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7 unmissable Tiptree stories

By / August 27, 2016 / no comments

If she’d lived, James Tiptree Jr., would have been 101 this month. Which is as good an excuse as any to look back at one of the best and most important short story writers in the history of science fiction.

Alice Bradley Sheldon had a varied career, including working for the American intelligence community during World War II, before she started writing science fiction in 1967; her first story was published early in 1968. She used the male pseudonym, James Tiptree Jr, right from the start, and although it was known to be a pseudonym it was widely assumed that Tiptree must be a man. Indeed, in his introduction to her second collection, Warm Worlds and Otherwise, Robert Silverberg wrote: “It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.” Her true identity, and her gender, were only discovered in 1976. By that time she had started using another pseudonym, Raccoona Sheldon, though the identification of Sheldon and Tiptree was recognised very quickly.

Right from the start, the quality and significance of Tiptree’s stories were widely recognised. During her career, she received two Hugo Awards, three Nebula Awards, a World Fantasy Award and two Locus Awards among others. Her best work was in short fiction, and most of it appeared before her identity was known. Her first novel, Up The Walls of the World, was published only after the revelation of her identity, and a second novel, Brightness Falls from the Air, appeared shortly before her death.

In 1987, with her husband’s health deteriorating badly, she killed her husband then turned the gun upon herself.

For the full and fascinating story of her life, there is a brilliant biography, one of the best literary biographies you are likely to come across, James Tiptree Jr., The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips.

To give you a taste of her genius and her importance, we have selected a handful of key stories from her early collections. Honestly, no one who loves science fiction should miss these stories.

Ten Thousand Light-Years From Home

“And I Awoke and Found me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” from Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home

What was most original, distinctive and characteristic of Tiptree’s work was the way she wrote about sex, not as an activity (though in her work that could often be frightening and damaging) but as something that shapes and drives human psychology. In this story, for instance, set far in the future when humans have made contact with a host of alien races, the very alienness of the visitors is a cause of sexual obsession. The story takes its title from a poem by John Keats about someone taken by the fairies; here it is a port bar where degraded humanity hangs out in the hope of being picked up by any of the aliens who frequent it. It is a haunting and disturbing story that completely turns on its head the then common view of alien contact.

Warm Worlds and Otherwise

“The Women Men Don’t See” from Warm Worlds and Otherwise

It was the era of sexual liberation and the rise of feminism, but that hadn’t yet quite transformed into the feminist science fiction that was such a feature of the 1970s. And then this story appeared, which bluntly told us that as far as most men are concerned, women are an alien race. Or, from a female perspective, that women don’t have to conform to men’s expectations. A light plane carrying two men and two women crashes in the Mexican jungle. One of the two men, an American agent, is the narrator who is increasingly puzzled by the way the women don’t panic, and don’t behave the way he expects them to, turning to him for help. Instead, when they happen upon an alien spaceship, the women choose to go with the aliens rather than stay with the men. As one of the women says, all women live “in the chinks of the world machine”, a resonant phrase that was picked up by the feminist science fiction that came later.

“Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death” from Warm Worlds and Otherwise

This was one of her first award winners, picking up the Nebula Award for Best Short Story. It’s another of her oblique and disconcerting stories about sex, telling of two spider-like alien creatures in a world where they follow a violent life cycle including a drop in intelligence during the harsh winters. The narrator believes that he can use his intelligence to resist these instincts, but when the cold of winter takes hold and food runs out his partner eats him instead.

“The Girl Who Was Plugged In” from Warm Worlds and Otherwise

This story, which won the Hugo Award for Best Novella, was one of the more important precursors of cyberpunk. It’s set in a world of corporate glamour and celebrity, where one deformed girl is given the chance to live vicariously through a mindless, artificially-grown but physically perfect young woman. She enjoys a life of fame, until a rich young man falls in love with the avatar while knowing nothing of the deformed woman who controls it. The result is a tragedy for all concerned.

Star Songs of an Old Primate

“Houston, Houston, Do You Read” from Star Songs of an Old Primate

This novella, which won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, is, like “The Women Men Don’t See”, a powerful tale about the inability of men to understand women. In this case, three astronauts are on their way back to Earth when a solar flare disrupts everything. When it clears, they have lost contact with NASA, but start picking up messages from unknown women. Eventually they realise that the solar flare threw them several centuries forward in time, to a world where a plague has wiped out all men. For the astronauts this seems like sexual heaven, or an opportunity to reassert old fashioned family values with the man at the head, but te women are quite happy with the way things are and simply want to use the men as experimental subjects.

“A Momentary Taste of Being” from Star Songs of an Old Primate

Overpopulation has meant that Earth is desperate to find another planet capable of sustaining life, and the survey ship has found what looks like the ideal candidate. But when an exploratory team is sent to investigate, only one member returns. She insists that the planet is paradise, but something seems to be wrong, and no one can find out why the rest of the team didn’t return also. And they can’t inform Earth of their success until they are able to solve these mysteries.

Out of the Everywhere and Other Extraordinary Visions

“The Screwfly Solution” by Raccoona Sheldon from Out of the Everywhere

This Nebula Award winning novelette is another of Tiptree’s story about distorting human sexuality. The title refers to toe method of wiping out disease-bearing insects by releasing infertile males to mate with the fertile females. In the story, a similar technique is being used on humans, which first starts to show in an epidemic of women being murdered by men. Male sexual urges are spiraling out of control, resulting in increased violence against women. Even the kindly, well-meaning hero finds himself unable to resist the urge to kill his own daughter. Eventually, it is discovered that the cause is an alien plague that has been released to clear the world ready for a new race of inhabitants.

I could go on and on, there are wonderful, haunting and disconcerting stories throughout all of her collections. But it is best if you just go out and find them for yourself.

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