Tag Archives: James Tiptree Jr

Joanna Russ’s Adventures of Alyx

Joanna Russ, The Adventures of Alyx (1976, Baen 1986)

I believe Joanna Russ carried the flag for uncompromising feminism in the science fiction/fantasy community in the 1970s. Apparently she invited James Tiptree Jr out of a fanzine symposium on women in science fiction because as a man Tiptree had no business speaking on the subject (for those who came in late, Tiptree was really Alice Sheldon lurking behind a male persona, and she responded graciously, in role, to the disinvitation). So it’s no surprise that Alyx in these stories is a strong female character. There are three short stories featuring Alyx, little more than active character sketches really, and a much longer narrative, then a final short story that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t have anything to do with Alyx.

Alyx the adventuress from ancient Tyre is a marvellous character, so the sketches – in which Alyx respectively helps a young noblewoman escape a potentially lethal marriage, escapes her own marriage to take up with a pirate, and deals with a gross man who claims to have created the world – hold up well. The first two happen entirely in a version of earthly antiquity. So does the third, though the nasty patriarchal figure has the language and paraphernalia of a time traveller rather than those of a demigod. In the fourth and longest piece, ‘Picnic in Paradise’, Alyx is transported by the Polysyllabic Agency for Temporal Gobbledygook (or something like that) to a future where her skills – and her lack of knowledge of technology – equip her perfectly to shepherd a group of tourists out of a war zone. In this piece the book well and truly transcends the ‘of historical interest’ niche. It’s funny, touching, and sexy in an over the top way. It points vicious satire  at the Prozac generation before the name. Then, just as one is thinking of Alyx as a kind of moral touchstone, one who keeps her head when all around are losing theirs, a role model even, she confounds all expectations by going so far off the rails it’s hard to understand how the story manages to keep us sympathising with her. She’s a real hero, and the story brilliantly refuses to be neat.

Then the last, short story, as far as I can tell, is not an Alyx story at all. A teenage girl in rural USA in 1925 is visited by a strange woman who turns out to be a descendant from the distant future. The young heroine (and we with her) understands only a fraction of what her strange visitor is up to. She helps her to kill another visitor from the future, but we’re left with only glimpses the relationship between the two visitors. And there’s more. It’s a tantalising narrative in which all the huge world-changing events happen offstage and/or in a language we don’t understand. Yet it’s also a satisfying coming of age story. After all, what teenager understands the world s/he finds him/herself part of.

I don’t have fond memories of Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, which I read (in 1970 something) as an undisciplined scream of rage. This book suggests strongly that I may have got it wrong.

If you want a proper, informed, intelligent discussion, I recommend you have a look at Niall Harrison’s review at Torque Control.

Beyond Apollo

Barry N Malzberg, Beyond Apollo (1972, Pocket Books 1974)

In the real world, the Apollo moon program lasted from 1962 to 1972. Beyond Apollo, first published in 1972, tells what happened next: a failed attempt to land men on Mars in 1976, and then the Venus project in 1981. The immediate aftermath of the latter is the book’s present moment.  Malzberg’s future is our past. If he had been aiming for accurate prediction, he failed miserably. But this isn’t that kind of book.

James Tiptree Jr said of Barry Malzberg: ‘Everybody and everything hurts, for no known reason.’ She could have been giving us an abstract of this book. The main character, Harry Evans, has returned to earth after failing to land on Venus. His fellow-traveller, the Captain, died out there. Evans is probably deranged by whatever happened out there, although possibly his derangement out there led to whatever happened. He gives his debriefers – and us – about ten different versions of events, none of them cheery. Some are obvious fantasy, some probably lies, none is obviously true. He remembers (or fantasises) a lot of unpleasant sex with his wife, and possibly with the Captain. Actually, I probably approached this books thinking I should have read it when I was 14 – science fiction’s ideal reader is supposed to be a 14 year old boy, right? Well, no! I would strongly discourage any 14 year old boy, and a fortiori any 14 year old girl, from reading this. I read the horrible marital rape scenes as somehow parallelling the  mechanistic, soulless nature of the Venus project (Venus//sex, OK?), but they sure weren’t fun to read.

This is probably a very good book. Though there are aliens (possibly invented by Evans, possibly real, who is to know?), the book is not the romp with sexy aliens promised by the lurid cover. Nor is it an easy read. Everybody hurts, including the reader.

The Brain that Changes Itself

Norman Doidge, The Brain that Changes Itself (2007, Scribe 2009)

1DoidgeThis has been beside my bed since the Sydney Writers Festival in May, and had been vaguely circling my TBR list well before that. It was James Tiptree Jr’s stories that finally got me to the point of opening it up. Alice Sheldon was a research psychologist and her stories reflect a deeply pessimistic sense, presumably based on her professional knowledge, that brains are hardwired. In ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read’, for instance, the all-female Utopia, faced with three men delivered to them by a freak of time travel, have to choose between allowing the innately violent, hierarchical creatures to ruin their society and killing them humanely. In an alternative reading, of course, it’s a mostly Australian-heritage Utopia faced with three US military types. Either way, plasticity – that is to say, the capacity for change – doesn’t enter into it. My own experience contradicts this pessimism: with enough thoughtful work, and enough taking of two steps forward for each step back, I believe we can achieve all sorts of things that look impossible. The Norman Doidge book promised good news from the hard sciences and I turned to it for evidence-based optimism.

As well as some unexpected echoes of my recent Tiptree reading (for example, Doidge’s account of the PETA’s 1981 intervention to ‘save’ monkeys from alleged experimental cruelty reads like a real-world equivalent of the fantasy exodus from the labs in Tiptree’s 1974 story ‘The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats’), I got what I was looking for.

The book is immensely satisfying science for lay readers, that is to say for people who know Sweet Fanny Adams about neuroscience but are interested in the workings of human brains. The subtitle – Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science – is a fair summary of the book’s approach to its subject: each of eleven chapters matches the work of a scientist or clinician with the story of a person who has benefited directly from that work. At the start of the twentieth century, mainstream brain scientists were localisationists, working with a model of the brain in which every function was performed by a particular section of the brain, and if that part was damaged, the function was permanently lost. With increasingly reliable and accurate techniques for mapping brain activities, brain scientists have been discovering that the brain is much more complex than that model allows, and much more adaptable. What’s done cannot be undone, sure enough, because the brain isn’t elastic, but nor is it made of stone. Neurons that fire together wire together – if you can figure out a way to make them fire separately, it takes a surprisingly short time to make them unwire from each other. A Spanish scientist named Alvaro Pascual-Leon demonstrated in the 1990s that ‘our thoughts can change the material structure of our brains,’ and that’s only a part of it.

Seen from one point of view, the book is full of wonders. A woman born with only half a brain nevertheless reads, relates intelligently to other people, performs astonishing feats of memory, and dreams of a heaven tailor-made for her needs. People paralysed by stroke years earlier recover speech or movement through an intensive exercise regime. Persistent pain in phantom limbs is relieved using a mirror in a box. People move objects using only their imaginations (helped by electrodes attached to their brains and linked to computers).

From another point of view, it charts the progress of hard science catching up with common wisdom. Contrary to the dogmas of the ‘mental health’ industry, observable changes in the brain don’t incontrovertibly indicate physical conditions that can only be remedied by drugs, surgery or electric shock. The aggressive assertions of evolutionary psychologists look even more ideologically based than they did without this evidence. Addictions, including to internet pornography, look a lot less like life sentences. Doidge is a Freudian, and the progress of one man’s analysis as an exercise in neuroplastic therapy. In an appendix, ‘The Culturally Modified Brain’ he writes:

Neuroplastic research has shown us that every sustained activity ever mapped – including physical activities, sensory activities, learning, thinking and imagining – changes the brain as well as the mind.

I’m glad my primary schooldays included endless amounts of memorising. It looks as if the years that lie ahead will need to include even more.

If Tiptree/Sheldon were writing now, perhaps her time-lost astronauts would be welcomed to the new Earth, and the story would have to become a novel to chart their progress. Perhaps, too, she would have found an intense, repetitive practice to overcome the depression that debilitated her.

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.


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?

Posthumous Tiptree Jr

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.