June Tiptree book club discussion

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.

Questions:

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?

 

4 responses

  1. Alex, thank you for picking up this discussion from Dreams & Speculation. Oh dear, am I the only one who’s going to comment!? C’mon people, “man up!” [contextual joke there.]

    I agree this was an artfully constructed story. I liked very much the way that Tiptree starts us off in a state of disorientation, sharing Lorimer’s confusion, and slowly bringing us to clarity through his memories.

    No, I didn’t see the “all women” thing coming, though that should have been obvious if I were paying attention. Once you have a world of all women, if they believe that men will create conflict I can easily accept the premise that they will “manage” them. Women like to do this. Probably they would control them with drugs; they do have some very purposefully crafted psychoactive drugs. As long as they can get sperm out of the men, they would probably maintain them in a pet-like state. Come to think of it, this is how a lot of women today prefer to deal with men.

    The male characters are dominated by their sexuality and good ol’ boy culture. While I agree there’s bound to be some of that when men are together by themselves, it’s an exaggeration, just as much as to say that all women are passive and nurturing. Hmm, when did Wolfe publish The Right Stuff? 1979 – I just looked it up. Great resource for an inside look at the very male astronaut culture. I think this “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” is a fictionalized portrayal of men. I doubt there’s a man alive who would recognize himself in the characters of Bud or Dave. But, of course, these characters are exemplars of a certain kind of attitude, for didactic purpose. I think feminist literature like this is a riposte, a “touché” for all those dreary one-dimensional women as imagined by men.

    “Still relevant”? Honey, this is the world today… or rather, many wish it were. I think what’s happened is that we’ve lost respect for masculinity in our culture, so we’ve been trying to turn men into women. I’m not sure that’s been so successful.

    On the other hand, I wonder if “maleness” is the source of all hierarchy. I think not. Just look at all-girls schools and you’ll see plenty of masculine/feminine dynamics. I don’t really believe that masculinity would die with men.

    1. Hey Opally – thanks for commenting! It’s going to be fun hosting the Tiptree… although I do hope others decide to join in, too, else we’ll have long and convoluted conversations I’m sure.

      I didn’t get the feeling that the women were planning on trying to manage the men; I thought they, at least the ones on the space craft, were unsure as to what was going to happen with them when they got back to land. And although they were interested in getting sperm, they’ve obviously been coping well enough without it. I’m also not convinced that the men are completely exaggerated; I imagine a lot of men would see aspects of themselves in all three, and identify especially with Lorimer, particularly in the beginning. That said, the three do play archetypal roles; the physical type, the mental type, the patriarchal and/or spiritual. I think it was a clever way of showing how different types of people – and different attitudes within people – would react to such a situation.

      Do you mean you think that the world today is the world of the women? If so, while I agree that there is a problem regarding the poor perception of positive masculinity, I definitely don’t think it’s a woman-dominated world. But yeh, masculinity is also probably not the source of hierarchy, although imagining a single-sexed world is an interesting way of exploring the question; le Guin did a fine exploration in The Left Hand of Darkness, too.

  2. Thanks for the reply, Alex. I like your observation that the men match the three masculine archetypes, physical, mental, and spiritual/patriarchal. I’ll take a look at that Le Guin novel, too.

    It was interesting to read this particular short story alongside Lilith’s Brood, the June selection for the Women of SF club (now hosted on Calico Reaction.) In that book, the alien Oankali are a femine-aligned non-hierarchical culture in which the masculine has a minor role, and in which the humans are roundly criticized for destroying themselves through their masculine-dominance obsession. Anyhow, we’ll have to wait for that discussion.

    Seeing the masculine and the feminine as principles of consciousness and value concepts in our own lives is quite an eye opener, and a rich vein for literature. I think it’s important to recognize how the masculine in our Western culture has been beaten down in the past 100 years — much more so since the 70’s — and the consequences of that.

    But yeah, to say that “women rule the world” would be absurd. I don’t think that most women are interested in ruling the world. The men are the ‘psychopaths’ about power and domination. I doubt we’ll ever see perfectly equal representation of the sexes among a number of occupations, because they don’t hold strong appeal to most women. I don’t attribute that entirely to education, but it is fundamental in our culture and awareness of being men and women.

  3. […] 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 […]

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