Sf and Gender Module Week 1: James Tiptree, Jr.

* by Mr Andy Sawyer

James Tiptree, Jr.
Pseudonym of Alice Hastings Bradley Sheldon (1915-1987). Spend much of her childhood in Africa and India, and worked for US government (CIA). First story "Birth of a Salesman" (1968, Analog). The stories of the 1970s including "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side" (1971), "Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death" (1973), "The Screwfly solution" (1977) and "Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!" (1977) (latter two as by Raccoona Sheldon) and "The Women Men Don't See" (1973) explored the alien, sex, gender, and death.

Only "came out" as a woman in 1988 (though identity was suspected) -- before which Robert Silverberg had claimed that "there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree's writing". Took part in, and was attacked in the symposium about "Women in Science Fiction" published in the fazine Khatru (Nov 1975) because many of the women involved objected to "his" elevation of motherhood. Joanna Russ wrote that the male members of symposium (Tiptree, Delany and editor Jeffrey Smith) "are time-hoggers and keep drawing our attention away from what (to me) is tryly interesting: what we think." In the context of what we now know about Tiptree's gender, what can we now say about Russ's use of "we"?

In 1987 she shot her husband Huntingdon Sheldon, who had contracted Alzheimer's Disease, and killed herself.

The Tiptree Award
Established in 1991 at the Wiscon sf convention by a group of fans and writers including Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler. For "science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender". Deliberately playful and non-dogmatic. A "woman's sf award" but not an award for women -- both the 2002 winners were men. Each team of judges tends to redefine the terms of reference in the light of the ambiguous ways terms like "sex" and "gender" are used: the point seems to be that there are spaces between our subjective understandings of this area and "expanding" or "exploring" such areas takes priority of taking a stand. Hence, perhaps, the reason for M. John Harrison's winning of the award with Light: the novel explores (among other things) one (20th century) character's damaged male sexuality and the equally damaged desire of a female cyborg (with clear reference to Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang).

See James Tiptree, Jr., Meet Me at Infinity for biographical and autobiographical material about Tiptree.

For more information about Tiptree and the Tiptree award, see Chapters 6 and 7 of Justine Larbalestier, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction and the award website http://www.tiptree.org/.

"The Women Men Don't See" (1973)
Narrator portrayed as sympathetic, decent. (Also hidebound by his gendered viewpoint.) His first encounter with the two women with whom he crashlands in the Central American jungle has him registering them as only "A double female blur".

Because of a hitch with the plane he is booked with, he has to travel with Esteban and his passengers. Following the crash, the women are distant: friendly but clear that they rebuff advances. For his part, he is not attracted to them (he says: but when he and Ruth need to share sleeping arrangements.) He and the mother (Ruth Parsons) go to fetch water: he is injured. During the night he is awakened by a light, strange voices. Later on, these "voices" turn out to be aliens. The women leave with them.

Ambiguity of motive. Did the mother leave so that the daughter could have sex with Esteban? Ruth Parson's view of "doomed" women's lib. "What women do is survive. We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine."

"Mrs Parsons isn't even living in the same world as me."

She is in control (organising the "escape"): his attempt to "rescue" her from the alien backfires.

The women would rather depart with aliens than stay with human men.

"And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side" (1971)
Title taken from John Keats's poem of fatal attraction "La Belle Dame Sans Merci".

Human sexual attraction to aliens. Explore ideas of sexuality, especially male sexuality (but the alien-fixated humans are both male and female). Parallels with Samuel R. Delany's story "Aye, and Gomorrah" (1967) where people develop strong sexual attractions to neutered astronauts (often seen as a reflection of heterosexuals' attraction to homosexuals).

The attraction of the unattainable.

Does Tiptree extend the idea from sexuality to a deeper drive? "Some cargo-cult of the soul ... We're built to dream outwards." Can we extend the story to all aspects of desire or power? What does it mean to be human? Is it only our sexual drives, or more than that?

"The Screwfly Solution" (as by Racoona Sheldon, 1977)
Some sort of pathological obsession is driving men to brutally murder women in the name of a religious cult devoted to "cleansing" the world. Story told largely from the viewpoint of a scientist working on pest control in South America, and letters from his wife, experiencing the crisis.

Alan's realisation of the link between sexual desire and violent blood lust. "The sex was there, but it was driving some engine of death."

The story can be read as feminist propaganda of the "all men are rapists" stance. If so, what does the ending mean? Is the "estate agent" glimpsed by Anne a way of resolving a solution unpleasant to the "male" James Tiptree or "his" largely male readership, or a more horrific story of infiltration and exploitation by Alice B. Sheldon who knew the Third World quite well? Does the ending turn away from analysing male violence to blaming it on "outside forces" or does the science-fiction ending show us a less comforting, because less morally black-and-white, universe? Do both readings necessarily contradict one another?

Does the publication of the story under another pseudonym, but this time a female one affect our reading of the story?

Larbalestier (p. 196) writes that "The feminism of Racoona Sheldon was profoundly different from that of James Tiptree Jr." and equally a performance. (201-2)

See also:
Michale Bishop, "James Tiptree, Jr., is Racoona Sheldon is Alice B. Sheldon is Allis ..." in Quantum: Science Fiction and Fantasy Review, No. 42 (Summer / Fall 1992), pp. 5-8.
Amanda Boulton, "Alice James Racoona Tiptree Sheldon Jr: Textual Personas in the Short Fiction of Alice Sheldon" in Foundation 63 (Spring 1995).
Veronica Hollinger, "'The Most Grisly Truth': Responses to the Human Condition in the Works of James Tiptree, Jr" in Extrapolation, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Summer 1989), pp. 117-132.
Mark Siegel, "Love Was the Plan, the Plan Was ... A True Story about James Tiptree, Jr."
James Tiptree, Jr., "Everything but the Name Is Me" in Starship Vol. 16, No. 4 (Issue 36) (1979), pp. 31-34.
Khatru 3/4 for the Symposium on Women and sf featuring Tiptree, Joanna Russ, Samuel R. Delany, etc.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...