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Tiptree Anthology 2 cover

The second James Tiptree Award Anthology (sadly bereft of a teasing subtitle this time) takes the same anarchic structure as its predecessor, being an admixture of fiction and non-fiction, short stories and novel excerpts. (It also has the same line in yucky cover design, which is a pity.) Again, it takes much of its content from a single year—in this case 2004—and excerpts the (two) winning novels: Troll: A Love Story (2003) by Johanna Sinisalo (published as Not Before Sundown in the UK and Australia) and Camouflage (2004) by Joe Haldeman, alongside four stories—two specifically and individually nominated and two chosen from short-listed anthologies. In addition, and somewhat randomly, it further includes the winning story from 1998, a Jonathan Lethem story from 1996 and an Ursula Le Guin piece shortlisted in 1994.

The insertion of these last three is only in keeping with the occasionally bizarre content selection of the previous volume and, although all three are of excellent quality, they lack their proper context. I fear I begin to sound like a stuck record on this issue, but the editors have jumbled and commingled stories and articles in indiscriminate order, repeatedly to the detriment of theme. Putting Gwyneth Jones's essay on scientific thought on gender, "The Brains of Female Hyena Twins" (1994), 150 pages from Raphael Carter's "Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation" (1998)—a story that engages relevantly with the intersections of academic science and science fiction—seems to lack foresight. Indeed, the inclusion of Jones's essay, which, illuminating as it may be, is little more than a review of a collection of scientific conference papers, is a puzzle in itself. Her novel Life, included on the 2004 shortlist but not mentioned in the volume, was a reworking of the short story "Balinese Dancer" (1997), which had itself been short-listed for the Tiptree in its year of publication: why then include the essay rather than the story?

Still, strangely and neatly enough, several of the fictional pieces pair up with, and speak to, entries in Sex, the Future and Chocolate Chip Cookies. Take again, for example, Raphael Carter's "Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation" (1998), a "story" in only the widest sense of the word, that shares its pedagogic form with "The Catgirl Manifesto: An Introduction" (2003) by Richard Calder. By far the most direct exploration and examination of gender in either anthology, Carter's winning conceit is couched as an academic paper, complete with references, in which ideas and concepts are foregrounded to the exclusion of character and plot. The "paper" takes the established position that abnormality, in the brain in this case, is the key to unlocking the secrets of biological and psychological normality. Following the discovery of an Indian family who appear to have "gender blindness"—i.e. they are unable to distinguish maleness and femaleness by biological cues—two scientists embark on a series of experiments to explain the impairment. What they "discover" shakes the foundations of their conceptualisation of binary gender, of maleness and femaleness, and thus of sexuality. Carter's scientists begin to understand that not only psychological but also biological sex is multiple, as well as incredibly specialised and rarefied, with the implication that our culture is founded upon a sensory impairment: we are unable to see each other in our true variety. The premise seems simple but the grounds on which it is predicated—that the Indian family doesn't have a problem distinguishing gender, we do—is both challenging and invasive. Completely bypassing the now rather pedestrian debate of whether, and how, men and women are different, Calder denies the existence of those categories altogether. Instead he makes flesh the contention that "we are all individuals," thus removing the defining and primary binary distinction in Western culture.

Jonathan Lethem's "Five Fucks" (1996), in which sex and sexual desire literally unwind space and time, leading to memory loss and to the dissolution of the self, also has a natural partner in Volume 1. It shares a tempo and an ambience with Matt Ruff's Set This House in Order (2003), a novel in which temporal reality is also disrupted by a psychological anomaly, and in which sex and sexuality are equally dangerous catalysts.

Carol Emshwiller, the only author to have fiction appear in both anthologies, wins at least part of my prize for the most unforeseen piece. "All of Us Can Almost ..." (2004) is a madcap, if thematically traditional, short about a species of huge bird that boasts about its ability to fly but is actually earth-bound. The story's protagonist is an aspirational female who has, by dint of logic, convinced herself that her kind must have flown at sometime or another and that all that is needed is a high enough take-off point. Badgered for a "ride" by a little human boy, and aware that a violent male has his horny eye on her, she decides to set out, with both of them in tow, to find a cliff to launch herself off. Her stubborn determination to succeed, combined with her despair of ever escaping the male bird's advances, provokes a role-changing power play. As we might expect from Emshwiller, an established feminist of the old school, the effect is rather conventional involving an uncomplicated reversal in gender relations. As in "Boys" in Volume 1 the essential component is the symbolic castration of the predatory male by the enterprising female, making "All of Us Can Almost ..." both exceedingly bizarre and entirely predictable.

Also unexpected is the entry from Eileen Gunn and Leslie What, the pop-culture infused "Nirvana High" (2004) about a young girl with pre-cognitive abilities. Growing up with the "speshs" or "special-eds"—the psychics, the teleporters, and various other freaks—in a world whose cultural tradition is dominated by Kurt Cobain's nihilism and Coca-Cola advertisements, Barbara is about to lose her favorite teacher and fall in love. What exactly the story has to add to ideas about gender I find hard to quantify—male and female identities subsumed by alternate qualities perhaps? Or possibly nothing: the story is taken from Eileen Gunn's collection Stable Strategies and Others (Tachyon, 2004) and was chosen only because the key story, "Stable Strategies for Middle Management," had been widely anthologized elsewhere. I am sadly unfamiliar with that story and just a little disappointed with the editors' choice of alternative: its gender credentials appear rather weak. Nevertheless, the symptoms of its central tenets are horribly disconcerting: mass marketing has made Coca-Cola integral to funeral rituals and Cobain iconoclasm has led to the refrain "Entertain us, entertain us" replacing all nuances of grief, excitement or happiness.

More traditional, at least as far as this reader is concerned, are L. Timmel Duchamp's "The Gift" (2004) and Ursula Le Guin's "Another Story, Or a Fisherman of the Inland Sea" (1994). Le Guin's piece is a return to her familiar Ekumen-centred universe and is up to her usual standard of anthropological originality, if a little baggy in the narrative department. The story is superficially about innovations in "Churten fields," an area of instantaneous transportation technology, and about a young scientist who falls foul of its experimental stages. But more relevantly for the Tiptree Award, and far more interestingly, it is also about a man's struggle to find his home, and to return to the polygamous model of family and kinship with which he grew up. Blurred boundaries of gender and sexuality come as standard and Le Guin continues to deny ascendancy to traditional models of parenthood, love and fidelity. It seems a shame then that the latter themes, weighted heavily at the beginning and end of the story, are subsumed in the long middle section by bloated technicalities.

"The Gift", a story well selected from L. Timmel Duchamp's short-listed collection, Love's Body, Dancing in Time (2004), makes a far tighter anthropological play. Florentine, a travel writer on a research trip to the "Blue Downs," a renowned cultural spot, meets and falls in love with Alain, a singer, only to discover that his musical training has arrested his sexual development. Horrified by the idea that he has been physically "mutilated" in the name of his voice, his "gift," and unable to understand the cultural and social factors that determine the necessity of his sacrifice, she resolves that he should be liberated from his home world and join her in traveling about the cosmos. Despite Florentine's domineering first person, and our own natural propensity to shudder at castration (even chemical) in the name of music, Duchamp encourages a sympathy, or at least an understanding, of Blue Downs culture. Like all good writers of science fiction, she demands we re-orientate and re-evaluate our prejudices.

Excerpting is a difficult business, inevitably reductive and hardly ever satisfactory. Rarely does a novel offer up self-explanatory, independent and thematically rich portions of itself suitable for excision; it isn't surprising that Fowler, Murphy, et al. struggle for coherence in their two attempts here. The excerpt chosen from Johanna Sinisalo's Troll: A Love Story is as delightful as the novel is, but, comprising only an introduction to Pessi, the troll of the title, and Angel, the young photographer who "adopts" him, it fundamentally fails to capture the relevant thematics of the novel. The powerful erotic tension that develops between Pessi and Angel, and begs vital questions about humanity and the nature of desire, is only barely hinted at, while Palomina, the abused mail order bride features hardly at all. This does seems a shame, although I'm at a loss to suggest how it might be overcome without damaging what is at least coherent and charming. In comparison the snippets chosen from various points in Joe Haldeman's Camouflage are tragically oblique: I haven't read the novel and had little to no idea what was going on.

Finally, Jaye Lawrence's "Kissing Frogs" (2004), a story that envisions a date between a man transformed into a frog by his girlfriend's opinion of him, and a trans-gendered woman provides the (rather thematically weighty) light relief at the end of the collection. Or as the editors put it, the "pleasing after-eight mint of a story."

Both Tiptree volumes feature essays interspersed between the fiction (again, rather randomly). In the first volume these were almost entirely disappointing, despite their big-name authors, being either off-topic or overly introspective with regards to the Award itself. Thankfully the same is not true of this second batch. Julie Phillips's short biographical piece on James Tiptree, Jr. is a most welcome feature, although it should really have been in the first anthology, while Nalo Hopkinson's "Looking for Clues" (2002), an autobiographical meditation on racial and gender identities in the SF community is as moving as it is startling and eloquent. Certainly, I would have preferred to see the essays (in both volumes) in a separate section at the beginning of the book rather than peppered amidst the stories, but I'm prepared to forgive this as a minor point. I would also have liked to see more analysis of the specific experience of judging the 2004 Award in the "Introduction" by Debbie Notkin, instead of a repeat performance of Suzy McKee Charnas's article from Volume 1 on the general difficulties of judging.

Arguably, my qualms about choice, order of content and the provision of context are unimportant in the face of the excellent quality of the fiction on display in the Tiptree anthologies, and in the good work of the Award in bringing gender themes to wider audiences. Indeed, there is an argument to be made for the rightness of both my confusion and my frustration. If we can see clear to setting aside the technical issues of how the various elements are chosen and ordered (and maddening as it might be, we can), then disarray, confusion and elision becomes a healthy symptom of the bewilderment surrounding the many ideologies and theories of gender. From year to year the haphazard nature of the anthology becomes a function of its difficult purpose and, indeed, is somehow fitting, rendering unto chaos that which already belonged to it.

Victoria Hoyle recently completed a postgraduate course in Medieval Studies at York, UK, where she lives with her partner and two guinea pigs. She reads as widely as she can, both in genre fiction and out of it, but with a penchant for the weird and small press.She writes occasional reviews at FantasyBookSpot and litblogs at Eve's Alexandria with four friends.

Victoria Hoyle is an archivist and PhD student in York, UK, where she lives with her partner and a prodigious hoard of books. Her reading tastes are eclectic. She blogs at Eve's Alexandria and you can follow her on Twitter @Vicky_Hoyle.

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