content by

Brian Attebery

The James Tiptree Jr. Book Club; or, A Mitochondrial Theory of Literature

The following essay was delivered as a keynote speech at the 2016 James Tiptree, Jr. Symposium’s Celebration of Ursula K. Le Guin, held in Eugene, Oregon on December 2nd and 3rd.

It will probably take my whole talk just to explain my title. I’m going to talk about mitochondria, but not yet. First, it’s book clubs. A few months ago I was listening to the Lightspeed Magazine podcast and heard a story called “The Karen Joy Fowler Book Club,” by Nike Sulway (Lightspeed Magazine, October 2015). I had read and greatly enjoyed Sulway’s Tiptree-Award-winning novel Rupetta, and I was intrigued by the story title, a direct reference to The Jane Austen Book Club (2004), which is one of my ten favorite Karen Joy Fowler books. As I started listening to the story, I could immediately see how it was interacting with Fowler’s work, not just in the title but also in the opening paragraph. It starts:

Ten years ago, Clara had attended a creative writing workshop run by Karen Joy Fowler, and what Karen Joy told her was: We are living in a science fictional world. During the workshop, Karen Joy also kept saying, I am going to talk about endings, but not yet. But Karen Joy never did get around to talking about endings, and Clara left the workshop still feeling as if she was suspended within it, waiting for the second shoe to drop.

Which is absolutely Karen and undoubtedly deliberate. But Sulway’s story takes a number of unexpected turns that link it not only to Fowler—and indirectly, through the title, to Jane Austen—but also to James Tiptree, Jr. Clara and the rest of her book club, it seems, are not human, though they have names, houses, gardens, and book clubs, but rhinoceroses. They are the last rhinoceroses, living out a gradual extinction. The cause of that extinction is never named, but it is clearly us, since the real world exists as a distorted backdrop in the story. Human poaching and human indifference have already killed off Western black rhinos in real history and are on their way to doing in the other subspecies. The humor in Sulway’s story is inextricably entwined with anger and deep sadness, and that is also absolutely Karen Joy Fowler, for instance, in a story called “What I Didn’t See” (Sci-Fiction 2002).

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