Where to Start with the Works of James Tiptree, Jr.

I’ve talked about James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon) quite a bit over the past several years. I first encountered their work when I was, I believe, around nineteen years old, in the form of a handful of short stories gleaned from the internet. Folks had recommended them, you see, because when you’re asking for science fiction about gender and sexuality, Tiptree is a requirement for getting acquainted with the kinds of things the field was doing during the New Wave and feminist movements in the late sixties and early seventies.

More importantly, the stories are still excellent. And still disturbingly on-point, with a frequent emphasis on the “disturbing” bit.

So, where do you start if you want to start reading Tiptree—which is a very good idea, given their position as namesake of a genre award for fiction exploring ideas about gender and as an individual whose own complex gender identity threw the field of sf into an uproar when revealed?

The first thing to note is that Alice Sheldon wrote under the names James Tiptree, Jr. and Raccoona Sheldon. While stories published under each name dealt with issues of gender, often the level of externalized rage and aggression is higher in the Raccoona stories; “The Screwfly Solution,” for example, is not a delicate or gentle representation of masculinity—but it is one that makes a stunning impact. There have been two recent omnibus collections that gather up much of Tiptree/Sheldon’s work, both fiction and nonfiction: Her Smoke Rose up Forever and Meet Me at Infinity. The first is all short fiction, while the second also contains other work.

These books are pulling from a history of publications that spans twenty years from 1968 to 1988, generally a few stories every year. Tiptree/Sheldon was prolific, engaged, and provocative; there are eight initial short story collections and two novels that collect much of this work, distilled down into those two previously mentioned more recent books. (A list.)

So, let’s start there. If you’re new to Tiptree/Sheldon, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is a solid place to begin. The novels, interestingly enough, are mostly regarded as forgettable. This is a writer whose primary mode was short fiction, and whose facility with the medium is hard to debate. All of these are damn good stories, even the ones that are a little “out of date” or are wrestling with the problems of gender and sexuality that were more on the cutting edge in the seventies and strike us as outmoded now.

Once you’ve picked up the collection, my instinct is to tell you to read the whole thing cover to cover. But if you just want a taste—to see what all the fuss is about—there are a few stories that have stuck with me over the years, that I’ve read repeatedly and never gotten tired of. Those are “The Screwfly Solution” (1977), “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” (1973), “The Women Men Don’t See” (1973), “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” (1976), and “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!” (1976). Each of these stories approaches issues of society, gender, and otherness; each of them has a distinct point to make about the failings of patriarchal systems of engagement—it’s just that they do it in different ways.

“The Screwfly Solution” and “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!” are both Raccoona Sheldon stories. The first deals with the outbreak of a social turning where men have begun killing women at a genocidal rate, the twist being that it’s caused by alien bioengineering. The second, one of the most disturbing of Sheldon’s pieces, is about a young woman with a mental illness who believes herself to be in a safe, other, future world and escapes her hospital only to be brutally attacked as she tries to walk to the West.

These stories are unpleasant and cruel and unflinching; they’re rough reads, and represent well some of the anger and fear of women living under the systems of patriarchy—the brutality of it, too. The Tiptree stories, by contrast, are interested in exploring issues of gender and otherness from a more removed perspective. “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” (1973) is widely considered an early contributor to the cyberpunk genre; it explores physicality, attractiveness, and embodiment using the story of a girl who is ugly, allowed through technology to live in a beautiful body. The underlying narrative of being stuck in a body that is repulsive to the person in question also has resonance with larger issues of gender and self.

“The Women Men Don’t See” (1973) and “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” (1976) are told by male protagonists who get a glimpse of the realities of women’s lives. In “The Women Men Don’t See,” the female lead and her daughter would rather go away with aliens than continue to take the chance of living on this planet any longer; he can’t grasp why they’d do such a thing, but the reader certainly does. “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” approaches the subject from the “battle of the sexes” standpoint: it’s an all-female future, and these male astronauts end up there but can’t be allowed to stay because of their aggression and irrationality. It turns a lot of gendered tropes about women’s behavior on their head in a way that seems almost pat today but wasn’t so much at the time of publication—among a lot of books where all-female futures were presented a ridiculous or dystopic (see Joanna Russ’s essays about that particular subgenre of story).

There are, of course, quite a lot more stories and essays worth checking out by Tiptree/Sheldon—but these few should give the reader a good sampler of the kinds of things they’ll encounter, as well as Tiptree/Sheldon’s prose styles. While these stories aren’t exactly unproblematic, as we say these days, they are intense, thoughtful, and provocative: full of sharp edges and hard questions and harder truths. I still think they’re worth pursuing and considering, and I hope you will too.

Brit 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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