I readily admit it: not so very long ago I thought that "James Tiptree, Jr." was a man and that the James Tiptree, Jr. Award—for SF that "explores and expands gender"—was named after him. In my ignorance I considered this both pleasantly ironic and deliciously inclusive; an award I so often heard associated with feminism (and consequently with women) that was named after a man! As Pat Murphy puts it in her introduction to Sex, the Future and Chocolate Chip Cookies, the Award's first anthology (or rather, its second; the unmentioned Flying Cups and Saucers: Gender Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy came out in 1998) the "joke" is on me. The joke isn't funny "ha-ha" but weird-funny, dissident-funny, and it's the kind of joke that the Tiptree Award is supposed to stand for: "something subversive that takes you by surprise and makes you blink and turns the world into a different place, much stranger and more wonderful than you ever thought possible." (p. vii)
Because, of course, "James Tiptree, Jr." was a woman—Alice Sheldon—whose pseudonymous short fiction made ubiquitous appearances on the Hugo and Nebula shortlists throughout the 1970s. The irony is resonant: an Award for writing on gender named after a man, who was a woman, who wrote as a man. It was this conundrum of identity that brought the eponymous Award into being:
In 1991, four years after Alice Sheldon's death, Karen Fowler and I [Pat Murphy] created the James Tiptree, Jr. Award. We did it to make trouble. To shake things up. To make people examine the fiction they read a little more carefully. And to honor the woman who startled the science fiction world by making people suddenly rethink their assumptions about what women and men could do. (p. ix)
And which, subsequently, has generated a sequence of anthologies of winning or nominated fiction—two to date, with a third due in January 2007—that attempt to sample recent speculative writing on the sexed self.
The result in Volume 1, the aforementioned and playfully titled Sex, the Future and Chocolate Chip Cookies, is truly cacophonous: three fairytales (one written in the mid-nineteenth century!), a ghost story, a piece of anthropological SF a la Le Guin, a story about gorilla hunting, an extract from a novel centered upon Multiple Personality Disorder, and a narrative couched in the form of an academic essay.
Some of these stories share aspects of their plot, structure, and even their visions of gendered-ness. Kelly Link's now-famous "Travels with the Snow Queen" (1996) and Kara Dalkey's less-known "The Lady of the Ice Garden" (2003), for example, share somewhat of all three in re-imagining the gender politics of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" (1845). Link's idiosyncratic voice is very different to Dalkey's linear, traditional telling, but both ultimately favor the psychological development and emancipation of the female above the salvation of the male hero. Noting this, the editors have chosen to group the two together, with a recent translation of Andersen's original laid alongside for comparison, and, although its addition initially seems eccentric, the context—the conversation between the stories—is most welcome.
Other entries, however, are violently different in tone and direction; arguably they're in need of a similar overall framework. Take for example Richard Calder's "The Catgirl Manifesto: An Introduction" (2003), an oblique, slightly dry fictional article that regards a new robustness in female sexuality as a symptom of alien genetics. It shares its stylistic form with Raphael Carter's "Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation" (winner, 1998) and the stories speak pertinently to each other. But the latter is held back until the second Tiptree anthology and the appropriate comparison is never made. Put shortly: the included stories can seem rather haphazardly and arbitrarily thrown side by side, while thematic lacunae abound. We might see this as a necessary symptom of the exciting disorder and confusion that surrounds writing about gender, and that seems fair enough, but no doubt the editors could have better manipulated their content. It is a special shame that two of the book's essays—by the venerable Ursula Le Guin and Joanna Russ—fail to engage deeply with the difficulties of such incipient chaos.
Thankfully the overall quality of individual fictions is high. Proceedings open with "Birth Days" (2003) by Geoff Ryman, an unabashed and masterful story that nods darkly at a near future in which the "gay gene" has been isolated and in which elective abortion is translating a cultural distaste for same-sex relationships into a biological, heterosexual imperative. Ron, a scientist and our protagonist, is gay himself, a survivor of the last generation of "samesexers." Initially he is working on a genetic manipulation project designed to find a "cure" for homosexuality in carriers, but ends up pioneering homosexual reproduction instead. Several years later he becomes the world's first successful birth-father, delivering through his anus. Aside from the tricky complexification of the processes and terminologies of "motherhood" and "fatherhood" that the story entails, Ron's discovery has wider philosophical and theological implications for understanding gender roles. Entire mythologies are reinterpreted and reconfigured:
... historians started finding myths of male pregnancy all over the place. Adam giving birth to Eve, Vishnu on the serpent, Anata giving birth to Brahma. And there were all the virgin births as well, with no men necessary. (p. 17)
Ryman also finds the space in his seventeen pages for two other gender-related grace notes: the polygamous (all-male) family structure that his protagonist finally chooses and the light touches on alternative sexual identities in Brazil (where transvestite prostitution is a massive industry). The swift brevity of Ron's first-person narrative belies the weight and pathos of the premises with which Ryman is working.
Evidently the story's prominent placement at the beginning of the volume is neither an accident nor a simple measure of its quality. From the beginning the Tiptree Award has been defending itself against sour-grape accusations of sexism: of being pro-women and anti-men. By foregrounding Ryman's story the anthology makes a clear statement for itself—gender is not just about women writing about women. It is about men (writing about men) too.
Men and masculinity are also the focus of Carol Emshwiller's "Boys" (2003), although her revelation of gender dichotomy is rather more traditional than Ryman's. She envisions an uncomplicated, symbolic landscape—a valley basin, fertile and lush, with steep rocky inclines to either side—in which the sexes live sharply delineated existences. The women and children live in a village in the valley bottom while the men live in two tribe-like regiments on either mountain slope and only come down to impregnate the females. These two regiments are consequently engaged in an endless conflict for control of the village and its fertility. The males are raised to this war and inculcated to strict emotional repression, while the women exist in the domestic and familial sphere; they understand the meaning in symbols, the men understand only action. One evening, however, when a group of "boys" comes down the hillside to "mate" in the village, they meet with sharp, unexpected resistance: the mothers have picked up guns. Embedded in this is a very old feminist line of thought about the socialisation of boys, the ubiquity of war, and the role of women in its cessation: the endless cycle of killing can only end if the mothers, the women, offer an alternative form of upbringing to their male children.
Sandra McDonald envisions a similar divide in her accomplished story about ghost children living in strict enclaves in "The Ghost Girls of Rumney Mill" (2003). Indeed, the story is an unusually fertile extension of Emshwiller's ideas. The gender socialization of its characters has been arrested at its most violently binary stage so that, as in "Boys," they lead completely separate psychic existences. The girls live by the mill, nurturing one another in a kind of co-dependent community, while the boys "will be boys" and live in a state of pandemonium in an abandoned paint factory. Into this McDonald introduces her wild card: a little ghost-boy, who died wearing a dress, and wants to be a ghost-girl. Like Ryman's protagonist, he wants to muddle up the roles of girls and boys—play with the baby dolls, style hair, and so on—and represents a threat to the established order. There is always the danger here that McDonald's narrative will tip over into being trite and simplistic—after all, what is so challenging about a group of boys and girls who do "what boys and girls do"? Or even about a boy who just wants to be a traditional girl? Once "he" becomes "her" the challenge is surely over. Still, McDonald has a grip on the pathos of her subjects: their abruptly ended lives, their lostness, and their comfort in familiarity. More importantly, it is the only story in the volume to deal with children's experiences of their gender, which are necessarily so different from those of adults.
It seems entirely pertinent to note that several of the book's stories have little or no obvious science fiction content, begging the question of what exactly the Tiptree judges reward: gender exploration first? Or gender in science fiction? Karen Jay Fowler's Nebula award-winning story about a jungle expedition in the Congo, "What I Didn't See" (2002), is the most controlled piece in the collection, and certainly the most provocative in its dealings with binary stereotypes (women/men, black/white, nature/culture), with feminist utopianism, and with the menopause. But only by a very difficult stretch of the imagination is it SF; it has obliquity, otherness, and alienation in spades but otherwise seems to share little with the surrounding content. Insiders will know that the argument for its genre credentials has been made many times before, most excellently and recently by L. Timmel Duchamp in Daughters of Earth (ed. Justine Larbalestier, 2006), and I am more than willing to accept Duchamp's reasoning, which is based largely on the story's relationship to James Tiptree's own story "The Women Men Don't See" (1973). But that story isn't included in this book, and, consequently, "What I Didn't See" is left adrift: aspects of feminist SF may well be, as Duchamp argues, "an intertextual conversation carried on by feminist SF authors, readers, and fans," but here it is rather like a one-sided monologue. If there was scope for the inclusion of Andersen's "The Snow Queen" as context, a story widely available online and elsewhere, why wasn't accommodation made for the Award's own muse?
Similar difficulties of genre definition arise when considering the extract from Matt Ruff's winning novel Set This House In Order (2003). It is an enthralling exposé on variantly gendered identities sharing the same body, and the editors have done well in choosing their excerpts, but does Multiple Personality Disorder really classify as speculative?
Such incoherence about what constitutes gender, what constitutes genre and what constitutes the noteworthy on both axes characterizes the anthology as a whole. This, I imagine, is a symptom of the particular joy and the particular pain of an award like the Tiptree. The vagaries of its judging criteria are insistent: year in, year out the definition of what constitutes work "exploring" or "expanding" gender changes. It changes because the individual judges change; it changes because political emphasis changes; it changes because the tenor of that year's published material changes. Suzy Mckee Charnas captures these difficulties in her short essay, "Judging the Tiptree," which she compiles almost entirely out of questions:
Does the winning story have to say something new about gender, or can it say something old in a new way, or just really, really brilliantly? How much science fiction or fantasy does a book have to have in it to be considered for the Tiptree? (p. 95)
What is gender? Can we tie it down, or is it amorphous? What about political intent? Should the Award foreground certain ideas? Is it Feminist? Or is that a dirty word? Does the purpose of the award change as the gender balance in society changes? Have some traditionally "feminist" plot points, like strong female characters, become too passé to reward? The outlook on definitive "answers" to these questions is poor and certainly this volume isn't in the business of providing a constructive approach to them. The only unifying narrative is that of the Award's annually variant shortlists and, while this makes for a collection of good fiction, it hardly represents a suitable introduction to the long conversation of feminist/gendered SF.
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.