Mon
Jan 11 2010 11:54am
Yearning for the unattainable: James Tiptree Jr.'s short stories

I own copy of the second (1979) edition of James Tiptree Jr.’s collection Warm Worlds and Otherwise, which contains an insightful and interesting introduction by Robert Silverberg. Silverberg’s introduction, while generally terrific, is wrong about two things. He’s famously wrong about her “ineluctable masculinity”—in this second edition he backs down as graciously and sincerely as anyone ever has. If you want a model of how to acknowledge your public mistakes with grace, you could do a lot worse. The other mistake he makes is in assuming that Tiptree will someday write a novel, and that novel will be even better than the short stories he’s praising. Tiptree did cobble together a couple of novels later in her career, and I quite like them, though they do not have the novel nature. Some people are natural short story writers, and I think this may have been a more inherent and significant thing about Tiptree than her gender. Tiptree wrote some of the best short stories the field has ever seen, stories that are unforgettable, the kind of story that gets under your skin and keeps coming back. There’s a weird belief that short stories are somehow inferior to novels, are beginner’s work, when in fact they are their own thing. Some writers excel at all lengths, others have natural lengths. Tiptree’s natural length was the short story. She seldom extended even to novellas and novelets. She built whole memorable universes and characters to inhabit them in remarkably few words, and that was part of her genius.

Warm Worlds and Otherwise is out of print, but her “best of” collection, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is still available, and I recommend it. Re-reading a short story collection I always find myself identifying themes and motifs. Tiptree wrote a lot about aliens and being alienated, but the strongest theme I can see is the yearning for the unattainable. All of these stories have characters yearning for what they cannot have, whether it’s Timor and his lost paradise planet in “The Milk of Paradise,” or P. Burke and her perfect robot body in “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” or the humans and their desire for alien sex in “And I Awoke and Found me Here,” or the unbearable biological imperatives of the aliens in “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death.” What unites Tiptree’s stories is the skilful blending of SFnal concepts with this overpowering yearning for something forever out of reach.

I’ve read Julie Phillips’ biography of Tiptree and while I thought it was in many ways brilliant, I couldn’t help feeling that Phillips underestimated the value of Tiptree’s work. Phillips is interested in how Alice Sheldon constructed the persona of James Tiptree Jr., and that is indeed interesting. Phillips is interested in the way that being Tiptree let Sheldon write, where before she hadn’t been able to, and not just write but communicate with other writers. I’m much more interested in the way that science fiction let her write, in the way she could find a way to write about her experiences as someone alienated from the world and find that writing welcomed. Delany talks about how science fiction can transform a sentence like “she turned on her side” from the boring restlessness of a sleepless night to the activation of the cyborg. In the same way Sheldon’s inchoate longing for something impossible to articulate was alchemised through Tiptree’s science fiction writing.

Tiptree’s stories really are brilliant—I loved them when I was a teenager, I love them now. She did things that hadn’t been done before, she expanded the edges of possibility for the field. Phillips wasn’t really interested in Tiptree’s influence in our genre, and so far as she was she wanted to talk about the Tiptree Award and gender and so on, which is all really related to Sheldon personally, and not so much to Tiptree as a writer. Tiptree did write “The Women That Men Don’t See” and “Morality Meat” but gender and “female issues” were far from central to her concerns. I think one of the things being Tiptree gave her was permission to step away from this sort of thing, permission to write as “normal” (it was 1970) and unmarked, to be who she was, to be a person away from the confines of being a female. There’s this thing that happens with acknowledging and sequestering women’s stuff at the same time, and she escaped that.

Tiptree was constantly pushing the boundaries of science fiction. “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” (1973) prefigured cyberpunk—it’s one of the three precursor stories, with John M. Ford’s Web of Angels and John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider. “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death” made a space for Octavia Butler’s later writing about aliens and sex and identity. “And I Awoke and Found me Here” did the same for Varley—for a lot of the writers who came into SF in the later seventies and the eighties Tiptree was part of their defining space, and the genre would have been very different without her. Science fiction is constantly a dialogue, and her voice was one of the strongest in the early seventies, when everything was changing. She wasn’t a New Wave writer, and in many ways she was very traditional, “And I Have Come Upon This Place” could have been written by Murray Leinster, except for the end. She wrote what she wrote and expanded the possibilities for all of us. Science fiction would be very different without her.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

11 comments
Clark Myers
1. ClarkEMyers
I shouldn't have said that Tiptree "was constantly pushing the boundaries of science fiction" myself though that is certainly a more than acceptable phrasing.

I don't immediately think of any corner cases (of the what is - is this - science fiction? variety) or any edging up to or over the previous boundaries of science fiction in the Tiptree stories - as opposed say to looking at the faced books under the SF heading at Borders or Barnes and Noble and figuring the proportion of covers with SCAdian style blades on them.

I'd argue a strong connection to the ideas of the Dangerous Visions series

("Wilhelm is the woman to beat this year, but Tiptree is the man." and I can't for the life of me think of a correction to that intro - did Harlan ever correct himself? I'd equally myself apologize for using Hemingway as the epitome of the masculine writer though)

though arguably better done by Tiptree all by herself than by the anthology groupthink.

That is what is pushed is the idea - the science - and not the fiction.

I'll settle for SF as a literature of ideas with cardboard characters - though I also think that in many a linear story of ideas the most multi-dimensional character possible is reduced to the dimensions of the story line. Better yet to have the ideas and the rest of the story too. Given her background and especially her dissertation I think Tiptree must have thought long and hard and in the Popper sense of refutable hypothesis rationally about science and then combined that with a flair for communicating the emotion and the human reaction.

I'll AOL loudly that "What unites Tiptree’s stories is the skilful blending of SFnal concepts with this overpowering yearning for something forever out of reach."

I'll go on to amplify that with the words of Alphabete Noir:
"What is it we look to technology for if not some form of wish fulfillment? We wish the screwflies would leave our livestock alone....." (well worth looking up for one person's experience of Tiptree)
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
I haven't seen Ellison revise or revisit that statement.
Rush-That-Speaks
3. Rush-That-Speaks
I initially read Tiptree without knowing her gender, even though it was the early nineties, because my local library had original printings and hadn't been buying sf for a while. Actually the primary impact Tiptree had had on me had been feminist: 'The Screwfly Solution', the politics of beauty in 'The Girl Who Was Plugged In', 'Houston, Houston, Do You Read?' showing a society I intellectually realized was meant to read ambiguously but emotionally grabbed as a Utopia. It was shocking to me that a man was writing that way-- genuinely shocking, because I'd been raised on my father's collection and am not joking when I say that Heinlein was and still is the writer who is best at sexual politics that my father keeps in the house. And then finally seeing some biographical information, which was a jolt.

It was a serious surprise. It wasn't like Andre Norton, where it never occurred to me till I was in my twenties that there must have been people who didn't know, because I was used from childhood to having Andre be the name of a female writer.

So yes, it is actually possible to have started reading in-genre in the late-eighties early-nineties and still have Tiptree come as a surprise. And in the world of my early reading environment, where I'd read Gibson before Tiptree, read Butler, read Varley, the thing that came across as most subversive and least continued-forward in Tiptree, even when I thought Tiptree was male, was the feminism. That was one of the things that made me start reading heavily in feminist sf, but I'll still stand by it, I still think it's the most subversive and least directly literarily influential thing she did.

Culturally influential, fortunately.
Rush-That-Speaks
4. nlowery71
How I love Tiptree.

I started reading her in the 90s, always knew she was a woman. Only later did I chuckle at the Silverberg/Ellison statements.

Reading is something of a secret club, especially if you're a niche reader. Often, even readers view other genres as alien things (which I guess is appropriate toward science fiction.)

But Tiptree is a reminder of how much of a secret the writers themselves can be. That Sheldon was brilliant, idiosyncratic and probably gay does illuminate her fictional themes. But it is amazing how many subversive ideas she packed into her stories, while still being critically well-received in a genre that could be pretty conservative.
Rush-That-Speaks
5. Foxessa
I remember reading the Silverberg intro back in the day and breaking into tears. So much of what he said and how he said I heard in my mind exactly as the superior lectures to me by that certain sort of male of what feminism is and should be and what women are and should be, and they were so freakin' farkin' wrong that I couldn't even speak, other than to say, YOU-ARE-WRONG. It was beyond depressing to think that men I had admired because they wrote sf/f could take those tones with women as well.
Rush-That-Speaks
6. DBratman
Good point about Tiptree's natural length being the short story. I think that's true, and I think it's also true of a lot of other SF writers, especially ones who originally made their names writing - surprise! - short stories in the SF magazines. Some, like Le Guin or Zelazny, proved equally good or better at novels. Others, of whom Sturgeon and Sheckley also come to mind, did some good work at book-length but, as you say, never really had the novel nature. In their cases and in Tiptree's, their single best book would surely be a good selection of short stories.
Nancy Lebovitz
7. NancyLebovitz
I'd add Delany's Nova to the list of proto-cyberpunk.

I'm curious about the relationship you see between "And I Awoke and Found Me Here" and Varley. Especially in his work from the period, I see so much emotional distance in Varley (as compared to Tiptree being very emotionally raw) that I have trouble putting them in the same category.
David Dyer-Bennet
8. dd-b
Never much got into Tiptree; quite possibly because she didn't do much with novels, and was solidly identified with the literary end of the genre by the time she did. I must have encountered a few stories in anthologies, but none of them made any impression on me. I don't do alienation much.
p l
9. p-l
An author friend of mine once advised me to read Love is the Plan the Plan is Death, by saying, "It was nominated for a Hugo award, even though it's brilliant."

I think that sums up nicely why Tiptree is not more widely acknowledged as the master she was.
Rush-That-Speaks
10. lampwick
I wasn't terribly surprised when I found out Tiptree was a woman (people had been debating this back and forth for a while), but I have to say I was surprised she was (what seemed to me then) so old, in her fifties or sixties. The stories had an energy to them, a freshness, that I thought could only have come from someone fairly young. I guess we all have our prejudices, and mine back then was age-ism.
Rush-That-Speaks
11. filkferengi
I'm tracking book recommendations this year, where they come from, & what I do about it. So far, I've put at least half a dozen books on hold at the library, just from your recommendations. Yes, I'm saying you give great recs.

[weg]

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