For those just joining us, James Tiptree Jr was a magnificent SF writer whose work Robert Silverberg once described as “ineluctably masculine.” Which is amusing because she was actually Alice B Sheldon. Anyway, in 1991 some people decided there should be an award named for a woman, and that it should be given to works that “explore and expand gender”. So, to be quirky, they named it for Sheldon/Tiptree. And the award has been going since then, and there are now a number of anthologies that reflect it: excerpts from novels, complete short stories, but also other work that reflects the issues that the award desires to highlight. Which is awesome.
Debbie Notkin’s introduction does a marvellous job of discussing the very first award and how it was decided on, as well as – most interestingly – pointing out that each jury has been forced to decide all over again what it means to “explore and expand gender.” Which is good to be reminded of, because there are definitely stories in the anthology whose inclusion I was a little confused by. And this, Notkin says, is totally fine.
In honour of Tiptree/Sheldon, the anthology opens with a short essay from Julie Phillips, the biographer of Tiptree/Sheldon (which I reviewed here, and as I write I am listening to The Writer and the Critic discuss it), about talking and talking too much which is completely fascinating (and somewhat connected to the current furore over Hilary Mantel’s words about the media representation of royalty?). It’s matched with a letter from Sheldon herself, to the psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, talking about identity and science fiction and science and friendship, which is such a nice touch. And then the anthology jumps straight into Raphael Carter’s “Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation by KN Sirsi and Sandra Botkin,” which can only be read by itself, must be read in a single sitting, and may then require that you sit staring at a wall for a few minutes. Because it is mind blowing. It’s written as a thoroughly researched scientific article, where two scientists from different backgrounds come to a startling discovery about how gender is perceived and what that means for identity and… that doesn’t really explain it at all. It’s very accessible as well as challenging and I can absolutely understand why it won.
L Timmel Duchamp’s collection Love’s Body, Dancing in Time was shortlisted in 2004, and from it this anthology includes “The Gift.” For all that it’s set in a distant future where the narrator is a travel writer who discusses other planets rather than other countries, there’s something rather medieval in its suggestion that there is more to an understanding of gender than a basic dichotomy. And I don’t mean ‘medieval’ in a pejorative sense, but in the sense that some medieval thinkers seemed to be groping towards a similar sense – and for similar reasons as suggested here. That aside, one of my favourite parts of this story is the description of the meal composed around the ideas of Matrix Aesthetics. And made me wish that something similar could possibly exist, that combined visual, aural, and taste sensations all designed to complement one another.
The next two parts of the anthology are again from 2004, this time excerpts from the winning novels. The Tiptree Award is an interesting one in that it seems to me one of the few really big-name awards that considers all work for one award (shorts and novels), and which is not afraid of having a tie (which has happened a few times). Firstly here, Joe Haldemann’s Camouflage – the first four chapters and “and two from a little further along,” according to the reading notes. I HAVE to read this novel. It’s utterly gripping, right from the start: an alien comes to earth millennia ago, and is capable of changing its outward appearance to be… whatever it likes. Imagine the consequences of that on ideas of gender and identity. This is complemented by an excerpt from Johanna Sinisalo’s Troll: A Love Story, which I imagine I will also get around to reading. Translated from the Finnish, it does indeed involve a troll, as well as (again according to the reading notes) mail-order bride slavery and Finnish folklore and homoerotic imagery. In this excerpt, the narrator’s night has started badly, with a failed date, and gets worse when she finds a bunch of boys attacking an animal. Things get weirder after that.
“Looking for Clues” is Nalo Hopkinson’s guest of Honour speech from WisCon (the convention where the Tiptree is announced) in 2002. As a woman of colour, as she explains in her speech, finding people “like her” was one of the aims of her extensive early reading – because there weren’t that many. She takes a winding road through various media and her experiences to look at the different sorts of role models (and not) available through her childhood and teenaged years, as well as making pointed remarks about people who insist on remaining ignorant about the issues. It would have been a brilliant speech to hear in person.
Eileen Gunn’s collection Stable Strategies is another one that got shortlisted in 2004, and as a representative this anthology chose “Nirvana High,” co-written with Leslie What. This is one of the inclusions that I simply do not get. It’s a clever story and it says interesting things about difference, and about growing up as ‘different’, but I don’t see that it says things about gender that connect it to the Tiptree. But I’m sure Notkin would say “and?”
From 1996 comes Jonathan Lethem’s “Five F***s” (sorry, I would like to keep this profanity free!). It’s a series of six vignettes, and in all of them there is a woman whose life appears to be different each time she has sex with a particular man. Indeed, it’s not just her life, but the world around her; in this sense it reminds me a bit of Lathe of Heaven. The lover does not appear in every story; in all but the first, there is a different man – Pupkiss, a policeman (mostly). So there are elements of the procedural to some of the sections, but not really. It’s one of those stories, as you may be able to guess, that is particularly hard to explain. It should just be read.
Carol Emshwiller’s “All of Us Can Almost…” is another story in the I don’t entirely get it pile. Shortlisted in 2004, it’s about desire and lying and determination, and while I think it’s a very good story and fascinating in what it says about interactions between people and expectations, I don’t entirely see that the gender aspects – which I can see – are an interesting enough or explored enough aspect to get it shortlisted. Again, refer to Notkin’s advice.
Gwyneth Jones is rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors, so I was pleased to see an entry from her here. Rather than a piece of fiction, it’s a paper she gave called “The Brains of Female Hyena Twins: On the Future of Gender,” presented at the Academic Fantastic Fiction Network conference in 1994. In it, she ranges far and wide over scientific papers that discuss aspects of gender and biological sex in animals (those hyenas, peacocks, lizards and fish…), as well as gender and sex in humans and their malleability, as well as some frightening aspects of the battle of the sexes. It’s erudite and occasionally witty (insofar as such a topic ought to be), and outright challenging to biological determinists.
The penultimate place belongs to Ursula le Guin, for Another Story, or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea which I have read before but fell in love with all over again, reading it here. The planet of O is such a richly realised place – their marriage customs so breathtakingly original – and they’re not even the centre of the story, which is I think mostly about scientific research and its impact on individuals, as well as the impact of family, and the choices that we make… It’s wonderful.
Finally, Jaye Lawrence’s “Kissing Frogs” is described as “a pleasing after-dinner mint of a story” by the reading notes, and I think that’s about right. It’s a retelling of the fairy story, of course; it’s amusing and sweet and I can’t go into any details because the point of it is the little twists Lawrence weaves in. A highly enjoyable way to complete the anthology, anyway.
What this anthology does, and I presume what it set out to do, is give a broad overview of the point of the Tiptree Award – showcasing works that various juries have thought worth honouring, as well as including work that must help to inform the juries, and authors, and readers about the ideas of gender that the award wants to recognise. It succeeds in this aim, and no doubt in a secondary aim as well – of publicising those names whose work has been recognised, so that they get more recognition, and more people are challenged and inspired by their words.
You can get this anthology from Fishpond.
In which we leap happily back and forth (with occasional ranting) over those fine lines between feminist critique and anti-female assumptions, plus share our bumper collection of holiday culture consumed. Happy New Year from the Galactic Suburbia crew!
NEWS AND LINKS
Hugo nominations open and we’re gonna have our say
Aqueduct Press will be publishing Brit Mandelo’s thesis, “WE WUZ PUSHED: On Joanna Russ & Radical Truth-telling”!
Islamic superhero comic turned animated series The 99 to screen in Australia (ABC3)
Amanda Palmer’s wedding post
Great piece on how the very idea of ‘Mary Sue’ is sexist, ties into this episode’s theme about the criticism of female characters.
The wealth of powerful girl heroes in today’s YA
WHAT CULTURE HAVE WE CONSUMED?
Alisa: Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal; The Freedom Maze, Delia Sherman (with cover art by Kathleen Jennings); The Vampire Diaries; Primeval; The 99; Planetary; Homeland and Boxcutters.
Alex: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon, Julie Phillips; Changing Planes, Ursula le Guin; Perchance to Dream, Lisa Mantchev; Twilight Robbery, Frances Hardinge; Chronicles of Chrestomanci vol 1, Diana Wynne Jones. DOA and Going Postal.
Tansy: The Freedom Maze, Delia Sherman; Beauty Queens, Libba Bray; Snuff by Terry Pratchett, Going Postal (TV) – Batman (animated) & My First Batman Book by David Katz, David Tennant & Catherine Tate in Much Ado About Nothing (DIGITAL THEATRE DOWNLOAD AWW YEAH).
Please send feedback to us at email@example.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!
It’s probably impossible for me to give an adequate review of this amazing biography. It is written so beautifully, and Sheldon/Tiptree’s life so extraordinary, that it’s hard to encapsulate in anything other than this book.
For those late to the party: Alice Sheldon wrote SF as James Tiptree Jr and remained incognito for many years. This biography sets out Sheldon’s entire life, though, not just the fiction-writing part, because it is truly a life worth recording. She went to Africa three times, with her parents, before the age of 15 – one time on a gorilla-hunting expedition. Life at home was no fairy tale… and she got married at 19 to a man she had only met a few times. They stayed together for about 6 years. She tried university, she tried being an artist, she tried journalism. She joined the WAC during WW2 and thus met her second husband, Ting. She got a doctorate in psychology, she tried chicken farming, and – the reason most people will read this bio – she wrote science fiction, mostly in short story form. She was a complex woman, probably a difficult one, beset by a number of demons – how to deal with emotions, her mother, depression, anger, and drug use. I’m not convinced I would have liked her as a person. That’s beside the point, though.
This is not a happy story. There is a lot of heartbreak and difficulty in Sheldon’s life, on large and small scales. Phillips’ discussion of her depression and drug use is sympathetic: not so delicate as to ignore it, not romanticising it or making excuses, just… this is how it was. Which was heartbreaking, to be honest. The way Sheldon herself wrote about her feelings and frustrations was agonising, perhaps because, frankly, it was (for me) just faintly recognisable.
One thing I really liked about this biography is Phillips’ use of names. She calls her subject Alice early on, and Alli after Ting’s mother starts using that nickname (she loved it apparently). She also uses Tiptree when referring to the fiction and letters and possible thoughts of that alter-ego, which I think is a lovely way of complicating what could otherwise be dismissed as ‘simply’ a nom-de-plume. (Phillips also devotes some time to Raccoona Sheldon, and how Tiptree and Raccoona were seen to interact by editors etc.) It’s a true history book too: Phillips has used a lot of primary material, and – delightfully – quotes from it frequently. This worked really well, and was utterly riveting, when it came to Tiptree’s letter writing. Tiptree was an inveterate letter-writer; fan letters, letters accompanying stories, the occasional letter to a magazine… Tiptree was a regular correspondent of a huge number of people, and by regular that might be a letter every fortnight or so. And the people? Oh, Ursula le Guin and Joanna Russ, for example. (My head exploded a little bit at the idea of those three exchanging letters and talking about each other to the other. Which they did.) Yes, it did inspire me to write a fan letter to Julie Phillips.
I am not of the opinion that one must know the gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and schooling history of an author in order to understand or appreciate their work as a piece of art. There is, however, no denying that some background or knowledge can add depth. Knowing Tiptree to be a woman does change how we read some of his/her fiction; and knowing something of her struggle with sexuality and sex can add depth, too, as well as her experiences of colonialism in Africa an Europe after WW2.
These comments haven’t even touched on Sheldon’s sexuality, her politics, or any number of other issues in her life. It’s a really, really great biography – even if you’re not interested in Tiptree’s fiction, this is a remarkable life, and illuminates all sorts of interesting things about life in one part of America from the 1920s to the 1980s.
I bought this collection of James Tiptree Jr’s short stories (and two of Raccoona Sheldon’s) because I was going to be part of the 2011 Women in SF Book Club, being run over at the (now-defunct) Dreams and Speculation blog. D&S’s now-defunct status is part of the reason why it’s taken me the whole year to read the collection – although to be fair it would have anyway, since the idea was to read 1-2 stories per month for the book club. But instead I’ve read the last third in the lat two days. I tried to host the Tiptree bit here on my blog: I posted my own spoiler-y thoughts on Delicate Mad Hands and Houston, Houston, Do You Read? However, I didn’t get much interest in them, so I discontinued it.
Now, however, I have finally finished the collection! And what a collection.
I have read bits and pieces of Tiptree’s work before, but most of these stories were completely new. The thing that most immediately strikes is that that they are intimately concerned with life and death, and with reproduction in defiance of the latter. I know this could be said about a lot of authors, but it really is a clear and obvious preoccupation in many of these stories. Perhaps not coincidentally, Tiptree can in no way be described as a happy writer. Which is not to say that she lacks joy; there is a great deal of that fierce, loving-life-in-the-face-of-death joy that can be both poignant and exultant, in these stories.* But you could bet on a story having a not-entirely-happy ending, and much of the time you would win.
And yet I love it. Tiptree breaks my heart and yet I love her writing. She is confrontational – about humanity, about individuality, about reason – and she is challenging, she is grim and she breaks my heart but there are very few stories that I didn’t love in this collection, even if they gave me agony.
What didn’t I like? I didn’t enjoy the titular “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever”, nor “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death.” The former was, I think, too… cold? for my liking; the latter was, dare I say it, a bit too weird – it was too hard to really figure out what was going on, who was speaking and why. Really, it just didn’t grab me. Ditto “And So On, and So On,” which was a let-down of a piece to end the collection with, although I guess I can understand the rationale; it sort of wraps up the entire collection and everything it’s been saying, and suggests that maybe it’s just the self-involved mutterings of a “kid these days.” That sort of deliberate invitation to dismiss everything that came before really didn’t work for me.
However, that leaves 15 stories that really worked for me.
The collection opens with “The Last Flight of Dr Ain”, and it meshes quite nicely with “The Screwfly Solution.” Both appear to deal with some sort of plague affecting the whole world, although the diseases have different impacts. “Screwfly” in particular is a scary read, as a woman – how male sexuality could be manipulated.
“And I Awoke and Found me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” – the title an allusion to Keats – is one that I had read before and one that gets me every single time. Human-alien contact stories generally fall into two categories: “zomg they’re going to kill us!!!” or love-in. Tiptree presents a third option: we care, they don’t. It’s a subtle story, and I think one that tends to play on the mind – whose impact deepens the longer you think about it. “The Women Men don’t see” deals with a similar-ish story, and is probably the least obviously SF of the stories in the collection. But the description of male/female interaction, and the perception particularly of men’s behaviour, is brilliant. And heartbreaking. Probably the weirdest story of the lot, also dealing with an alien encounter, is “A Momentary Taste of Being.” It’s also I think the longest in the collection, I’m sure reaching novelette length. It’s amazing and horrendous at the same time: the interactions of the humans on a survey mission are, to a large extent, frightful; the backstory Tiptree gives some of the characters abhorrent; the reality of the alien is weird and mind-blowing and masterfully original. I’m not sure that I loved it, but I’m definitely in awe.
“The Girl who was Plugged In” is a most remarkable piece for 1973, anticipating as it seems to GPS and reality TV is horrendous ways. This is one that made my heart bleed and yet I loved it. It’s so clever – Tiptree had such a searing way of evaluating humanity, our foibles and penchants, and they come through here, in talking about what we love and what we discard; in this case, humans who do and don’t fit our preferences. That also connects in some ways to “With Delicate Mad Hands,” which is another heart-rending but fiercely awesome stories – of beating the odds, of being what you want to be, and finding fulfilment. Cold Pig is one of the most wrenching of Tiptree’s protagonists, because of what she endures and the dreams that she holds.
“The Man who Walked Home” is post-apocalyptic and takes place over a long period of time, and shows Tiptree’s very clever manipulations of time and physics; it’s one of the few stories that doesn’t deal with aliens, in some way or other. It suggests a somewhat gloomy view of humanity’s future, which isn’t necessarily present in all of her work – for example, “And I Have Come upon this Place by Lost Ways” and “On the Last Afternoon,” along with numerous others, imagine humanity having spread out through at least part of the galaxy, if not always to everyone’s betterment. “And I Have Come” reflects a certain view of how to colonise, I think, which Tiptree challenges in really interesting – if somewhat nihilistic – ways – while “Last Afternoon” has a human dealing with two different types of alien creature and being confronted with his own, and his species’ mortality. Also post-apocalyptic-ish is “She Waits from All Men Born,” which is Tiptree’s most obvious meditation on the issue of death and its intimate connection to life. Very, very, clever.
“Your Faces, O my Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!” seriously, seriously broke me. IT’S SO SAD. I’m pleased to see that this one was published as Raccoona Sheldon, because I cannot imagine anyone thinking this was actually written by a man. At the same time, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” was published as Tiptree, and it’s one that I can kinda understand as being seen as masculine, but at the same time – so, so not. “Houston” is one of my favourites of the whole collection; it’s just so damned clever, the reveals come so teasingly and obviously, once they’re there.
“We Who Stole the Dream” is, I think, the only story not written from the point of view of humanity. Instead humanity is in the place of ignorant, unhelpful alien – which is quite a shock in the middle of the collection. It’s also, to my grieving heart’s extra battering, apparently set in the same universe as Brightness Falls from the Air, because it references Star Tears which are intricately involved in that (brilliant) novel’s plot. This is another really clever story about the lengths people (in this case non-human ones, but whatever) will go to, for their children. And so, in some ways, is “Slow Music” – another of my absolute favourites. Here humanity has interacted with aliens, but we never see them – we just see the result, which is the River, which appears to have attracted almost everyone on Earth. And so we’re left with a boy, who comes across a girl… and then there’s a most marvellous examination of modern life and its trappings.
This is a seriously brilliant collection. I would recommend, though, not reading the introduction first, because there are a few spoilers, as I found to my annoyance.
*In case you’re just joining us, James Tiptree Jr = Raccoona Sheldon = Alice Bradley Sheldon.
Welcome to July’s Tiptree Book Club story-discussion-thing, which I have inherited from TJ on the closing down of Dreams and Speculation. This month we’re looking at “With Delicate Mad Hands,” which marks the halfway point in the anthology Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. (A note on the next few months – I’ve changed it around a little so that we’re reading kinda-sorta the same number of pages each month: August will be “A Momentary Taste of Being;” September “We Who Stole the Dream;” and “Her Smoke Rose up Forever;” October “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” and “On the Last Afternoon;” November ”She Waits for All Men Born” and “And So On, and So On;” December “Slow Music” (yes those last two are not in the order given in the anthology).)
This discussion is completely riddled with spoilers, so don’t read on if you’d like the joy of discovery all for yourself!
It’s worth saying up front that this story did not go in any of the directions I had expected, which shouldn’t have surprised me with Tiptree. That a story could go from a discussion of how awful a girl’s life was because she had a squashed nose to her being the first human on a extra-solar planet, beloved by an alien and bequeathing an enormous amount of new knowledge… yeh, that’s pretty awesome.
Of course, to get to the awesome you have to struggle through some quite awful stuff. CP’s life is horrid right from the start – and I hope I’m not the only one slightly frustrated by the tantalising looks into this ?post-apocalyptic world offered by Tiptree, where you can rarely see the sky and Managers are the be-all and end-all. CP’s drive to get into Basic Space Crew Training eventually gets her there, and while I was initially impressed with a society that eventually lets girls in, that was rapidly quashed: she has to pay for her own sterilisation, which was awful on numerous levels, and, along with her other duties, she has to allow the men onboard to use her as a sexual ‘waste can’. My horror knows no limits…
The events on the ship, with CP eventually getting rid of the men and taking off towards Galactic North, I found surprising and I’m not sure why. Perhaps because of the no-nonsense way it was all described; and perhaps because CP’s preparedness for just this eventuality is chilling. I did, though, really enjoy her enjoyment of solitude, and finally doing just what she wants; that she went around and pulled off all the blinds to be able to see out felt so familiar that I think at this point I was able to identify with CP, just a bit. And then to have her find a roving planet… as I said, it was unexpected, and utterly utterly intriguing. That life could grow somewhere like this! That radiation could have a positive impact on life… that telepathy etc would develop, and the different ways that can be found to do science… Tiptree had a seriously amazing imagination. (Also, did anyone else feel like she might have been a little influenced by Yoda, in characterising some of her little aliens?? This story came out in 1981, so it’s just feasible….) The poignancy of discovering that yes, there really had been a voice in her head all that time, and that she was and had been loved, was a wonderfully touching conclusion.
Some questions to get discussion going:
How did you feel about CP, and did this change over the story?
Did the story develop as you were expecting?
What did you think of Auln, the alien world?
This is from a while back, but Niall Harrison of Strange Horizons wrote about Her Smoke Rose up Forever and raised some interesting issues about some of the stories – including “Houston, Houston, Do you Read?” Some of the comments are very interesting too. Those of us who are reading the anthology for the Book Club started by Dreams and Speculation may find it stimulating – although I did skip over some of the discussion, because I haven’t read those stories yet!
Along with everyone else, I was sad to see that TJ had made the (sensible!) decision to let her blog, Dreams and Speculation, go. I came across her because of the Women in SF Book Club, and have so far really enjoyed the books and discussion. Rather than letting a good thing go, Shara at Calico Reaction and I have made the decision to jointly host and continue the Book Club; she’s doing the novels, and I get the joy of talking about James Tiptree Jr. So, welcome! And enjoy.
June’s story from Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is “Houston, Houston, Do you Read?” – a story I have previously read as novella double, paired with Joanna Russ’ “Souls” (there’s a headspin for you). What follows is some of my thoughts on the story – completely full of spoilers, so if you haven’t read it yet, back away! Following in TJ’s footsteps, I’ve added a couple of questions at the end of the post – feel free to consider them in the comments or completely ignore them, as you see fit.
This story sees three astronauts on a solar mission; they encounter a flare and when they come back around to the Earth side, things are… different. Houston doesn’t answer, but someone else does. They get picked up by a very different spaceship, one that seems almost entirely crewed by women – and it’s several hundred years into their future.
This story does what my favourite stories do: with an awesome sf story, its focus is on the people – their reactions, their attitudes, their problems. The astronauts are appropriately different from one another such that a range of reactions can be explored, but they don’t feel like ciphers; Tiptree deftly sets them up as individuals. I believe this story first came out when Tiptree’s true identity was unknown; all I can say is, Seriously? Did they just not see the feminism?
Anyway, the slow unravelling of the men’s good nature at being rescued by women is very cleverly done. I found the attitudes of the men towards the men really quite harrowing; their patronising tone, their easy assumption of supremacy, automatic belittling of the women’s competencies – it was presented as so horrendously normal and obvious. Bud, in particular, is horrendous in his attitude towards women as nothing but sex objects. That said, in some ways Lorimer is almost more horrifying; as the narrator and because of his scientific background I felt sympathy for him, but still his attitudes and perceptions of the women are almost entirely sexist.
The gradual reveal that not only is the entire ship crewed with women but the entirety of the human race is women, thanks to an epidemic three hundred years previously, is very cleverly handled. The idea of a single-sexed humanity has been explored in other science fiction, with varying results; I quite like this idea, with clones to allow reproduction. The most poignant reflection on the differences between a single-sex and two-sex world comes right at the end, when Lorimer tries to defend Bud and Dave’s aggressive actions. I could almost feel sorry for all of them at that point.
1. Did you pick that the future society was single-sexed before it was revealed?
2. Was the futuristic society believable for you?
3. What were your reactions to the men’s characters and attitudes?
4. This story was published in 1976. Do you think it is still a relevant story?
In which we flit over the first shortlist of the year and some charitable links, sweep though a fortnight of culture consumed, and then leap with both feet into the pet subject of Inside Indie Press. You can download or stream us from Galactic Suburbia, or get us from iTunes.
BSFA Awards Shortlists
What Culture Have we Consumed?
Tansy: no books for me, shockingly! More Big Finish audio plays.
Alex: Agatha H and the Airship City, Phil and Kaja Foglio; Transformation Space, Marianne de Pierres; Dust, Elizabeth Bear; two stories from James Tiptree’s Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (spoilery discussion); The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss. Also begun a rewatch of BSG…
Alisa: No Ordinary Family; Dexter season 5
(diversion on the subject of Whether Alisa Should Watch Doctor Who)
Pet Subject: Inside Indie Press
Big news in TPP space is the closure of Speakeasy.
Is there an obvious point at which a project becomes a non-viable project?
How do you know that you’re ditching a project just because the stories don’t fit your particular idea/viewpoint?
The older books are harder to use as examples because lots of things about them were learning.
Horn – first to break even BUT I got caught on the selling to bookstores so i ended up having to sell 80% of the print run after review and buzz copies (1/4 of the print run) to break even.
Pay scales, writing contracts, competing with the US indies…
Please send feedback to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!
Over at Dreams and Speculations, the first of the year’s book club discussions is up and running. TJ has done a very clever thing by having not only one novel a month, but introducing a mid-month discussion on a couple of James Tiptree’s short stories from Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. This month, it’s “The Last Flight of Dr Ain” and “The Screwfly Solution.” I managed to be the second commenter, hurrah! … because she’s in America and has, I presume, automated the initial post to go up at midnight. Which means I’ll be waaaay behind on the conversation, but at least I got to say something early on :D . Essentially, while I liked “Ain” and it was certainly an interesting story for 1969, “Screwfly” was brilliant with all sorts of crunchy things to say about gender relations and sexuality and religious fanaticism.
The post is chock-full of spoilers, of course, but if you’ve read them or are interested in Tiptree’s work, it would be worth reading it and the comments.
One of the most interesting things about this book as an object is that nowhere (that I could find) does it mention that James Tiptree Jr is actually Alice Sheldon. Neither, though, is there any personal pronoun used for the author. This is really only interesting when you know something about the history of Tiptree, I guess, but it is revealing. It came out in 1985, which puts it only a couple of years before Tiptree’s death and several after s/he had been ‘outed’ as Alice Sheldon. So was the publisher trying to cash in on the Tiptree name and people now knowing the ‘truth’? Was it Sheldon/Tiptree’s decision? I’d be fascinated to know.
Going in, I thought this would have some of the terribly interesting gender discussions that many of Tiptree’s short stories have, and that – combined of course with the reality of Tiptree’s life – led to the Wiscon award for gender-bending in SF/fantasy being named after her. However, it’s not there. This isn’t to say anything against the story itself, which I’ll get to, but it was something of a surprise for me. There are awesome female characters; a female in command of a base, who is never questioned by the males under her, and a bunch of other women playing vastly different roles from one another – very few of the female characters or their dialogue had me cringing, which is laudable. There’s a homosexual relationship that’s neither more nor less obvious than the hetero ones… and everyone is referred to by the same honorific…. hmm. Ok. Maybe it actually is quite gender-subversive, or at least was for 1985.
There is a certain attitude in books and films that I – no doubt derivatively – refer to as the Agatha Christie Vibe. A group of people get together somewhere nice, mostly unknown to each other, and you just know that something very bad is going to happen. Brightness Falls from the Air, by James Tiptree Jr, is strong in that vibe. A planet where few humans live in order to monitor (in a good way) the indigenous sentients is about to experience a phenomenal cosmic event, and a select few tourists get to land for the show. Hello, sinister vibe.
I’ll admit, somewhat guiltily now, that I went into this book not entirely sure that I was going to enjoy it, but figuring it would be worthwhile because yo, it’s Tiptree, right? Yes, well. This is one of the best action-SF books I’ve read in a long, long time. The characters are awesome, the plot is skilfully drawn and brilliantly brought together, the worldbuilding is exquisite, and the issues it addresses – because there are some – are relevant and not overdone. Also, the writing: I could Not. Put. It. Down.
Whoever would have thought that a book which includes kiddie p0rn could have me waxing so lyrical?
Yeh. Kiddie p0rn. When I realised what was going on I was initially horrified – and, honestly, still am. It’s not a major focus of the book, but I have to put it out there, as I imagine it was picked up by contemporary reviewers. So: there’s a group of four teenagers who, with their manager, are among the tourists who arrive on the planet. It’s clear from the outset that they are TV-equivalent stars. But it’s only maybe a third of the way through that you discover there’s a sexual element to their stardom, and that there has been for a number of years. There are a number of fascinating things about this element, which account for why it didn’t immediately make me want to throw the book across the room. For a start, the manager is not the one exploiting them – he’s sympathetic, and looks after them as well as he can. For another, they’re mostly doing p0rn with each other; there’s a vague suggestion that they have been in such situations with adults, but it’s unclear. The main thing that makes this… not acceptable, because it is still horrendous, and Tiptree never suggests that it’s a good thing, but… easier to read about, is the adolescents themselves. They don’t suggest it’s a wonderful life; they’re pragmatic about their careers; and it’s never actually a central element of the story. I don’t think I’ve explained this at all well, to be honest, but all I can say is: despite its presence, I am not hesitating to recommend the book.
So, the characters. They’re marvellously entertaining. There’s an aloof one, a slightly crazy one, the teens, an on-the-surface pleasant one, sensible and earnest ones – and all of them, basically, are given interesting backgrounds, sound motives for all of their actions, complex and intriguing interactions with everyone else, and individuality. Seriously, Tiptree was a master at characterisation. There’s maybe one character who doesn’t get much explanation overall, but that’s not bad in such a large ensemble.
The plot? As I said, there’s an Agatha Christie vibe: something is clearly going to go disastrously wrong. And it does… in fact, several things do. I anticipated one of them, but the other major plot point was totally unexpected – in a good way: it made perfect sense, and upon revelation I could see where Tiptree had been leading up to it by stealth. And the two disasters weave around one another, without tripping the other up. One is an intensely personal disaster, while the other is on a more mercenary level, which is really nice; they deal with different issues and allow Tiptree to explore different reactions, emotions, and all that stuff.
Finally, there’s a really interesting element of, essentially, post-colonial critique, particularly at the very end. I have no idea whether Tiptree was into literary theory – I should hurry up and read that bio I guess – but I know post-colonialism was starting to be discussed at around the time the book was published. There are aliens on this planet, and they were terribly abused by humans in the past. Now, humans have taken it on themselves to try and rectify that… but of course, that’s still a colonial, paternalistic attitude, assuming the aliens are completely incapable of looking after themselves. Towards the end, then, there’s a suggestion of how this could change. It’s neat.
It should be clear that I adored this book, of course. It’s brilliantly paced, full of awesome characters, deals with meaty issues without getting moralistic, ponderous, or annoying, and the plot is just wonderful.