Gender Adventures in Stories of James Tiptree, Jr. Award Shortlists

* This is my course essay for Gender in SF Module of 2003/4 MA course in Science Fiction Studies in the University of Liverpool

The annual James Tiptree, Jr. Award created in 1991 is for 'science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.'[1] Just as Justine Larbalestier notes, 'Researching the Tiptree Award confirms the contested nature of the term "gender" and what it designates'.[2] Different judges from various backgrounds in each year must have a diversity of viewpoints about this term and issues of it so that 'the interpretation of what a text that "explores and expands" gender is shifts'.[3] Thank for the variety, the reader who follows the award shortlists is able to witness every kind of sf stories on gender issues like a tourist traversing the adventure tours in a theme park. Writers who contribute to the gender sf texts often take the methodology of 'thought-experiment', which was explicitly proposed by Ursula K. Le Guin[4], who is also a master dedicated to gender issues in sf; they take the form of speculative fiction 'to describe reality, the present world'.[5] Therefore, the adventures they provide are also in fact challenges to the traditions, biases and power structures from the mindset of one individual or the family to the society and the entire human race, right here, right now. Thus the reader can enjoy these stories not only from the texts themselves but also through considering and reconsidering the concepts or problems the author proposed, and then she may figure out why these texts achieved the qualification of Tiptree Award.

The first story I choose is Kelley Eskridge's 'And Salome Danced'[6] (1994, shortlisted in 1995). The narrator, a director named Mars was recruiting a cast for his new play Salome: Identity and Desire. Mars was impressed by an actor Joe Sand for the character John the Baptist. On the next day, the same person reappeared as an actress named Jo Sand, who again interpreted the role of Salome extremely well, and the performance could satisfy everybody. Jo demanded to sleep with Mars, but Mars's refusal was based on the disturbance or fear because of her. At last, Mars found out that Jo is a 'monster' who can fulfil all of a director's desires to a play – a perfect character becoming 'real', no matter that is male or female.

The first appearances of Jo(e) remind me of Tiptree herself. Jo can perform both male and female characters quite well just like Tiptree can master in both masculine and feminine tones (under the pseudonym Raccoona Sheldon). Joan Gordon and Madeline Scheckter discussed that '"And Salome Danced" gives a new perspective to gender resistance and androgyny' because Jo(e)'s capability to behave as a (fe)male and the narrator Mars's sex is not revealed.[7] I agree with them in this part since the narrative of Jo(e) enhances the ambiguity of gender, just like Mars's answer to the assistant Lucky: 'Gender's not important'[8]. I admit that I do not know the original biblical story of Salome, and in my reading, I assume that Mars is male, but this leads me to another interpretation, which is more about power and desire. In cliché stories with a similar background, like the film Moulin Rouge! (2001), the director (producer or investor, whom we can called the big boss) of drama (movie or whatever in performance arts) wants to sleep with an actress owing to the latter's beauty and their power to control 'everything'. And if the actress is willing to devote herself to the big boss, there must be some other reason or she wants to take advantage of the boss's power for personal interests. But in this story, the power structure (boss over leading lady) is reversed. Lucky's reply for the sentence 'Gender's not important' is 'It is if you think you might want to go to bed with it.'[9], which directly questions Mar's true intention although what Mars revealed in the text is a perfect play ('all I really see is that suddenly my play – the one inside me – is possible'[10]). While Jo was insisting to have an affair with Mars but being refused, she changed her hand to Joe's, made Mars scared. In such a circumstance, the 'androgyny actress' Jo took the control over Mars and revealed her identity:
"Don't make me angry, Mars," and the voice is genderless and buzzes like a snake. …, I'm all alone with this hindbrain thing that wants to come out and play with me. Jo's smile is by now almost too big for her face. Just another actor, I think crazily, they're all monsters anyway.

"What are you?" I am shaking.

"Whatever you need, Mars. What ever you need. Every director's dream. At the moment, I'm Salome, right down to the bone. I'm what you ask for.”
The director is completely yield to the desire for a perfect play, which in turn has something to do with sexual drive ('Isn't that what making love is, giving someone what they really want?'[12]). However, when this desire is fulfilled not only on stage, but also in real life, which means it is out of control, it becomes a disaster, a situation similar to William Gibson's 'The Gernsback Continuum' (1981). The ambiguity of Jo(e)'s gender makes this situation 'worse', because the shock is not only from the unreal becomes real, but the 'normality' is displaced by 'abnormality' (both the sexual and the power structures, the former might also be considered as part of the latter). In addition, Jo's conversation with other performers in a beer break can be regarded as her confrontation to traditional social codes in the drama. Jo wants to play Judas instead of Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar caused a controversy. One actor Frankie said, 'Why should any director hire a woman to play a man when they can get a real man to do it?'[13] While another actress replied, 'Just imagine the difference in all the relationships if Judas were a woman. It would change everything!'[14] Does this imply there is a brand-new interpretation which might change the essence of the story itself, or just a denial of seeing an actress playing in a historical male character? The answer varies in different cultures as well as different time.

Not every protagonist dares to violate the social code. At least not the heroine and the hero in Eleanor Arnason's 'The Lovers'[15] (1994, shortlisted in the same year). This story is told in a tone of an anthropologist who translates and studies on a historical love story of an alien culture hwarhath. The ancient society of hwarhath is matriarchy, the female decide everything except warfare, one of the only two jobs males will do. Unlike ours, in the hwarhath society, homosexuality is normal; the intercourse between male and female is only for procreation's sake, unpleasant but unavoidable before they invented artificial insemination. The heroine Eyes-of-crystal, who belongs to the Ahara lineage, was decided by her family conference that she would have the child fathered by El Manhata, the greatest warrior of the age. However, he is not available because of war, so the El family sent his twin brother El Shawin. Owing to his brother's fame but unavailability, El Shawin had been sent numerous times to the children-producing trip. During the time of impregnating, they went hunting together, knowing better and then growing fond of each other. Though still a pretty good warrior, El Shawin admitted that he likes heterosexual activities far better than battles, just on the contrary to his brother. Once they met four bandits in a hunting trip, and it was impossible for El Shawin to confront all of them. Eye-of-crystal broke the taboo of women remaining immobile during the fight, killing two bandits herself. They dared not entirely break the social codes to elope, so they had to conceal the facts. Next spring, El Shawin left and Eye-of-crystal knew that she is never as ordinary as before. The story ends with their sons' extraordinary deeds in the history.

This is a nice love story to me, and the only exploration of gender I think lies in the possibility of an adequate heterosexual love in a homosexual society. Mapped to our own, it implies a similar possibility of romance and goodness in homosexuality. However, such a mapping is not completely fit, since in the hwarhath society, no matter how unwilling the people want to do it, they still have to perform heterosexual intercourse in order to bear children, but there is no such biological necessity for homosexual people on Earth. This leads to another question which arises if the audience read it in the traditional approach to science fiction: how do the hwarhath people develop a homosexual tendency extensively without coping with the reproducing problem but enduring it, which is assumed to be natural trait for a species with two sexes? The only explanation in the story might be the strong social traditions. Besides, the strict taboo prevents women from fighting, but also protects them from harm; a homosexual race insures that women seldom suffer from masculine sexual assault; a lineage is centred by women, thus means they have the political and economical power as well. Men are war machines, and the only importance of this gender is for tribe protection although they still can become war heroes. Even so, at the end of the story it reveals that pure masculinity like the great warrior El Manhata could fail (being betrayed and murdered by men he trusted, quite a familiar end for a big name); the success Ahara Ehrit, one of the sons of Eye-of-crystal and El Shawin, relies on his negotiation skills, a more feminine trait, and the fertility of his father, another quality which is considered feminine in human culture. Thus hwarhath is somehow able to be regarded as a type of female utopia, though it is atypical since the male still has an important social function.

Another female utopia appears as a lunar colony in the near future. John Kessel's 'the Society of Cousins' starts with 'The Juniper Tree' (2000). It introduces some attributes of the society like the slogan 'Keep your son close, let your daughter go'[16] and the residents' surnames after their mother's given names, etc. The reader has to refer to its sequel 'Stories for Men'[17] (2002, the co-winner of the same year) for more detailed depictions. We can see this colony as a traditional human society but with gender positions switched. Women have the political and economic power, occupying all the important posts. The Man is considered immature; basically he is tied to his mother's apron strings or petted by his mate. They are dissuaded from productive jobs but encouraged to practice artistic or creative works. The greatest profit is sex. Residents can choose or leave their own mates, no matter of the same or the opposite gender, at their free will without any obligation. A gigolo who can please women or other men well is welcomed. The founders did not want to repeat any mistakes or tragedies in the history so that they established such a female-ruling utopia. It indeed appeals to some men if what they want is to live a life which is considered comfortable only by sacrificing their power. But sometimes it does not. One comedian, Tyler, not only spread the thought of manhood and masculinity in his show but also planed a conspiracy to eliminate a whole generation of females with a gene disease, so he induced a 17-year-old gene hacker named Erno step by step to help him. What Tyler wants to do is exactly what the founders of the cousin's society wished to prevent. Therefore, is masculinity to blame due to the tragic ending of the story?

I think Kessel on purpose provide fragmented or the negative features and compose a conflict between genders so that he can force the readers to think about the true nature of masculinity and femininity. The talks of Tyler and the mentioned stories from the book Stories for Men are best exemplars. When Tyler was persuading Erno to produce the GROSS virus in order to fulfil his project, he defined manhood as 'warrior culture', in which 'men banding together – for duty, honor, clan'[18], while there is no war for warrior ethic, 'it must be personal. "Duty, honor, self."'[19] He further explained that 'all sacrifices are in service of the self. The pure male assertion.'[20] It is interesting to put 'The Lovers' and 'Stories for Men' together for consideration. It seems that the hwarhath society provides a supplement except its total homosexuality if we consider the manhood is only the 'warrior culture'. Hwarhath males have all the three virtues qualified to the manhood but their society is still female-centred. Besides, an sf reader can always follow a better interpretation of warrior culture in Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers (1959), in which it has been proven that the 'duty, honor, clan' thing is part of the requirement of citizenship, and not always linked to only males. So I strongly doubt Tyler's masculinity means only those virtues. By combining this definition with his show at the beginning of the story denouncing 'make love, not war', condemning dick but praising phallus, the reader can find out that all Tyler wants is the power. The power makes people yield to his will; when he applies the power to himself, the sacrifice is possible. As for the stories in the book Stories for Men, I must confess that I have not known any of them. But in the context, the reader can only see Kessel's retelling through the narrator's point of view, and find that all the mentioned stories are quite stupid. Therefore the more Kessel writes about masculinity, the more doubt the reader will have. The perfection of this female utopia is a similar type of trap. While women have power, the first thing they do is to make men yield to them. Because men are immature, they are revoked every political and economic right, and even have to be kept close to their mothers or mates. There is a report telling that 'the incidence of crimes of violence among the cousins is vanishingly small'[21]. But after reading the whole story, the reader can prove herself that this statement is just a hoax. So, we have to consider that: when we discuss the gender issues, sometimes it is just a question of who is holding the power.

'[T]o remove sexual difference altogether and replace it with hermaphrodites or androgynes [sic]'[22] can be treated as a 'solution to the conflict between women and men…'. It is like what we would see in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). But the elimination of sexual difference of the members in one society may have the problem of seeing them as a single gender, such as some readers treated the Gethenians as 'male' due to the pronouns Le Guin had used[23], or at least asexual, thus does not really solve the 'battle of the sexes'[24]. What is more, hermaphrodites or androgynies are also the common 'the other' to both the male and the female, thus their existence in human society can cause a new war between human beings and hermaphrodites. Both L. Timmel Duchamp's 'Motherhood, Etc.'[25] (1993, shortlisted in the same year) and Graham Joyce and Peter F. Hamilton's 'Eat Reecebread'[26] (1994, shortlisted in the same year) narrate this conflict from different angles.

'Motherhood, Etc.' describes a 19-year-old girl Pat was under investigation of a group of The X-File like agents because they suspected that her sex act with her 'boyfriend' Joshua made her conducted a new virus which could force a person to grow the sex organs of the opposite gender. She was worried first, but later she started to accept it and even 'enjoyed' the change of her body, thus made the agents more uncomfortable. Finally in her quarantine in a medical institution, Joshua appeared and expressed that 'he' was in fact a hermaphrodite alien. He broke the law to change her because he wanted to get pregnant by her for a new generation of his species, but he also demanded Pat not to have sex with any other people. When Pat learned that Joshua's people came to the Earth for researching human beings and her infection was only an accident, not by intentional choice (which means love I think) of Joshua, she was even more irritated. So she was determined to change the world, not only to take revenge on both the agents and the aliens but also to fulfil the ambition to be the 'mother to the Age of the Hermaphrodite'[27].

This is an interesting story which provides potentialities for further discussions on several topics. First of all, it depicts the heroine Pat, who wants to go back to her ordinary life at first, re-familiarises her body with new organs and compares it to previous cognitions:
Astonished, she looked down at her lap and saw her skirt flare up into a point, then as suddenly drop flat. The movement, she noticed, coincided with one of those delicious new genital sensations that had been introduced in the dream. …

… (… This new experience is a little like the kind of practical and psychological hassle you go through when you first start menstruating, or when your breasts are growing and …)

… Actually, it was perfectly natural for her to put her hand over it – to hide it from view (and to keep it under control). … But also, the pressure of her hand had caused a wonderful, shimmering sensation that ran through her entire body… And so, smiling (she remembers that she was, because her whole being had in that moment been illuminated with joy), not thinking, she just started rubbing it, gently, with one finger…
Her masturbating with newly-grown penis agitated the agents due to not only its being an improper behaviour but also their fear of losing their uniqueness of having a penis and male sexual pleasure. This irritation arose again when Pat was at the bathroom secretly leaving a note to her roommate and the most masculine agent Wagner doubted that she was masturbating because she spent a long time. Another important issue noted in the context is the deprivation of personal free will; both the government and the alien Joshua are accused. Pat went to see a doctor because of the change of her body, but the government's reaction was to quarantine her for further research. They also took some pictures against Pat's will and claimed the photos were 'government property'. At the end Joshua told Pat that her change was an accident, but he still went back to her for impregnating 'him' and restricted her never have blood or other body fluid transfer, including sexual intercourses to others. These are typical acts of violence against one's will, again, another example of oppression from great power entity. The weakness of female in contemporary human society also represented in Joshua's choice of male secondary characteristics: 'And we've learned the hard way it's too risky to present as females. Too many times those of us presenting as females have been sexually attacked – and discovered. … It's simply safer for us to look like men.'[29] It points out the male power oppression over the female usually seen in a dimorphic society – the rape, a concept which also appears in the end of Perdido Street Station (2000). When this statement is spoken from an alien, it is not merely a serious problem but a shame of human society.

The confrontation between the ordinary humans and the hermaphrodites is simple and direct in 'Eat Reecebread'. In this story, hermaphroditism is the next and unavoidable step in the evolution of the human species. As more and more hermaphrodites are born, ordinary human beings will be replaced in five generations. Despite the fact that the famous hermaphrodite biotechnology scientist Dr Desmond Reece invented the reecebread which solved the world food crisis, ordinary people still do not accept them. Human beings even passed a law to revoke all the hermies' political rights and force them to get registered. The hermies also suffer from violent assaults by the lynch gangs. The narrator, a policeman, fell in love with a hermaphrodite, Laura, and he still believes that the police system will protect the hermies in spite of his been noticed that there was a tipper who always leak the information for the gangsters. He found out who is the rat fink at the cost of Laura's life at last and cooperated with the hermies to revenge with gene-hacked reecebread, which made the consumers become hermaphrodites themselves, including the tipper, Burroughs.

The reader can see that the sexual discrimination against hermaphrodites is similar to the racial discrimination. Both are out of the fear to the other's possibility of taking power over the 'ordinary'. The solution provided in this story is to speed the destined evolution consequences, which normalises the hermaphrodite and 'otherise' the human being. But it cannot thoroughly solve the problem in the real life, since there is normality, there is also the other. The conflict always exists at where power wrestling or struggling happens.

Not all the Tiptree shortlisted stories are about discordance. James Patrick Kelly's 'Chemistry'[30] is one which considers what love really is, though it still has something to do with manipulations, both biological and diplomatic ones. A pair of roommates, who are all classmates in medical school, Marja and our heroine Lily, had decided to go to the Hothouse for love, which in their opening discussion is 'a reproducible brain state'[31]. After getting hormone enhanced, they went in the love parlour. Marja successfully fell in love, but Lily was not so swinging. She had seen a guy Steve, who was not her type, in front of the Hothouse's door, but when she met him again in a dancing ballroom, she started to have some good feeling. After a series of conversation, especially about Steve's working experience as a salesman, Lily knew that she was in love with Steve. When she learned that Steven had not been put extra hormone and there is not even a penny to him name at last, she was astounded but still decided to take the risk.

Lily's status is similar to the saying that one is out of her mind because of love. Was Steve's success owing to the hormone, his skilful salesman's tongue, or just Lily's true affection? The reader can never know. She even cannot know what Steve's true intention is. But just like Kelly wrote in the final sentence of this story, 'It was time to try something stupid'[32], sf readers should be a little bit more stupid sometimes. We always think too much: considering everything in every possible situation, finding out as many problems as we can but at least twice the number of the solutions to all of them, being criticising to everything because it is not perfect, considering all matters are as important since we do not want to lose any of them… Since everybody, including the male and the female, is so smart that she wants to win the power over others, being stupid may be the only solution to end the battles between the sexes if through stupidity we can learn to tolerate, to accept, to submit, and most of all, to love. But, is it possible?

[1] 'What is the Tiptree Award?' in the official website of The James Tiptree, Jr. Award, http://www.tiptree.org/
[2] Justine Larbalestier, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2002), p. 203.
[3] Ibid., p. 204.
[4] See Ursula K. Le Guin, 'Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness' (first appeared in 1976) in Le Guin, The Language of the Night (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993), p. 150-154.
[5] Ibid., p. 151.
[6] Kelley Eskridge, 'And Salome Danced' (first appeared in Little Deaths, ed. by Ellen Datlow, 1994), in Flying Cups & Saucers: Gender Explorations in Science Fiction & Fantasy, ed. by Debbie Notkin & the Secret Feminist Cabal (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Edgewood Press, 1998), pp. 3-15.
[7] See Joan Gordon and Madeline Scheckter, 'Gender Resistance in the James Tiptree Award Anthology' in The New York Review of Science Fiction (2000). What I cited is from an abstract listed in Kelley Eskridge's website: http://www.kelleyeskridge.com/Reviews/ShortFictionReviews.htm#SalomeNYRSF
[8] Eskridge, op. cit., p. 9.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., p. 13.
[12] Ibid., p. 14.
[13] Ibid., p. 11.
[14] Ibid., p. 12.
[15] Eleanor Arnason, 'The Lovers' (first appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction, July 1994) in Flying Cups & Saucers, pp. 16-42.
[16] John Kessel, 'The Juniper Tree' in Science Fiction Age (Jan 2001), my citation is from the electronic version purchased from Fictionwise Publications: http://www.fictionwise.com/
[17] John Kessel, 'Stories for Men', in Asimov's Science Fiction (Oct/Nov 2002), pp. 172-224.
[18] Ibid., p. 218.
[19] Ibid., p. 219.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid., p. 201.
[22] Larbalestier, op. cit., p. 91.
[23] See Ursula K. Le Guin, 'Is Gender Necessary?' and 'Redux', in Le Guin, The Language of the Night (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993), pp. 155-172 (pp. 169-171).
[24] A term first appear in the title of a Joanna Russ's essay, 'Amor Vincit Foeminam: The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction' (first appeared in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 7, 1980), in Russ, To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995), pp. 41-59.
[25] L. Timmel Duchamp, 'Motherhood, Etc.' (first appeared in Full Spectrum 4, ed. by Lou Aronica, Amy Stout and Betsy Mitchell, 1994) in Flying Cups and Saucers, pp. 198-230.
[26] Graham Joyce and Peter F. Hamilton, 'Eat Reecebread' (first appeared in Interzone, Aug 1994) in Flying Cups and Saucers, pp. 177-197.
[27] Duchamp, op. cit., p. 230.
[28] Ibid., p. 218.
[29] Ibid., p. 228.
[30] James Patrick Kelly, 'Chemistry' (first appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction, Jun 1993), in Flying Cups & Saucers, pp. 43-67.
[31] Ibid., p. 44.
[32] Ibid., p. 67.

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