The prognosis is death.
This is of great scientific interest, friend. But you can't believe it, of course. You're on your way there, aren't you? Nothing will stop you, you have reasons. All kinds of reasons - saving the race, national honour, personal glory, scientific truth, dreams, hopes, plans - does every little sperm have its reasons, thrashing up the pipe?
It calls, you see. The roe calls us across the light-years, don't ask me how.
[--Tiptree, 'A Momentary Taste of Being' (1975)]
Give me sixty-nine years,
Another season in this hell.
It's all sex and death as far as I can tell.
Like Prometheus we are bound,
Chained to this rock of a brave new world,
Our godforsaken lot.
And I feel that's all we've ever needed to know,
'Til worlds end and the seas run cold.
[--Dead Can Dance, 'Black Sun']
Sex, death, and science fiction's most notorious pseudonym: Alice Sheldon (1915-87) - whose eventful CV included painting, professional art criticism, spying for the CIA and a PhD in psychology - shook up a genre when she began publishing short stories under the name of James Tiptree, Jr. Like Anna Kavan, the choice of a pen-name was less a feint than a whole alternate identity: 'Tiptree' carried on lively correspondances with fans and fellow authors, preserving her secret for eight prolific and widely-lauded years (1968-76), with such success that her writing was (in)famously dubbed "ineluctably masculine" by Robert Silverberg.
That Tiptree's writing endures for reasons far beyond the (undeniably satisfying) feminist schadenfreude of the backstory, however, is clear from the opening pages of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (2004), a retrospective collection of her short fiction. There are eighteen stories and novellas on offer (I'm going to focus on just a handful; some are available for free online, and are linked accordingly), and so much of the material is just astonishingly good: fast-paced but expansive, playful but weighty, almost always filled with a certain irrepressible cheer for all that the conclusions so often come down to a gut-punch of inescapable tragedy.
The gut-punch can often be profoundly disturbing, whether for the fates of the characters or for what is implied about humanity. The best exemplar of this is 'The Screwfly Solution' (originally published in 1977) - last year adapted for the small screen as part of the 'Masters of Horror' anthology series - which imagines an abrupt and (initially) inexplicable upsurge in male violence towards women across the world, resulting in mass murder and the sequestration of survivors in internment camps for their own protection. No man, it seems, is immune; no woman is safe. The story is told in a variety of different voices - press releases, witness statements, newspaper reports, diary entries, letters - which are used to explore the range of reactions to events. All too often, of course, said reactions are mired by helplessness, disbelief, expediency, and/or barely-latent misogyny (the latter variously justified by those concerned through religious scripture or dodgy evo-psych), and Tiptree duly skewers them:
The weird part is that nobody seems to be doing anything, as if it's just too big. Selina Peters has been printing some acid comments, like: When one man kills his wife you call it murder, but when enough do it we call it a life-style. I think it's spreading, but nobody knows because the media have been asked to downplay it.
The whole is threaded together by a pair of narratives that form a truncated dialogue - on the one hand, the observations of our viewpoint character, Alan, as he attempts to return home from a research posting abroad, and on the other a series of letters written to him by his wife, Anna. The partial way in which even this most sweetly devoted of married couples can communicate with and understand one another is crucial, thematically; but the structure also allows Tiptree to inch up the tension to near-unbearable levels, and gives an uncomfortably-intimate human face to the unflinching outcome.
'Screwfly' is trademark Tiptree in many respects: the interest in gender, and in how social perceptions of gender affect and constrain women's lives; the preoccupation with biological determinism, specifically the violence not-so-buried in sexuality; and the use of male narrators who, however sympathetic and enlightened, invariably view women through a sexualised and objectified lens. Partway through his journey, in Miami airport, Alan notes the absence of women - all presumably dead, fled, or in disguise - in terms of the viewing pleasure they would usually afford him
Where was the decorative fauna he usually enjoyed in Miami, the parade of young girls in crotch-tight pastel jeans?
Many of the other stories also explore how fine the line is between sex and death - how the biological imperative, heightened or redirected by changed circumstances, can prove as devastating to humanity as it has previously been essential. 'And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side' (1972) recasts the issue in the context of interstellar colonialism, as humanity - striking out for the frontiers, as ever - find itself up against a bigger and more sophisticated civilisation, one which absorbs and transforms everything it touches. It does not need to exert any conscious effort to do so; the simple fact of its greater cultural and economic power is sufficient.
Slowly and unwittingly, man becomes the colonised rather than the coloniser, the helpless thrall of his conqueror - a process expressed, of course, through misdirected sexual fascination. "I'd trade - correction, I have traded - everything Earth offered me for just that chance. To see them. To speak to them. Once in a while to touch one. Once in a great while to find one low enough, perverted enough to want to touch me..." - one character warns, although he knows the effort is futile. He continues:
"Go home and tell them to quit it. Close the ports. Burn every god-lost alien thing before it's too late! That's what the Polynesians didn't do. [...] Our soul is leaking out. We're bleeding to death! [...] This is a trap. 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 ..."
The novella quoted at the start of this post, 'A Momentary Taste of Being', takes this idea to its most literal - and somewhat smirk-inducing - extreme, opening with an extended consideration of space-exploration through explicitly phallic imagery and continuing from there. The analogy, indeed, is the whole basis of the story, which focuses on a being - a sort of vast egg in space, essentially - that lures creatures to it and gives them blissful oblivion (and subsequent slow death) in return for sucking out their fertilising life-force. Cosmic sperm-stealing, then, but not nearly as fun as that sounds; 'Being' has some good set pieces, and all the creeping menace of Tiptree at her finest, but the concept feels needlessly stretched over 80+ pages.
Where the biological imperative functions correctly in a Tiptree story - that is, broadly, for the impersonal preservation of a species - it is generally still harmful, or at best utterly indifferent, to the individuals involved (an exception is the enjoyably bittersweet 'Slow Music' (1980), where the desire to raise a family is linked with love and the - doomed, obviously - better impulses of humanity). This fatalism particularly applies to relations between individuals of different sexes. 'Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death' (1973) is an infectious first-person tale of two non-human creatures' attempt to subvert the Plan - that is, their species' conventional seasonal pattern of rivalry, mating, and related mindless violence - by building a relationship based on restraint and partnership. Predictably, they fail; biological urges are succumbed to, communication breaks down, the male is consumed (!), etc. What sets it apart is the tone of giddy, goofy joy in which our narrator reflects on hopes and sadnesses alike (even while he is, um, being slowly digested by his mate to nourish their offspring); it is an unbridled celebration of the attempt, and of the fleeting happiness of its success, however doomed:
We spoke together, we two! Love, how we stammered and stumbled at the first, you in your strange Mother-tongue and I in mine! How we blended our singing wordlessly and then with words, until more and more we came to see with each other's eyes, to hear, to taste, to feel, the world of each other.
The potentially destructive effects of sexuality, and of sexual violence residing in men more particularly, is at the heart of 'Houston, Houston, Do You Read?' (1976). This is another slow-burning novella (and again, a little longer than is good for it, although it is more cohesive and successful, and structurally adventurous, than 'Being'), which follows three astronauts whose ship is inexplicably thrown off-course - and, they eventually realise, forward in time. Attempting to hail Earth for help (whence the title), they inadvertently make contact with the all-female crew of another spacecraft. Mysterious reticence on the women's part meets supercilious condescension on the men's (who cannot conceive of female comptence, much less female authority, and repeatedly refer to them as "chicks"); but at length, the women agree to help them, and take the men aboard their ship. The result is a disaster.
It transpires that the three astronauts have fetched up hundreds of years in the future, after a plague has devastated humanity, leaving only a fraction of the population - all of them women - alive. They maintain themselves by cloning, a practice that has radically altered human society, particularly when it comes to concepts such as progress, development, legacies and individual achievement. Each clone has many potential futures:
"We control it [...] We aren't all that way. There's been engineering Connies, and we have two younger sisters who love metallurgy. It's fascinating what the genotype can do if you try."
Since everyone may experience endlessly different permutations of life through their cloned selves, and since everyone effectively lives indefinitely, the monomaniacal sense of urgency that drives human achievement is correspondingly lessened. They have all the time in the world: the experience is as important as the outcome.
He shivers. The heirs, the happy pallbearers of the human race.
"So evolution ends," he says somberly.
"No, why? It's just slowed down. We do everything much slower than you, I think. We like to experience things fully. We have time."
To the men, of course, a society that is not constantly pushing forward is one in stagnation. Bud derides the way that the systems on the women's ship are organised ("'It's primitive,' Bud tells him. 'What they've done is sacrifice everything to keep it simple and easy to maintain.'"). The irony is that it's presumably the lack of similar sacrifices - built-in back-up redundancies at the expense of risk-taking advancements - which has left the men floating helpless in space, to be rescued by the women.
Furthermore, the astronauts think, a society lacking men must be lacking fundamentally:
"You're lying." Bud scowls. [...] "There has to be some men, sure there are... They're hiding out in the hills, that's what it is. Hunting, living wild... Old wild men, I knew it."
"Why do there have to be men?" Judy asks him, being jerked to and fro.
"Why, you stupid bitch." He doesn't look at her, thrusts furiously. "Because, dummy, otherwise nothing counts, that's why."
The above quotation indicates, however, a problem with the story: in the eagerness to follow through the thought experiment, Tiptree delves a little too close to gender essentialism for comfort. The women are suspicious of the men; history tells them that men were violent and disruptive, and that they are better off without them. Human society has evolved past the need for men:
"I'm a man. By god, yes, I'm angry. I have a right. We gave you all this, we made it all. We built your precious civilization and your knowledge and comfort and medicines and your dreams. All of it. We protected you. [...] We're tough. We had to be, can't you understand?"
Another silence. "We're trying," Lady Blue sighs. "We are trying, Dr Lorimer. Of course we enjoy your inventions and we do appreciate your evolutionary role. But you must see there's a problem. As I understand it, what you protected people from was largely other males, wasn't it? [...] But the fighting is long over. It ended when you did."
But while the women operate on this assumption, and manipulate accordingly - and, undeniably, with a smug, complacent belief in their own correctness that is the equal of anything displayed by the men - there is little in the story to cast even the slightest doubt upon their conclusions. The male characters descend, rapidly and irreversibly, into violence - but they seem to do so because they are male (and, in at least one case, drugged and provoked) rather than for reasons internal to the story or to their characterisation.
Obviously, I also find the idea that society could be violence-free if we only got rid of those pesky men to be on the questionable side. This comes up again in the wonderfully-titled (and generally wonderful) 'Your Faces, Oh My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!' (1976, published under another pseudonym, Raccoona Sheldon). Here, though, it is used in a quite different way, as an expression of the central character's mental illness. Her happy conviction that there are "No dangers left at all, in the whole free wide world!" is born of delusion: that humanity now consists entirely of "sisters", that men are a thing of the past, and that it is thus completely safe for her to wander the world alone and greet everyone she meets in the same cheery, open way ("'Heyo, sister! Any mail, any messages? Des Moines and going west!'").
She casts a loving thought back toward the long-dead ones who built all this. The Men, the city-builders. So complex and weird, so different from the good natural way. Too bad they never lived to know the beautiful peaceful free world. But they wouldn't have liked it, probably. They were sick, poor things. But maybe they could have been different; they were people too, she muses.
This is both her (captivating) joy and her pathology; in addition, not only is it not true, but in the snippets we are shown of others' reactions to her, sympathy and disdain are by no means gendered responses (making it rather less polarised than 'Houston'). Ultimately, heartbreakingly, it is her downfall.
I'll finish with Tiptree's most famous treatment of gender issues, 'The Women Men Don't See' (1973), an apparently simple story of two men and two women stranded on the Mexican coast when their aircraft goes down. As they await rescue, relations within the party - all, except the two women (mother and daughter), strangers to each other - become increasingly strained. Things break down completely when, via an encounter with alien beings, it becomes apparent that 'rescue' constitutes different things for different members of the party. While still polemical in purpose and universal in resonance, the piece derives its power from its particularity: these are not all men or all women, but individuals with their own quirks and secrets. Which makes it all the more crushing when we see how thoroughly social expectations of gender - and, more generally, the practice of seeing people in categories, and thus not really seeing them at all - have shaped them and their treatment of others.
Like so many of Tiptree's male characters, the narrator, Don, assesses women first and foremost in terms of their sexual potential to him. When he first sees Ruth and Althea - in passing, with no opportunity to interact with them, nor reason to think he will have in the future - he pays them no mind, noticing only "a double female blur". Once he has to pay attention to them, his thoughts are unwaveringly one-track: he judges them on their attractiveness to him, assumes that they keep to themselves because they are sexually wary of him and/or man-haters (to which Ruth's response is telling: "'That would be as silly as - as hating the weather.' She glances wryly at
the blowing rain."), and decides that any displays of discomfort or temper on their part stem from them being typical women - who, moreover, just need a man to solve their issues:
What's wrong with her? Well, what's wrong with any furtively unconventional middle-aged woman with an empty bed? And a security clearance. An old habit of mine remarks unkindly that Mrs Parsons represents what is known as the classic penetration target.
He continually 'sees' them only in reference to himself and as representatives of their gender - never, really, as individuals with their own motivations, hopes, and plans. (The same applies to Esteban, the Mexican pilot, whom Don tends to treat as the native guide to his Great White Hunter: higher than the women on account of being male, but still categorisable as Other, and thus inferior). Of course, he's as trapped in society's construction of how a straight white male should act as the other characters are in their roles, and as subject to their knee-jerk (albeit largely correct) suspicions; the difference is that his behaviour is backed by the privilege and power of one at the top of tree, and he has very little empathy for those in the lower branches. He doesn't know what it is to feel powerless:
"Hurrah for women's lib, eh?"
"The lib?" Impatiently [Ruth] leans forward and tugs the serape straight. "Oh, that's doomed."
[...] "Come on, why doomed? Didn't they get that equal rights bill?"
Long hesitation. When she speaks again her voice is different.
"Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us. Men are more aggressive and powerful, and they run the world. When the next real crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish like - like that smoke. We'll be back where we always were: property. And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom. [...] What women do is survive. We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine."
"Think of us," she tells him, "as opossums" ... as creatures that go unnoticed, that survive best when completely unseen by man - since man, if he does see them, sees only objects to be controlled. (I find it interesting that Don says "they" rather than "you" in the third line here; although whether this is a suggestion that he's learning to see Ruth as a person, separate from his mental category of 'women', or whether it's an unconscious way of avoiding engagement with the issue she raises, is an open question).
This image is reflected in the structure of the story: Ruth and Althea (and Esteban) do not have their own narrative voices; their personalities must be pieced together from their dialogue and Don's observations. All of which means that when, at the end, the women take a chance on the unknown - choosing to go with the aliens rather than return to human society - it comes as a shock to both reader and narrator. (If this choice seems rather frying pan/fire, well... that's most likely the point, too).
Even at the last, however, it's still all about Don - note the "our" in the story's closing line:
She'd meant every word. Insane. How could a woman choose to live among unknown monsters, to say goodbye to her home, her world?
As the margaritas take hold, the whole mad scenario melts down to the image of those two small shapes sitting side by side in the receding alien glare.
Two of our opossums are missing.
(Edited to note: 1) the quote in the title comes from 'On the Last Afternoon' (1972), 2) the Dead Can Dance lyrics are there because I've had the song stuck in my head while mulling over this post, and it seemed appropriate, and 3) oh my goodness, this is my longest ever post - beating even Biskind! Time for a lie down, methinks...