julie Phillips's superb biography, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, was published last year and has been receiving the plaudits it deserves both inside and outside the SF field. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is back in print from Tachyon, though inexplicably without the Clute introduction. And the Tiptree Award, founded after Alice Sheldon's death to honor SF that explores gender issues, arguably has a higher profile than many more general SF awards — not least through the Tachyon-published series of Tiptree Award anthologies.

The premise of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, as conceived by the late Arkham House editor James Turner, was that Tiptree's greatest work was the short fiction written between about 1970 and 1977. This work had been scattered among four paperback original collections but never before collected in one place. The first story it contains, "The Last Flight of Doctor Ain" (1969), embodies a number of her most characteristic concerns and strategies. On first reading, it's baffling for much of its length. The eponymous doctor travels the world, passing through airports where everyone seems to be suffering with the flu, all the while preoccupied with an unnamed woman. He gives a strange presentation at a scientific conference about a rewired leukaemia virus he has created. As his colleagues realise, he has been spreading the virus as he travels, with the intention of wiping out the humans who have been despoiling the planet. The woman he loves is the Earth itself. The oil slicks and deforestation noted earlier in the story, almost at random, were in fact deliberately placed details. He dies at the end, a harbinger of the many deaths to come, but dreaming in his delirium of the planet free of humans. And all this in seven pages.

The density of "The Last Flight of Doctor Ain" is its most striking characteristic. But there's also an interesting ambivalence about what civilisation does. On the one hand, the story of course deplores the violence done by humanity to the planet. (This feeling is made even plainer in the "Comment on the Last Flight of Doctor Ain" collected in the Tiptree miscellany Meet me at Infinity [2000].) But at the same time, I think, there's regret at what will be destroyed by Ain. It's not just the huge (probably total) loss of life, but also the accumulated achievements of civilisation. The scientific conference Ain stops at is a very high kind of achievement (a negentropic one, to use a favorite Tiptree word). Anyone coming after Ain will have to start from scratch.

This is made far more explicit in another story of a civilisation under threat, "On the Last Afternoon" (1972). The main character, Mysha, is an elderly representative of a small colony on an alien world. Early on in the story, we get this overview:

He pulled himself up from the case of tapes and frowned out over the mild green sea, rubbing his wrecked thigh. The noion's grove stood on a headland beside the long beach. To the left lay the colony's main fields, jungle-rimmed. Below him to his right were the thatch roofs, the holy nest itself. Granary, kilns, cistern, tannery and workshops, the fish sheds. The dormitories, and four individual huts, one his and Beth's. At the center was the double heart: the nursery and the library-labs: their future and their past.
The colony is under threat from vast native creatures who are about to arrive at this place to mate, as they have done in the past. When they do, they will destroy the human settlement without even noticing it. Mysha has come to the alien noion — seemingly an old plant or geological formation like "an abandoned termite nest" — because he feels it offers a kind of hope. He believes it might, through a kind of telepathy, be able to turn back the mating creatures. It becomes clear that it can, but that it can also offer Mysha escape — transcendence among the stars. Mysha's agonised debate about which choice to make takes place against the background of the mating creatures' arrival. The scenes of apocalypse that ensue are hugely compelling, but so is the intensity of Mysha's internal debate. Should he make a choice for himself as an individual or for the group? Perhaps Tiptree's most individual characteristic as a writer is directness. At her best, she is able to create fictional structures that sustain questions of this simplicity without descending into bathos or staginess. In the end, Mysha falters at the crucial moment and chooses neither of the noion's offers; as the devastating last line has it, "A vast impersonal tonnage fell upon him and the stars ravelled away from his brain." "On the Last Afternoon" is a story that always leaves me feeling physically exhausted in a way that few other works of art do.

Tiptree's vision here is tragic in the Hamlet sense: things come to a calamitous end because of a flaw in the main character. Many of her stories, though, arrive at tragic conclusions because of unavoidable flaws in a creature's biology or culture. "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side" (1972), for instance, is set in a spaceport where humans are encountering aliens. The story told by one of the humans argues that we will always be profoundly needy because of our desire to explore and discover the new, and that our neediness will be expressed through our sexual desires. It's a brilliant inversion of the SF staples about humanity winning out because of being the grittiest/toughest/smartest species on the block. "A Momentary Taste of Being" (1975), the longest story in the collection, advances the argument further through a story of a deep-space exploratory mission. Humans wish for the alien, but once they've encountered it they find their lives exhausted, dreamless, and empty. (The image we're given in the story is of humans as the tail of a sperm after it's delivered its payload of information.) And "Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death" (1973) creates an alien biology with savagely self-limiting consequences.

In this context, it's all the more remarkable that Tiptree did find herself being able to feel as optimistic as she sometimes seems to have — to write, for instance, in the epigraph to Her Smoke Rose Up Forever:

If I could describe a "human being" I would be more than I am — and probably living in the future, because I think of human beings as something to be realized ahead…. But clearly, "human beings" have something to do with the luminous image you see in a bright child's eyes — the exploring, wondering, eagerly grasping, undestructive quest for life. I see that undescribed spirit as central to us all.
But she was equally concerned with questioning the axioms of the society in which she found herself, most obviously in a number of famous stories about gender. "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" (1976) follows three timeslipped male astronauts as they encounter a future Earth inhabited entirely by women — by clones, in fact, of a relatively small number of women. The story constitutes an argument that such a society would be far more functional than our present one, but would avoid the corrosive effects that men bring to it. Even the narrator, who is closest of the three astronauts to recognising the women's point of view, sees in the end that he would only corrupt such a world. "The Screwfly Solution" (1977) is in a sense a counterpart to "The Last Flight of Doctor Ain"; it describes an "ecologically sound" clearing of Earth's human population, in this case to make way for alien colonists. But in this case, the clearing is undertaken by an atmospheric plague that makes latent attitudes become much more pronounced: the men begin killing the women. Some of these seem chillingly close to reality, like this news report:
Pope Paul IV today intimated that he does not plan to comment officially on the so-called Pauline purification cults advocating the elimination of women as a means of justifying man to God. A spokesman emphasized that the Church takes no position on these cults but repudiates any doctrine involving a "challenge" to or from God to reveal His further plans for man.

Cardinal Fazzoli, spokesman for the European Pauline movement, reaffirmed his view that Scriptures define woman as merely a temporary companion and instrument of man.
Once again, the story is told in a way that's both fragmented and direct. It's fragmented because it's mostly told in a series of letters between a husband (doing "pest-control research" at "2ºN 75ºW") and his wife back in the USA. Their apprehension of what's happening only comes in fits and starts, for instance, through cuttings like the one quoted above. As with Doctor Ain's story, there are also patchy but valiant scientific attempts to understand the problem. But the overwhelming impression the story makes is of how little skew it would take from the real world to reach this terrible situation: how the ways in which men have used and controlled women over the years would need only to be tweaked a little to achieve this terrible end.

A similar argument is advanced in "The Women Men Don't See" (1973), in which two women are stranded with their male aircraft pilot in a remote area of Mexico. The pilot comes to understand that if they vanish from the world, no one will notice, precisely because the world is designed to be an instrument for men to understand, to use, to own. But he does not perceive (I think) his own role in this: his casual thought partway through the narrative about "the defiance of her little rump eight inches from my fly — for two pesos I'd have these shorts down and introduce myself" (125) is as placed as the references to oilslicks in Doctor Ain's story. It's the flash of reality under the seemingly amiable surface of the pilot's telling. That the women ultimately disappear with aliens rather than with dragons or in a puff of smoke is almost incidental; the real point is that they have been defined out of our world's story. But "Houston, Houston" shows that Tiptree was able to envisage other kinds of stories for women.

If I have a problem with Julie Phillips's biography, it's one she shares with Clute and many others who have written about Tiptree. They assert that Tiptree's work became weaker after her identity was revealed in 1977 (which I agree with) and therefore do not accord it the consideration I think it deserves. Brightness Falls from the Air has problems as a novel, but it also has extraordinary power. And some of her late short fiction, such as "Yanqui Doodle" (1987) or "The Color of Neanderthal Eyes" (1988), deserves to be considered with the best in the field. The latter in particular, a long and lovingly detailed story of the consequences of exogamy (collected in Meet Me at Infinity), returns to some of the central themes of the work from Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, but with a less breathless pace.

The same could be said of Brightness Falls from the Air, though it is, unashamedly, a melodrama. The charge that can be made against it (as Phillips does) is that its situations are contrived and do not emerge with the naturalness of those in, say, "The Screwfly Solution". A group of tourists gather at an isolated outpost on the planet Damiem to watch the last flaring of an attenuated nova front passing through its atmosphere. Two secrets are revealed during the day of its passage: the cause of the nova and the reason the planet and its natives are quarantined. Both are atrocities, and in both cases some of the tourists mean to exploit the atrocities. So Tiptree's presenting us with an SF version of the country-house murder mystery. The locale is isolated, the cast has secrets, and they all play out in a limited time span. But the country-house murder mystery is a genre, a construct like, say, space opera or cyberpunk. What matters is what one does with the conventions of the genre. In Tiptree's case, not for the first time, she turns the screw to an almost unimaginable pitch of tension. Yes, the deaths and catharsis that occur feel staged, but I find myself so swept up by her absolute conviction that I don't mind until I finish reading. And Tiptree has an attentiveness in this book to other issues, most obviously the visual, that she doesn't have elsewhere. The nova's passing is obviously symbolic, but it's a stunning set piece of description too.

If Brightness Falls from the Air reminds me of any of Tiptree's other works, it's the title story of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, published in 1974 and emblematic for me of all her work. In it, we're shown a series of memories from a man's life, all filled with hope, all ending in disaster or humiliation. As the story goes on, it becomes clear that the Earth is dead, but these memories are all that remain of one human. To summarise the story as "the most essential things about us are the worst things that have happened to us" would be accurate but reductive. Tiptree clearly takes such joy in possibility, as in the first vignette: the young man setting out with his newly bought gun just as the first migrating ducks are flying overhead. That it ends terribly is in a sense a side issue: the struggle is what matters and what she spends her time depicting. Thanks to Phillips, those who want to can now read back from the work to the life, or vice versa, with more detail than we have about almost any other figure in SF. However that discussion plays out, though, I think the work will last. Along with, say, Joanna Russ, Theodore Sturgeon, and Gene Wolfe, I think Tiptree has given us one of the greatest and most moving bodies of short science fiction we have.

Graham Sleight was born in 1972 and lives in London, UK. He has written reviews and essays on science fiction and fantasy for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation, Interzone, SF Studies, SF Weekly, Infinity Plus, Strange Horizons, Vector, and Locus Magazine. He's served as a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for 2005 and 2006, and becomes editor of Foundation from the end of 2007.

Graham Sleight is one of ten Locus reviewers. Every issue, we review dozens of new books and magazines, most before they appear in print. A subscription will get you all those as well as the rest of the magazine -- news, People & Publishing, commentary, reports on events, and a list of all books and magazines published that month.


At Thursday, December 20, 2007 8:29:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another nice piece, Graham. Have you read Albert Cowdrey's "A Balance of Terrors" (July 2004 F&SF)? I thought it was very interesting in comparison with "Last Flight of Dr. Ain."

---Gordon Van Gelder

At Saturday, December 29, 2007 5:07:00 PM, Blogger Peter D. Tillman said...

Nit: the male viewpoint character in "The Women Men Don't See" wasn't the pilot, but fellow-passenger. The pilot, a Mexican Mayan, got the girl.

Great story, though it kinda runs off the rails at the end.

Cheers -- Pete Tillman

At Friday, January 04, 2008 9:02:00 PM, Blogger Graham said...

Gordon: thanks. Yes, I read and liked the Cowdrey. Pete: gah, yes, you're right. I remember noting that the viewpoint character must have been a pilot (he knows what a gravity feed line and an electric fuel pump do), and got that conflated with Esteban in my notes. But why do you think it goes off the rails?


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