You need to read James Tiptree Jr. If you've never read her, and you've any interest in SF, you need to rectify that anomaly. But even if, like me, you have read her, perhaps a while ago, you need to re-read her. Tachyon's handsomely produced catch-all collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is the perfect place to begin: a lovely piece of book-production, from its attractive John Picacio cover-art through each of its eighteen indispensable stories printed across well-laid-out pages. It's a beaut, and you need to read it. Or to re-read it.
Re-reading Tiptree was, for me, a fascinating experience. Amongst other things I learnt that the Tiptree I'd been carrying around in my head was a much less varied writer than the real Tiptree. Not that I'd previously had a low opinion of her writing (on the contrary!); but I suspect I'd been unduly influenced by the residue of l'affaire Tiptree-Sheldon, that whole "He's a man! She's a woman golly gosh!" brouhaha from 1976-77. Nowadays, perhaps, this strikes us as less important than it once did. Why shouldn't a woman (or a man) write as a man (or a woman) if they want, keep their identity secret if they want, paint their arse orange and poke it in the wardrobe if they want—provided they write good stories? The death of the author is a liberating as well as a contentious notion.
But I think I had nevertheless been walking around with a caricature version of Tiptree in my head. Specifically, I'd seen her as embodying a slightly old-school feminist version of "the theme of gender," the story of women as oppressed by patriarchy. In fact this woman-as-oppressed, man-as-oppressor line did not really bring out the best in Tiptree as a writer. There is an obvious exception to this statement, of course: 1973's quite stupendously good "The Women Men Don't See"—perhaps the best single SF short-story of the 1970s—which famously and unforgettably alienises men. Its two female protagonists are, simply, a marvel of characterisation, achieved by a process of, as it were, colouring-in the area around them with such skill that the two character-shaped empty spaces left achieve utter believability. I'm not sure I can think of any other writers capable of the expert lightness of touch in a serious context required to pull it off. The point, of course, is that this presence-by-absence is exactly the (gender) theme of the story. "Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us," says one of the women. "What women do is survive. We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine." When the mother and daughter twosome swap a masculine human world for passage on a space-ship it's presented as more of the same-old.
But, re-reading her, I found myself thinking that when Tiptree handles "the oppression of women" as a theme it's rarely as expertly done as this. The moral chiaroscuro of "Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled Of Light" (1976) is too heavily emphasised: the bright innocence of the female protagonist (who believes, wrongly, that she lives in a gynotopian future-world void of men) too clumsily crashed into the raping-and-murdering violence of the masculine. And "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" (1976)—a Hugo-award-winner no less—seemed to me too agit-prop, with its male characters nudged by the slightest provocation into caricatures, the thinnest layer of pseudo-civilisation over a core of raping misogyny, or power-mad religious-mania misogyny. I don't say this to suggest that there aren't a great many misogynistic and sexually violent men in the world. But Tiptree's achievement as a writer was to give believable life to a less cartoony version of the woe that is in human relations. "The Screwfly Solution" (1977), a very neat and very frightening fable, produces greater profundity of both affect and insight by imagining a world in which it is not just rape-minded misogynists but all men, including the kindly and the civilised, who dedicate themselves to the murder of their women.
I'd say that there is, underneath the stylistic panache and lively idea-trading of Tiptree, a profoundly tragic sensibility. I don't use that word as a synonym for glum. I mean tragic in the strict sense. Tiptree's stories are unillusioned about suffering and do not avoid the responsibilities that this vision entails; but they are never merely pessimistic or po-faced (are often, indeed, very funny). The German Romantics talked about "tragic joy," as something serious and profound but also life-affirming even in the face of death and rupture. Tiptree's writing has that in spades.
Take "The Girl Who Was Plugged In," Tiptree's 1973 Hugo-winning long-story. It's rather a cruel piece, really; but cruel in so brilliant and affecting a way, with so eloquently pitiless a central metaphor, that you can't help but fall in love with it. A lanky gargoyle of a girl called P. Burke is given the chance to remote-operate (and in the course of doing so, to become) a gorgeous pouting sex-princess called Delphi. She's given this chance so that a Giant Corporation can circumvent the anti-advertising laws of future-Earth, by getting this cutie to conspicuously handle specific consumer items in her holovision soap opera. But P. Burke doesn't care about that; she's just glad to be unshackled from her former hideousness. She falls in love with a rich young bimbo-boy called Paul. It all ends badly.
This is not a flawless story. To be specific: its Matrix-style human-waldo premise is over-explained (it was a newer concept in 1973); the no-advert future is never very plausible, and gets rather undercooked as an idea; and Burke herself under-characterised, with nothing to her except her unprepossessing physical appearance and her clingy and stubborn love for Paul. But nevertheless when she does fall in love it's heartbreakingly true, wonderfully written, utterly believable. More, the core metaphor of the story speaks to a universal human anxiety: so-and-so says they've fallen in love with me, but they only love what they can see. If they saw the real me, monstrous and pale in my subterranean cabin, the "gaunt she-golem"—or in my case, he-golem—"flab naked and spouting wires and blood," coming at you "clawing with metal studded paws ..." Here, and although it has a lot to say about gender roles, the punch of the story is not really related to an "oppression of women" theme: P. Burke doesn't challenge or focus opposition to "patriarchy"; she's not even terribly appealing as a character. But she feels intensely, and we feel through her.
Then there's the question of Tiptree's style. She is a marvellous prose stylist, but that very style became a point of contention during l'affaire Tiptree-Sheldon. Robert Silverberg, in his now-notorious introduction to Warm Worlds and Otherwise (1975), declared Tiptree's style to be "ineluctably masculine," a deliberately pared-down and unsentimental sort of writing, something "analogous to Hemingway ... lean, muscular, supple, relying heavily on dialog broken by bursts of exposition." And this is a fair-enough description of the style in many of her stories. On the other hand I was struck re-reading her (with this version of her style lodged in my memory) by how often she doesn't write this way. How often, in fact, her style splurges, either into purple excess:
Over uncounted eons the mortal substance strives, outreaches. Death-driven, it flees ever more swiftly before its Enemy until it runs, leaps, soars, into flashing flight. But it cannot outrun the fire in its flesh, for the limbs that bear it are Death, and Death is the wing it flies on. In the agony of its myriad members, victorious and dying, Life drives upon the indifferent air ... ["She Waits For All Men Born"]
Or into a kind of vivid beauty, a controlled poeticism:
Cold rushes into his young lungs, his eyelashes are knots of ice as he peers down at the lake below the pass. He is in a bare bleak bowl of mountains just showing rusty in the dawn; not one scrap of cover anywhere, not a tree, not a rock. The lake below shines emptily, its wide rim of ice silvered by the setting moon. ["Her Smoke Rose Up Forever"]
Although this latter, come to think of it, is also the sort of thing we find in Hemingway; so perhaps Silverberg's comparison was not so far off.
But this question of the supposed "masculinity" of Tiptree's writing inheres in more than just the style. There is also the question of sex. I don't say this because I want to let Silverberg off the hook, as it were: but Tiptree's narratorial voice really does flawlessly mimic the way a heterosexual male sees attractive women. I'm talking about the way male eyes feed women as sexualised objects straight to the Neanderthal sub-brain before the more civilised and liberal higher functions have a chance to intervene. Here's the opening of Tiptree's 1972 Again Dangerous Visions story "The Milk of Paradise" (not reprinted in Her Smoke Rose Up):
She was flowing hot and naked and she straddled his belly in the cuddle-cube and fed him her hard little tits. And he convulsed up under her.
There's lots of writing like this in Tiptree, but it's not just this that makes her work seem masculine. It's that her stories, especially when gulped down one-after-the-other, reveal a recurring fascination with sex, almost to the point of stare-eyed obsession. And that this comes over as male. I apologise for the implied gender essentialism here; but I can't think of another way of putting it. I'm, of course, not suggesting that women aren't, or can't be, interested in sex. Of course they can be, and are. But I suppose I am suggesting that real myopia and single-mindedness on the subject of sex is almost always a male trait. To lurch sideways, away from Tiptree and SF for a moment, my favourite Frasier quotation comes when Daphne accuses him of "using sex to get what he wants." "How can I possibly be using sex to get what I want?" Frasier retorts. "I'm a man. Sex is what I want."
"A Momentary Taste of Being" (1975) tropes all space travel as a cosmic fuck; or more specifically, tropes all human space exploration as a phallic outthrust. The story starts with this description:
It floats there visibly engorged ... [Earth] is a planet-testicle pushing a monster penis towards the stars ... the parsecs-long phallus throbs, probes blindly under intolerable pressure from within; its tip is a huge cloudy glans lit by a spark.
This was a Tiptree story I hadn't come across before; and I read this opening gambit assuming it was a deliberate and perhaps comically-intentioned piece of hyperbole. But, no: the whole 85-page story elaborates this metaphor in massive, masculine detail. And in almost every story there is more of the same. "I had a horrifying hard-on just looking at her" ["And I Awoke and Found Me Here On The Cold Hill's Side"]; "Captain Estéban's copper buttocks pumping into Althea's creamy upturned bottom" ["The Men Women Don't See"]; " "Uhhh, ahh," Bud pants distressfully, "fuck away, fuck—" Suddenly he pushes Judy's head into his groin ... "You have a mouth bitch, get working! Take it for shit's sake, take it! Uh, uh— " A small oyster jets limply from him." ["Houston, Houston, Do You Read?"]. I could go on (there are lots of similar moments), but perhaps that's enough. My point here is not prudishness but perspective. This, I submit, is how men think of sex: the speed of reaction to erotic stimulus (the, we might say, "spung!" of it); the insertion; the money-shot. (I'm not trying to imply that sexual fantasy is all hearts and flowers and soft-focus for women; but I'd argue it is, by and large, a more rounded, and fully sensual experience than this). Tiptree, a woman, either shared or could expertly mimic this masculinist perspective.
Two other things struck me on re-reading Tiptree. It's a critical commonplace that Tiptree's novels don't work as well as her short pieces, but it seems to me that she was also a better writer of short short stories than she was of long short stories. The three weakest stories here are the three longest. "Houston Houston, Do You Read?" is about three male astronauts who time-dilate their way into an all-female future; but it spends most of its 60 pages relating the outer-space rescue-mission mounted by the future women, an account that drags its belly rather; and the point where the story finally pulls its narrative rabbit from its hat is also the point where it collapses into gender-caricature. "With Delicate Mad Hands" (1981), another 60-pager, starts thunderously well, as its pig-nosed female spaceship drudge in a hideous future-dystopia, snaps and murders her oppressors, afterwards setting off alone into the wild black yonder beyond the Oort cloud. But it cannot sustain its intensity and slackens out into a rather gooey tale of redemptive love and happy-endings. And the 85-page "A Momentary Taste of Being" can't orchestrate its too-many characters effectively enough to sustain its one-note vision of the future of human space exploration as an interstellar sperm-swimming-to-egg game.
I'm not sure why Tiptree loses the tension at length; but I do know that there is no SF writer, and precious few writers of any kind, better at crafting the shorter kind of short story. "The Screwfly Solution," "And I Awoke ...," "The Girl Who Was Plugged In," "The Man Who Walked Home" (which is simply one of the best time-travel stories ever written), "The Women Men Don't See," "Her Smoke Rose Up Forever," and "Love is the Plan the Plan is Death" are amongst the best SF shorts written. Any 20th-century best-of SF story collection worth its salt really ought to include all eight of those. Any 21st-century SF fan worthy of the name really ought to read them.
I spent the last few days mainlining Tiptree; and heady as I was with the joy of that, one question in particular began to coalesce for me out of her writing. This review has gone on at length already, I know. (The length, by the way, is an index to the collection's brilliance. Buy this book!) I'll go a little further on to conclude with this question.
What I have been describing in this review as gender-caricature (I certainly can't call it a gender libel) might strike other readers merely as an insight into the nature of gender relations. Most men reduce women to sexual objects. Many men are violent to women. In "The Screwfly Solution," it is only the co-ordination and increasing ubiquity of the murderous attacks by men on women that point to an SFnal twist; otherwise, Tiptree implies, men attacking women is how things have always been on the planet. But actually Tiptree's fiction rarely indulges in what Michael Swanwick's introduction to this edition of Her Smoke describes as the "familiar thought-experiment, that possibly the only way to secure the survival of humanity and the Earth is to kill all the men." Her vision is more fully tragic. Like William Burroughs she sees men and women as being, in a deep sense, aliens to one another: a radical otherness.
But take, for example, one of Tiptree's very best stories (one of the two or three very best SF stories of the century) "And I Awoke and Found Me Here On The Cold Hill's Side" (1972). This story concerns a red-haired man aboard an interplanetary space station called "Big Junction" who manifests a sexual obsession with an alien life form called the Sellice. It's not just this guy. All the men on the station feel the same way:
They aren't really well-built, y'know, under those cloaks. No waist to speak of and short legged. But they flow when they walk. This one flowed out into the spotlight, cloaked to the ground in violet silk. You could only see a fall of black hair and tassels over a narrow face like a vole. She was mole grey ... Erogenous zones? Ah, man, with them its not zones ... Her arms went up and those blazing, lemon-coloured curves pulsed, wavered, everted, contracted, throbbed, evolved unbelievably welcoming, inciting permutations. Come do it to me, do it, do it here and here and here and now. Every human male in the room was aching to ram himself into that incredible body. I mean it was pain.
This is a story that almost convinces us its fantastic extrapolation is actually an insight into human sexual nature. If we were to encounter aliens, Tiptree is saying, then we couldn't help ourselves; we'd have to fuck them.
We've hit a supernormal stimulus. Man is exogamous—all our history is one long drive to find and impregnate the stranger. Or get impregnated by him; it works for women too. Anything different-coloured, different nose, ass, anything, man has to fuck it or die trying. That's a drive, y'know, it's built in. Because it works fine as long as the stranger is human. For millions of years that kept the genes circulating. But now we've met aliens we can't screw, and we're about to die trying ...
It's a chill wind that blows through this tale; it's absorbing, frightening, evocative, and thought-provoking all at once, as Tiptree almost always is. But here's the question I've been considering: what if it's wrong?
Within the terms of the tale, as Tiptree has framed them, it's certainly possible to imagine a man sexually excited by the Sellice alien (in the passage quoted above), with her "fall of black hair and tassels over a narrow face like a vole" and her "blazing, lemon-coloured curves." But the premise isn't pressed any further than this sort of quasi-humanoid, feminised figure—the character does not, for example, yearn sexually after aliens in the shape of slime-blobs, or sentient piles of concrete blocks or super-intelligent shades of the colour blue. In fact I'd suggest that it's hard, and may be impossible, to imagine even so committed a xenophile as this character responding erotically to genuine otherness. But in a way this doesn't matter. Tiptree's theme is not really sex, even though her story is couched in terms of a critique of the human erotic drive. As the red-haired man says himself: "Sex? No, it's deeper ... sex is only part of it—there's more." He recalls
One fine-looking woman, she was servant to a Cu'ush-bar kid. A defective—his own people would have let him die. That wretch was swabbing up its vomit as if it was holy water. Man, it's deep—some cargo-cult of the soul. We're built to dream outwards. They laugh at us. They don't have it.
This, then, is the question that Tiptree poses; and it's hard to imagine a better way of framing it than the genre of SF. Are we, as humans, "built to dream outwards"?
Do you know what? I'm not sure we are. In the early 1970s perhaps it looked as though mankind as a whole couldn't be held back from simply rushing up that vertiginous ladder into space. But, look around. It's the 21st century, and hey—we didn't go. Not only that, but we don't miss it. Our gaze is focussed inward. The bitty trivia of our days fills ours lives. The stuff that's important to us is important to us because it is what we are used to.
Or put it another way: take a cold look at the way human sexuality actually works in the world today. Is it predicated upon an erotic investment in otherness? Is that really what we find when we plug into the e-behemoth of commercial Porn, with its hundreds-of-billions-of-dollars turnover? Or do we see a depressingly unimaginative repetition of the known and the familiar? There are, of course, fetishes on the margins of things, and some people get off on some pretty weird stuff. But the vanilla human male very precisely does not want radical novelty. He wants a woman whose pneumatic body conforms to his rigid notions of what a pneumatic woman ought to look like. I'd suggest that a better model for male sexuality, hetero or homo, is not SF, not "the encounter with the alien," but rather the ASD heroes of Rain Man or Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Sexual praxis for most men must follow an elaborately familiar ritual, endlessly and even obsessively repeated. If Everyman is going to be unfaithful to his wife it will be with women that, largely, resemble his wife. If Everyman is going to indulge in sexual fantasy he will be much happier running his fantasy along the well-worn communal grooves: French Maid's outfit; leather; the pre-packaged lust for the mass-marketed film star. The problem, in fact, is not that human males are ineluctably drawn by otherness; but something the reverse, the pitiful truth that human males are so thoroughly unskilled at freeing their minds from commodified communal stereotypes of what "an attractive woman" looks like. If only we were, as a species, built to dream outwards. We might then have a functioning human space programme.
It may be that James Tiptree, or the actual breathing Alice Sheldon, was a more interesting human being than the vanilla hetero male. I'd say that's pretty likely. She certainly wrote more interesting, and more brilliantly framed, stories than almost anybody. I'm not sure I know what the answers are. But Tiptree, like all great artists, poses vital questions.