Short Fiction Spotlight

Short Fiction Spotlight: The James Tiptree Award Anthology (Part 1)

Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. In our last installment, we discussed the final issue of Subterranean Magazine and were sad to see it go.

This time around, I thought I’d switch gears; we’ve been covering a lot of recent magazine publications, but less on the “not-so-recent stories” front. So, for the next two installments, I want to talk about some of the stories collected in The James Tiptree Award Anthology 1 (2005)—edited by Karen Joy Fowler, Pat Murphy, Debbie Notkin and Jeffrey D. Smith, it collects a variety of stories that “expand and explore gender” along the lines of the titular annual award.

Gideon Smith amazon buy linkThe Tiptree Award anthologies—there are currently three—are reliably interesting reads, a mix of nonfiction, novel excerpts, and short stories that, as the introduction says, “seduce or repel you. Instruct and surprise you. Push you around a bit. Take no prisoners. Make no apologies. […] stories for women. And stories for men. And stories for the rest of us, too.” These stories are weird and wonderful, thoughtful and provocative; plus, the linking factor is their complex engagement with gender, so naturally I tend to find them compelling.

As for this first post on the first volume, I thought I’d talk about “The Ghost Girls of Rumney Mill” by Sandra McDonald and “Boys” by Carol Emshwiller.

“The Ghost Girls of Rumney Mill” by Sandra McDonald (2003) deals with a town’s young ghosts—the boys, who haunt the old paint factory, and the girls, who haunt the mill—and their reactions to the appearance of a ghost girl who is transgender. It doesn’t go well, more or less, until Pauline (our protagonist) realizes the error of her ways and welcomes the new girl.

Overall, the response I have to this piece is complicated. On the one hand, it explores the process of acceptance and growth through prejudice from the inside, as well as issues of gender and gendered spaces; I appreciate that. Also, McDonald’s prose is engaging and pleasantly transparent. But on the other hand, it seems to be treading a somewhat problematic (or at the least trope-strewn) narrative path wherein the tragic trans character is used to educate the cisgender characters—without doing much else.

It’s not that I feel stories from this sort of perspective aren’t necessary and worthwhile; I do. It’s more that I’m not sure “Ghost Girls” does the work it was hoping to, because the notes it hits are all fairly predictable and therefore start to feel, sometimes, a little exploitive of the monolithic popular narrative of what it’s like to be trans (as opposed to more organic and/or inclusive narratives). Pauline’s insistence on calling Michelle “Matthew,” Michelle being beaten by the boys and refused entrance to the girls’ territories, Pauline witnessing the occurrence of Michelle’s brutal murder by her father—all of these seem like ready-made cues, and we don’t get much depth from Michelle about them. While it is of course a story about educating the cisgender protagonist, I’d like it if I got the sense that Michelle was more than a convenient catalyst for a “message” – even if it’s a message I’m 100% in agreement with.

So, I like the direction McDonald is going in, here—I appreciate seeing stories with trans characters, etc.—I just wanted more depth and perhaps development beyond this familiar territory. It’s the same story I’ve seen before, except with ghosts.

“Boys” by Carol Emshwiller (2003) is an exploration of a particular trope: the gender-separated culture, in this case from the point of view of a man, when the separation starts to fall in because the women are revolting. The men live in the mountains and war with another band of men on the opposite mountains; no one knows why they’re fighting any more. They copulate with the women in the villages between and steal the sons away to be warriors. Except now the women of this particular village have refused them and the system entirely.

This is one of those stories that reads older than its publication date—it’s a part of a particular genre, the war-of-the-sexes stories that Joanna Russ wrote about years ago, primarily concerned with ideas about separatism, segregation, and a sort of Beckettian absurdism (no one knows why things are the way they are, just that this is the way they are—and it’s an exaggeration of contemporary tensions). The small, ugly Colonel who is our protagonist is the interesting bit of the story—the politics are mostly familiar window-dressing—specifically his internal struggle with gender.

It’s clear to the reader, though perhaps not to the man himself, that the system does not work for him any more than it does for the women: he’s damaged by his inability to conceive of a life with the women, of relationships with them, and by his stubborn and almost desperate belief in the systems he has been raised to. He can’t see outside of it, even if the women can; Una, his sometimes-copulation-partner, is mostly just exasperated by his capitulation to the broken world, but it doesn’t change anything.

There’s a certain hopelessness to the whole affair, wherein the future is likely to end in failure—though the present of the story is a failure as well. It’s a take on the argument that patriarchal systems damage both the oppressor and the oppressed, complicating those identifications, but it’s also coming from within a fairly classic gendered narrative space (those war-of-the-sexes segregation tales). Emshwiller, regardless, has a facility for language and these sorts of classic sf stories that makes “Boys” a reasonably compelling read.

Lastly, I’d also like to give special “related to short-fiction” mention to the inclusion of “Everything But the Signature is Me” by Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr.—the letter that was written after the person behind the Tiptree persona came to light. It’s friendly, jovial, and almost polished to a shine in its style of conversational discourse; it makes the whole situation of masks, gender, and outing seem gentle or trivial. Read in context with the biography of Sheldon and with other primary materials about how strongly she felt about her gender, her sexuality, and her experience with occupying the persona of a man, though… It’s an interesting counterpoint to all of that, a fascinating way of looking at how one person frames their difficult and complex relationships to the world as a gendered subject. And, more significantly, how that frame can differ depending on audience and intimacy. It’s an interesting piece, one I’d recommend giving a look alongside further reading about the enigmatic Sheldon/Tiptree.

As for the first half of this anthology: judging by my reactions, I’d say that the judges for this award and the editors of this volume are correct in noting that the pieces they’ve chosen are designed to provoke thought and conversation more than to be comfortable and easy to take in. I appreciate stories that give me a complex response, and stories that are trying to do hard work with narrative and gender. I do find myself often struck by a desire for them to go further, do more—but there’s room for all the types of stories on the narrative spectrum.

And that’s all for this week. In our next installment, we’ll move into the second half of the book to talk about a couple more stories—same time, same channel.

Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.


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