By now, most science fiction readers know that James Tiptree, Jr was not James Tiptree, Jr, but rather Alice Bradley Sheldon. Sheldon was a retired CIA officer (and scientist/artist/critic/businesswoman) who, between 1968 and her death in 1987, published some of the most acclaimed short stories in the genre, using Tiptree as her nom de plume. (She also published a few stories – mostly ignored at the time – under the name Raccoona Sheldon.)
I was too young to discover her work while she was living, let alone before Tiptree had been revealed to be Alice Bradley Sheldon in 1977. I’m a little sad to have missed out on all the excitement and controversy – Robert Silverberg famously insisted that Tiptree’s writing was “quintessentially male,” and he was not the only one to die on that hill – and I wonder how I would react to some of her work if I assumed it was written by a man. There’s a low level of satire that becomes obvious when you know the truth of the author’s identity, but which might not come through otherwise. Certainly some of her stories only truly click into place when you assume a female author and a feminist reading. Foremost of these is probably “The Women Men Don’t See,” in which the female author’s use of a male pseudonym and male narrator reinforces the theme that women exist “in the chinks of your world-machine,” unseen and unheard, their stories going untold unless they are interpreted and appropriated by a man.
“The Women Men Don’t See” and Tiptree’s other Nebula- and Hugo-winning stories, “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” and “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death,” form the heart of this collection, which presents 18 short stories* and includes a fantastic introduction by Michael Swanwick (from which I’m sure I have unintentionally cribbed quite a bit). It is an impressive array! I tip my hat to Swanwick, as well as Jim Turner and Jeffrey D. Smith, who have whittled her 70+ stories and novels into a very strong collection that highlights the themes common in her writing. For readers who are already familiar with Tiptree, this collection is a great way to explore some of her lesser-known works. For new readers, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is a wonderful introduction to a giant of the genre.
As mentioned above, a major theme in Tiptree’s work is feminism and the conflict between men and women. In fact, Tiptree’s themes often boil down to paired opposites: humanity versus technology; humanity versus nature; the human versus the alien; biological imperatives versus free will; life versus death. But she rarely allows the question to remain black and white, and there’s no final “solution” in which one side wins. Tiptree is more interested in the boundary where these ideas bash up against one another, whether the canvas is as wide as a galaxy or as small as one woman’s heart. Ultimately, Tiptree shows us that the most alien being in the world is the person standing next to you.
*I say “short stories” for convenience, but the works in this collection range from very short stories to longer novelettes and novellas.
A cautionary note to readers:
Swanwick’s introduction tells us Sheldon suffered from clinical depression “so bad that she once said it was like having a vulture perched on either shoulder.” Her work bears this out. Most of her stories end with death: the literal death of the protagonist, or a spiritual death or the death of hope; sometimes the death of the race. Only rarely do we find a moment of grace. I read straight through this collection, and found myself pretty despairing by the end. It’s probably healthier to alternate with something light. I’m re-reading some old favorites next, to give my soul a break.
Also, there’s a lot of sex and a lot of misogyny in some stories. Both are dealt with quite frankly. Some readers may be triggered by matter-of-fact (but not detailed) descriptions of sexual assault, or by the internal monologues of some of the male characters.
Below, I’ve written up brief capsule review/synopsis of each individual story. I’ve tried to avoid spoilers or giving too much detail. I know some readers don’t like synopses of short stories in reviews; if you are one of those readers, you should probably stop now.
“The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” – three stars. I didn’t get much of an emotional hit from this story (save that for the next one) but its construction is quite elegant, setting the template that much of Tiptree’s work follows: the story heads in one direction, doling out information at a deliberate pace until the author yanks the floor out from under you.
“The Screwfly Solution” – five stars plus a bonus star for sheer soul-searing terror. It reads like “The Handmaid’s Tale” crossed with “28 Days Later” and distilled it through the femicides in Juarez into the most psychologically brutal 22 pages imaginable. And the horrible part is that it is absolutely imaginable – hardly even a stretch. (“Isn’t it strange how we do nothing? Just get killed by ones and twos.”) I only made it through because I was eating a maple glazed doughnut at the time. (NB This was published under the pseudonym Raccoona Sheldon rather than the usual Tiptree pseudonym; I wonder how perceptions would change if the reader thought this had been written by a man.)
“And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” – four stars. I like that the very things that fuel SF as a genre – xenophilia and that beautiful sense of childlike wonder – are turned against the characters.
“The Girl Who Was Plugged In” – four stars plus bonus half star for a sublime colloquial voice and slang like “you double-knit dummy!” This is a fabulously complex yarn that takes on advertising, capitalism, identity, and love, and probably about a million other themes that we can just lump in under “modern life.” With a delicious, vicious coda at the end that jeeringly turns the story back on the reader.
“The Man Who Walked Home” – four stars. Great, eon-spanning future history married to the simplest emotional story: a journey home. I teared up at the end of this one.
“And I Have Come Upon This Place by Lost Ways” – five stars. Loved this one. I’m fascinated by its examination of what qualifies as “real” science – one could almost consider it a salvo in that never-ending battle over what is and isn’t SF. But there’s so much more here! The messy human brain versus the cold analysis of a computer; the iconoclast versus the all-knowing bureaucracy; truth versus legend. Incidentally, it put me in mind of Le Guin’s “Rocannon’s World,” where the technology of one species is understood only as myth by another.
“The Women Men Don’t See” – five stars. If you’ve read anything by Tiptree you’ve probably read this story. I’ve read it in at least three or four separate anthologies, and every time I seem to discover something new. From the perfect title to the perfect last six words, this is the story that most perfectly captures the experience of being a woman in the world. Which is… pretty depressing, I guess, so let’s look on the bright side and say that there’s hope. (It’s also brilliantly ironic – a classic Tiptree twist, even – that the story hailed as proof that some men do get it, was of course written by a woman.)
“Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!” – five stars. The introduction describes this as, “the story of the only free woman in the world and what inevitably becomes of her.” Not much more I can say to improve on that. This is simultaneously one of the most joyful and most tragic stories I’ve read. Also, my word is that a great title or what!
“Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” – five stars. It’s tempting to read this as a gender-wide revenge fantasy, but the story refuses to let you off that easily. This is a disquieting, discomfiting tale that sticks with you long after you’ve turned the last page.
“With Delicate Mad Hands” – four stars. This story puts you through a hell of a lot before allowing you a moment of grace at the very end. What if love is the most powerful force in the universe? And just how powerful is it?
“A Momentary Taste of Being” – three stars plus bonus half star for making me say whaaaaaaaaa? This takes one of Tiptree’s favorite themes – the futility of the individual in the face of biological imperatives – to its logical extreme. This one felt a bit long to me, and I grew tired of the main character’s overheated musings about his sister, but ultimately it’s a great – and truly weird – bit of exploratory space opera.
“We Who Stole the Dream” – four stars. This put me in mind of another Le Guin novella, “The Word for World is Forest,” in which the good guys are aliens and the bad guys are human. This is beautiful throwback space opera, almost lyrical at times, which is not a word I’d normally use to describe Tiptree’s writing. And again there’s that stinger hidden at the end of the story.
“Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” – two highly subjective stars. Oh gosh, I guess in every collection there’s going to be one story that just doesn’t connect with the reader, and this one is it for me. Objectively this is a great story! But subjectively I couldn’t get into it at all, and even when I reached the end and “got it” I couldn’t really make myself care. I think I must be in a tiny minority on this one. Don’t take my word for it.
“Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” – five stars. Tiptree drops us without warning or map into the mind of the alien Moggadeet, who I picture as a house-sized tarantula. And we follow him through his life as he matures, mates, and dies. But even in the grip of biological urges he can neither comprehend nor control, Moggadeet is loving, optimistic, and irrepressible. Read pessimistically, it all comes to nothing, just as our own lives do. Read another way, Moggadeet reminds us that we make our own grace in (or in spite of) our short time here on Earth. Also, this story is just tons of FUN to read. (NB I have to wonder at the serendipity that cued up The National’s “Terrible Love” just as I started reading. “It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders,” you see.)
“On the Last Afternoon” – four stars. And so we move from house-sized tarantulas to skyscraper-sized lobster-walrus-insect-I-don’t-even-know-s. This story returns to the conflict of biology and individuality, this time the struggle in the mind between the altruistic biological urge to save the species, and the selfish (and perfectly human) urge to save oneself.
“She Waits for All Men Born” – four stars. Again with a crackerjack title! This is a mythical history of sorts, outlining an epic battle between LIfe and Death that culminates in one singular, final figure.
“Slow Music” – five stars. A fantastic, elegiac twist on the idea of the Singularity. We follow what may be the last two humans on an earth that has been abandoned, as humanity joins the River, a great incorporeal cloud of sentience flowing through the universe. What is life without death, Tiptree asks us? What is humanity without death?
“And So On, And So On” – four stars. It’s fitting that this anthology ends with another punch in the gut. This is four pages of cold, detached despair – the Tiptree twist ending without the rest of the story.