A few years ago, I read the fantastic biography James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips. I already knew who Tiptree was, but I’d never read him (for the sake of less confusion–I hope–I’m going to use male pronouns to refer to the male pseudonym throughout this review). The biography should be required reading for anyone learning about the roots of modern science fiction, or interested in gender politics, or…well, really, anyone. It is a fascinating look into the life of a complicated and brilliant woman.
Around the same time, I read the short collection Star Songs of an Old Primate, but since then I’ve been remiss in reading more of Tiptree’s work. So for Vintage SciFi month, I thought it would be the perfect time to read more, and I picked up what I would tend to call the definitive Tiptree collection, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. (The collection itself was published in 2004, but individually all the stories were published in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.)
There are 18 stories in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, three of which I would classify as novellas though I don’t know exact word counts. A few I was already familiar with, but most were brand new to me.
I was struck by how bleak and frightening so many of the stories are. They teeter right on the edge of horror, and sometimes fall over. There is ever-present violence, much of it sexual, and death hangs over many of the characters.
Gender and women’s roles play a large part in these stories. A mother and daughter beg aliens to take them away from the world of men in “The Women Men Don’t See.” “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?,” centers around three men from the twentieth century who accidentally time travel to a future where women are the only humans left. “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” and “With Delicate Mad Hands” both feature ugly women who are commodities, objects (side note–I so appreciate Tiptree’s use of ugly women. These are not the usual fictional ugly ducklings who take off their glasses and magically become swans). And in the chilling story “The Screwfly Solution,” which I am of the opinion is as relevant and prescient today as it was in 1977, if not more so, an outbreak of a strange disease causes men everywhere to start murdering women. All women. It gets to the point where religious cults form that believe the extermination of all women will “purify” humanity in the eyes of God.
Since I knew of Tiptree’s real identity before I read him, it is impossible for me to see these stories as written by a man. I wonder how readers ever couldn’t “tell”. To me, the biting commentary on gender roles and the feminism just jumps off the page and elements that may have been taken straight by a 70s audience I read pretty clearly as satire. But then, I have the benefit of hindsight, so I can never know what that reading experience was like, or what it was like to discover who Tiptree really was behind the name.
“The Screwfly Solution,” and “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” are undoubtedly the best stories in the collection. I’m also quite fond of “A Momentary Taste of Being.” Not all of them work, however. “With Delicate Mad Hands” starts out promising, with the shockingly violent revenge fantasy of a woman who has been used, abused, and discounted by men all her life, but it devolves into some serious, overly-sentimental weirdness. “Love Is The Plan The Plan Is Death” I find nigh on unreadable. I think it’s about some kind of spider creatures, but I really couldn’t even tell you. “She Waits For All Men Born” is meandering, and fairly plotless, more a meditation than a story. But on balance the bulk of this collection is incredible, and I would say essential. I still don’t have a lot of experience reading the Old (white, male) Masters of science fiction. I read some Bradbury and Asimov in high school, and felt left out in the cold by it. I’ve read some Heinlein but not managed to find a single story that doesn’t piss me off. Other authors I have just read in bits and pieces. But I really connect with Tiptree’s work. Most of my life I’ve gravitated towards the the fantasy side of the speculative fiction world because, rightly or wrongly, I felt that science fiction “wasn’t for me.” But Tiptree changed that for me.