Houston, Houston, Do You Read?, James Tiptree Jr / Souls, Joanna Russ (1989)
Review by Ian Sales
Back in the early 1950s, science fiction publisher Ace burst onto the market with a series of doubles – two short novels published back-to-back. The practice did not originate with them – it is properly known as tête-bêche – but they certainly popularised it in the US. Ace continued to publish their doubles until 1973. In 1988, Tor re-introduced the format, and in the space of three years published thirty-six doubles of novellas printed tête-bêche. All were reprints. Number 11 in their series was ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ by James Tiptree Jr, originally published in 1976 in the women-only sf anthology, Aurora: Beyond Equality, edited by Susan Fawcett and Vonda N McIntyre; back-to-back with ‘Souls’ by Joanna Russ, which first appeared in F&SF in 1982. Both novellas won the Hugo Award in their respective years. The Tiptree also won the Nebula Award. The Russ was shortlisted but lost to John Kessel’s ‘Another Orphan’.
‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ is told mostly in flash-back. The protagonist is an astronaut aboard the Sunbird mission, a circumnavigation of the Sun. Though no details are given, it all feels a bit like Apollo technology – a crew of three, a command module, and an additional “day-room” – or at the very least based on space hardware of the time of writing. While flying close to the Sun, the Sunbird spacecraft is caught in a solar flare, which apparently throws it forward three hundred years in time. As the astronauts – commander Major Norman ‘Dave’ Davis, Bud Geirr and Dr Orren Lorimer – head toward where they believe Earth to be – the flare also rendered their windows opaque, but for one small section – they discover they can’t raise Houston on the radio. Instead, they overhear chatter between spacecraft which seem to be crewed by women. They make contact with one, discover Earth is not where they think it is, nor is it reachable by them, and learn something of the history of the past three centuries. It seems a plague rendered the human race sterile, and the population dropped from eight billion to two million. The population of the Earth is now chiefly female – Lorrimer at one point speculates on how the plague may have damaged the sex chromosomes to result in this.
As ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ opens, Lorrimer, Dave and Bud have been rescued by the crew of the Gloria, a spacecraft with a crew comprising four women and one man. The three astronauts have been unwittingly fed a drug, and it is affecting their behaviour. Lorrimer flashes back to their discovery that they had jumped forward in time and what they learned of the world of the future, and their subsequent rescue by the Gloria. Dave, already deeply religious, turns more so; and Bud, a stereotypical jock, acts more and more sexist and “alpha male”. It all comes to a head when Bud turns violent and tries to rape one of the women. Meanwhile, Lorrimer has figured out what it is the women have not told them…
In 1975, Robert Silverberg argued in an introduction to the Tiptree collection, Warm World and Otherwise, published in February 1975 that the author had to be male. Some already suspected Tiptree was a woman, but it wasn’t until 1976 that the truth became known. And yet this novella first appeared in a women-only anthology published in May 1976… suggesting at least some people were privy to the secret earlier. According to Wikipedia, ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ is “Tiptree’s most famous and most reprinted story”, and it’s certainly emblematic of much of her oeuvre. The future depopulated world is presented with rigour, and its details are slowly and cleverly revealed as the story progresses, The three astronauts, however, are not so much stereotypes as caricatures – especially Dave and Bud – and it’s hard to imagine how, in the Seventies, the novella could have been read as written by a man because of them. Yes, many of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts were macho and sexist – but not all of them. By over-emphasising those aspects for the purposes of drama, Tiptree effectively turns the astronauts into single-note characters. It’s a disappointment, given that everything else in ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ is so cleverly done. A flashback structure is hard to pull off, but Tiptree makes it work; and yet without that structure, the double ending with its two shocks would not have proven so effective. There’s Bud’s attack on Judy, and then there’s Lorrimer’s realisation of what the women intend to do with the three astronauts…
The other half of Tor double #11 comprises ‘Souls’, Joanna Russ’s only Hugo Award win. Initially, the novella reads like historical fiction, written as the reminiscences of a man telling of when he was a young boy at a German abbey run by Abbess Radegunde some time during the early Middle Ages – as the first line has it: “This is the tale of the Abbess Radegunde and what happened when the Norsemen came.” And it is very much a story about the abbess. She is someone extremely unusual, displaying a relaxed and quite modern view of her religion, fluent in any number of languages, highly-educated, and has in the past admitted to being able to view events over great distances. She is, in fact, suspiciously not at all like a Middle Ages abbess.
When a Viking longboat draws up on the shore by the abbey, Abbess Radegunde goes down to the beach to parley with them. Everyone knows what their fate will be – the Vikings are there to rape and pillage. But Radegunde persuades them otherwise. She freely gives up the riches of the abbey in return for the safety of her people. She claims knowledge of some members of the Viking band – through a cousin met in Rome – and it all seems a little convenient. After a little applied psychology, she extracts a promise from the Viking leader, Thorvald. However, during the Vikings’ walk through the abbey’s courtyard, someone panics and it all turns violent. Thorvald manages to re-assert order, but the promise he made is void. At which point, Radegunde… changes. She becomes a much harder and callous person, very different in personality, and seems to “take control” of Thorvald. The narrator, a young boy called Radulphus, is convinced she has become a demon. She takes Thorvald into the nearby woods where, she tells him, the abbey’s treasure is hidden. But there he – and Radulphus – witness strange humans he thinks are saints, bathed in bright light:
An odd thing was that as I came closer I could see they were not standing on the ground, as in the way of nature, but higher up, inside the shining, and that their white robes clung to the body so that one might see the people’s legs all the way up to the place where the legs joined, even the women’s. (p76)
Ignoring the fact that even a young boy in a German abbey in the early Middle Ages is likely to know what trousers are – indeed, the Vikings would be wearing them – it’s clear that Radegunde is certainly not who she professes to be. Nor is she a demon. It is never made entirely clear if she is from the future or another world, though the former seems most likely. Nor is her purpose – and she apparently was born and grew up as Radegunde – ever revealed. But then the story is really about what she does to Thorvald, and using Radulphus as the narrator allows Russ to filter it through an unsophisticated narrator, thus hiding the true nature of the “saints” and putting the onus on the reader to figure out the puzzle.
For all that ‘Souls’ is a polished piece of prose, and Russ evokes the setting well enough to mostly convince… the novella is over-shadowed by a later novel which follows a similar plot: John Fowles’ A Maggot (1985). It’s unlikely Fowles ever saw Russ’s novella, though his novel shares the novella’s central conceit. But Fowles’s novel evokes its period – a much later one, specifically 1736 and 1737 – far far better than ‘Souls’. In fact, familiarity with A Maggot does make ‘Souls’ feel a little glib and superficial, even though it is most likely far more indirect in style than is typical of science fiction of the time.
Tor double #11 presents a pair of strong novellas, though of the two I think I would sooner present ‘Souls’ as a better example of what the genre can do. ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ drifts too close to caricature, and is too reliant upon science fiction reading protocols, to be an effective ambassador for the genre. This is not a problem ‘Souls’ possesses. Unfortunately, Russ’s novellas is sure to remind people of Fowles’ A Maggot, and it is not a comparison in which it fares especially well. It may be the better of the two novellas in the double – though it has been reprinted eight times and collected only once, which is half as often as the Tiptree; but that says more about science fiction than it does about the two stories.