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.
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