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?