Daily Archives: 6 November 2009

Star Songs of an Old Primate

James Tiptree Jr, Star Songs of an Old Primate (Del Rey Books 1978)

0345254171Somewhere in the course of reading this book I realised it was a first edition, indeed an only edition, and that it’s been out of print for close to 30 years. You can’t even buy a copy on e-Bay. There is one collection of Tiptree’s stories still in print, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, from Tachyon Publications in 2004, which contains eighteen stories compared to this volume’s eight, so perhaps there’s no big deal. Still it’s a shame that the fabulously self-promoting title of this collection has gone from the bookshop shelves. James Tiptree Jr/Alice Sheldon is the old primate in question, and a depressive old primate s/he is – I wouldn’t recommend these stories to anyone prone to letting grim prognoses for the planet take them on a nose dive. For all her feminism, her stories here feature an unhappy biological determinism, and even way back in 1978 she was terribly aware tht if nuclear war didn’t get us, then global warming or some terrible pandemic would.

I was glad to have Meet Me at Infinity still to hand, because Tiptree’s own comments on these stories, especially ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’ and ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’, greatly enriched the reading experience for me. Those comments make it clear that part of her project was to introduce what she calls software into hardware science fiction – she was au fait with cutting edge and out-on-the-edge psychological research of her time, and found in it the stuff of poetry.

Speaking of Meet Me at Infinity, I don’t care if F R Leavis said the artist’s biography was irrelevant to the work of art, ‘The Man Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats’ gains tremendous resonance from its relationship to Alice Sheldon’s own history. Like her, Tilly Lipsitz is a researcher in psychology whose interests are at odds with the dominant mode of his place of employment. Like her, he is exhilarated by biological research; and their fields of enquiry are similar. Here’s a paragraph from the story (first published 1976):

He will never outgrow the thrill of it. The excitement of actually asking, after all the careful work of framing terms that can be answered. The act of putting a real question to Life. And watching, reverently, excited out of his skin as Life condescends to tell him yes or no. My animals, my living works of art (of which you are one) do thus and so. Yes, in this small aspect, you have understood Me

and one from an interview published in Contemporary Authors in 1983:

It takes time and work to learn how to ask a meaningful, unambiguous question of nature. For instance, you have to learn everything that has already been asked in your field, and what the answers were and the statistical techniques. And after you are qualified, there is still a period where you stand, as it were, in the great Presence, dejectedly hearing it grumble, ‘No … no … garble in …’ But you try and try, until one great day the needed cunning comes. And Everything-That-Is responds majestically, ‘Yes. You have truly grasped one of the hidden dimensions on which My creatures live and move.’ Time will never blur the wonder of that moment for me.

In the story, but hopefully not in the life, this thrill is overshadowed by the grim academic environment, strapped for cash even then and engaged in hideously cruel practices. That overshadowing grimness is characteristic of the stories, so even though there’s much that is rich in this book, I don’t see it becoming a favourite.

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And a niggle from a Down Under editor: It’s nice that Tiptree made Australian women the main surviving humans in ‘Houston Houston Do You Read?’, and gave the humanity of the future an Australian accent (‘date’ is pronounced ‘dyte’), but I wish she or her editors had checked the spelling of ‘Woomera’. I just checked in Google Books, and see that it wasn’t corrected for the 2004 edition either. Hooston, do you read?