Tiptree book club: With Delicate Mad Hands

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?

3 responses

  1. I found the way there was two (or even three) distinct stories and tones to be fascinating.

    I read the first part and was angry. “Misogynistic bastards!” was my initial reaction. I totally would NOT want to live in CP’s world, which seems to be a particuarly nasty place, more in attitude than anything else.

    Then we had the section where she’s alone in the spaceship, free at last. The discription of her “Empire of Pigs” was fascinating and I found myself constantly wondering if there was any truth to it or it she really was just bonkers. I think Tiptree played out the middle ground nicely – that no, it wasn’t real as she’d imagined it, but there was a deeper truth in it.

    I liked Alun and CP’s attempt to communicate etc. I had absolutely no idea how it wasw going to pan out – although, considering how she’s had a seeming “miracle” to land in one piece, I had kind of expected there would be a way around the radiation issue, but no, Tiptree stuck to her guns on that one, and for all it meant CP was going to die, I think it was the right choice.

    Hm, that’s what came out when I started typing. I’ll wait and see if anyone else responds and if I have anything to add.

    Tiptree doesn’t write exactly uplifting stories, does she? They are fascinating and I’m very much enjoying them, but I’m glad we’re reading the book bit by bit. I don’t think I could take it all at once.

    And yes, I thought of Yoda too.

    Oh, I liked the touch that CP thouft Mir-Mir was old, while it turned out to be young instead.

    1. Your point about there being distinct stories is a good one – it really did feel like that, and like you I had quite different reactions to the different bits. And yes, I think I was pleased that Tiptree stuck with the radiation eventually killing CP – sad as it was – she certainly couldn’t be accused of saving her characters in unlikely ways!

  2. […] 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 […]

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