James Tiptree Jr, Meet Me at Infinity (Tor Books, 2000)
I got hold of this book as part of my Science Fiction/Fantasy self-education project. In years long gone, I’d read two Tiptree novels and a collection of short stories, so already had a healthy respect for her. (Yes, James Tiptree Jr was a woman. However, in this book she’s identified primarily by her male pseudonym rather than as Alice Bradley Sheldon or Raccoona Sheldon. And that’s as it should be: she kept writing as James for roughly ten years after she was outed, and the pieces by Raccoona collected here are pretty forgettable. There are precedents: I’ll bet you struggle, as I do, to remember the real life name of Henry Handel Richardson or George Eliot.) This is a posthumous gathering of previously uncollected stories and essays, so might have turned out to be a grab bag of offcuts of interest only to completologists. I’m glad to report that it’s not so, not by a long shot.
In the fiction section, roughly the first half of the book, most of the pieces do turn out to be of mainly completological* interest. But two of the stories, specifically ‘Trey of Hearts’ and ‘The Color of Neanderthal Eyes’, are vivid reminders of Tiptree’s ability to portray intimate sensuality (including, as in the first of these stories, graphically described sexual encounters) between beings from different planets. If only I’d read the former story before my Book Group’s evening on erotica!
At the start of the non-fiction section, in which Tiptree is maintaining, sometimes strenuously, her male persona, I was reminded of Jennifer Maiden’s reference (in her poem in the current Heat) to
Wilde’s old aphorism that a man
is least himself in first person: give
him a mask and he’ll tell the truth.
These pieces were mostly written for fanzines – some of which were produced by the book’s editor, Jeffrey D Smith, whose notes explain for us visitors from the mainstream the nature of fandom and fanzines. The pieces are appropriately informal, ‘Uncle Tip’ telling traveller’s tales, dispensing advice to his younger co-fans and generally shooting the breeze in playfully overwrought language. You get the impression the writer was having so much fun creating, or being inhabited by, this male character that she allowed herself to say all sorts of things about creativity, science fiction, ageing, the environment (including, more than 20 years ago, a lament about carbon dioxide and climate change) and anything else that crossed her mind, things she might not have said in her own person. Some of it is embarrassing, as when ‘Tip’ writes with self-deprecating comedy of his lustful admiration for a young Mayan woman. But there’s a lot that’s eminently quotable. Like this, on the Doomsday theme in science fiction, in 1973:
Ever since things got serious, ever since we realised that we really are in danger of killing ourselves, of bombing or poisoning or gutting or choking the planet to death or – perhaps worst of all – of killing our own humanity by fascist tyranny or simple over-breeding, science fiction has been the only place we could talk about it. The mainstream took one look at it in Orwell’s 1984 and promptly caponised itself. It’s too terrible. Don’t look. Tell me Jesus saves.
Or this, which must surely be quoted in any discussion of women in science fiction (the emphasis is in the original):
I know now why women have always attracted me, you see: They are the real aliens we’ve always looked for.
A year or so later, edging closer to emergence from behind the male mask, she wrote, ‘I have changed my mind, by the way: Of course it is not women who are aliens. Men are.’ In that same piece, a compilation of contributions to a symposium on women in science fiction, ‘he’ responded sweetly when invited by the famously pugnacious Joanna Russ to bow out of the discussion on the grounds of his gender.
The book gets really interesting with his/her unmasking, in a number of ways. First, the real Alice Sheldon steps out onto the stage, and although she talks in a number of pieces of how disappointed her readers must be when the writer they’d suspected of having lived a daring life (a spy, or something worse?) turns out to be a nice elderly lady (‘At least I hope I’m nice’), she did have a very interesting life – starting with accompanying her parents on major journeys of exploration as a very young child. Second, her writing changes, becomes more straightforward, less florid, if perhaps also slightly less adventurous. And third, she reports on what she has learned about gender in science fiction, about sexism in general, from her masquerade and unmasking: all too often what can be heard with respect if said by a man, if said by a woman is understood to be whining. As ‘Tip’ she could suggest to a male anthologist (pen-)friend that he ought to include some women in his collection; the same suggestion from Alice would probably be heard as pure self-interested. And so on. Without the male persona, she writes passionately about the situation of women, and about the importance of male allies in the struggle against sexism. But always with style, oddness, modesty, spark and a weird kind of grace.
* I didn’t make that word up. I just googled it, and got one hit.