Brightness Falls from the Air, James Tiptree Jr

brightnessBrightness Falls from the Air, James Tiptree Jr (1985)
Review by Kris

Like most readers, I am a big fan of Tiptree’s short fiction but had not read any of her novels. These do not have a strong reputation but, I feel, in this case at least that they deserve a second look.

To compare them to the genius of her short stories is decidedly unfair when talking of one of the greatest short story writers of the 20th Century. That is not to say it is a novel without problems, but it is one of the most imaginative.

Setting up the world we get the standard science fiction protagonist of Kip and Cory, the captain and their partner (albeit with a gender switch from the standard dynamic). However we are soon introduced to a vast array of disparate people who reflect the fascinating ideas of this Galactic Future:. We have a “light sculptor” who is not all he seems; we have an “Aquaman”, a genetically engineered gilled human the other seem to treat with a degree of awe; the equivalent of acting celebrities are soft porn actors; we even have a prince whose actual name is Prince but also is referred to as Superboy (in a relationship which I won’t go into); and then there are the faery like natives of the world Dameii who are central to the tale. The whole first half of the book is like a gorgeous painting described in bright colourful hues. In each word another element of the world we are creating is built until we have a composition like Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

However, like a painting or a tableau I don’t think it is made to be in motion. Once the nova hits it is meant to switch into a dark thriller. There are many interesting ideas about identity and genocide but these are written in a very clichéd manner, like something closer to the pulp novels of old. A good comparison for the book, both in terms of plot and feel, is the Doctor Who episode, ‘The End of the World’. There we are introduced to a wide array of aliens which show how obsessed with money, beauty and purity many people in the future still are. Yet they do so little after this introduction that could not be placed in any other story for the most simple of motivations.

Further, the world-building in many ways makes it more confusing. For example, most of the character have multiple names which are relevant as they show different traits and interrelations between the characters. Yet when you have a character called “Prince”, “Pao”, “Prince Pao, “Prince-Prince Pao” and “Superboy”, it is hard to be exchanged in an action sequence when I have to flick back to the appendix to remind myself who exactly is referring to whom.

And yet, there is something fascinating in watching this art being build up and then torn apart. We would assume at the start this may be some hippy utopian society with all these different people living in harmony and art allowed to be as free as possible without censorship. Then we discover the dark secrets at the heart of all these people and it results in many that did not deserve it suffering.

I would not recommend this as a showcase of the best of Tiptree’s work but as another side of a master of their craft or if you enjoy complicated character pieces it is definitely worth checking out.

This review originally appeared on Cloaked Creators.

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Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, James Tiptree Jr

hersmokeHer Smoke Rose Up Forever, James Tiptree Jr (1990)
Review by Kate Macdonald

The short stories of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever are grim and powerful reading, committing the reader to new worlds and leaving unsettling characters in the mind. They are about love, sex and death in the future, across species and time. In the original introduction to the 1990 edition John Clute writes passionately about the youth and vigour of Tiptree’s writing, and the masculine use of language that “tells the world what it is, tells the world what to do”. The point of this defence (and no defence is needed, but Clute was recapping the situation from the 1970s when Tiptree was an enigmatic secret) is, of course, that the secretive and impressive sf author James Tiptree Jr was unmasked in 1977 as Alice B Sheldon, also writing as Raccoona Sheldon, a CIA operative, psychology PhD, and explorer’s daughter, aged 62. The revelation of the femaleness of this superb writer must have given huge pleasure (it still does) to those who had bristled at Robert Silverberg’s authoritative statement from a few years earlier that Tiptree could not be a woman because her writing was “ineluctably masculine”, implying that only men wrote great sf. That was just a bit too hegemonic for the late 1970s, even for a grand old man of literature.

Clute calls this Tiptree collection “one of the two or three most significant collections of short SF ever published”. The stories are soaringly futuristic, succeeding so much better than many other works of the period in stepping out of contemporary social and cultural restrictions and inventing spectacularly alien futures. Yet there is a problem, a very serious one for these feminist stories written in “masculine” language. They reach for the stars, but cannot free themselves from a 1950s mindset about women. When Tiptree began to write these stories, in a burst of creative genius between 1968 and 1981, she had turned 50, and had already left several careers behind her, one of them as the US Army’s first photo-intelligence officer. Clute claims youth and vigour for her writing, but he acknowledges the weight of her years: “she burns out old”. Her narrative expectation is dated on what the reader would think about society and human development. This produces a straining of invention, as if a marvellous, powerful flying creature was tied to the ground by a single length of pluckable rope that it couldn’t see to cut. An example of this is in the final story in this collection, ‘And So On, and So On’, a conversation piece between a group of travellers in a space shuttle. One character is identified as female, a “clanwife” and nursemaid. The others are male (or neutral gender), and hold professional posts in a future far away in time. Why was it so hard, given her own history, for Tiptree to make a professional character female?

Even where pilots, engineers or scientists in these stories are female, they are almost certain to be sexually assaulted. Most of the stories in this collection feature rape, or violent sex, as a central aspect of the plot. Reading the stories one after another, this focus on an inevitable masculine brutality becomes numbing, even if the number of words used to give the details represent a very small percentage of the story. Tiptree had a “concern”, as we say in the trade, to talk about women, death and rape, and how stunningly, crucially wrong this was for a civilised society intending to fly out to the stars and spread its morality and social practices elsewhere. Graham Sleight’s 2014 introduction to this new edition of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever quotes Tiptree’s 1983 essay, in which she talks about her childhood on her parents’ explorations and trips, in which “she found herself interacting with adults of every size, color, shape and condition […] and above all, women: chattel-women deliberately starved, deformed, blinded and enslaved; women in nun’s habits saving the world; women in high heels saving the world”.

There is more on that theme in this long quotation: its effect is to suggest how Alice’s experiences in the 1920s and 1930s in Africa and Asia had stayed in her mind. After working in intelligence and training in psychology, she started writing terrifying and brutal stories of women’s oppression, just when the second wave of feminism was happening in the West. What disturbs and impresses me most about these stories is the suffering that Tiptree makes the women characters endure, whether they feel it as suffering or not. We have to read it: that’s her point.

In ‘The Screwfly Solution’ men begin killing women, all the women, often raping them first: the horror comes from how easily this could happen. ‘And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side’ is about man’s desire for alien sex, any sex, and any alien. The title comes from Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ (doomed love for a cold fairy) and the theme comes from ‘Tam Lin’ (human loses decades of his life in the faery hill). (Tiptree’s titles are baroque fantasies in their own right, epic and ornate.) ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In’ is a horrific fantasia on Frankenstein and reality TV that reminded me forcibly of a story by (possibly?) Ray Bradbury in which an abortion is performed live on camera in a speeding car with white leather seats to show how superb its stabilising system was. The kind of gripping story which you don’t want to continue reading but you have to, and you don’t forget it either.

‘The Women Men Don’t See’ is apparently Tiptree’s most famous story (I hadn’t heard of it), and is a little lighter because the women don’t die, but escape rather than stay on a planet with voracious male humans. In Tiptree’s narrative perspectives it seems that masculinity is the default option for “human”, and woman’s default option is to do what masculinity requires. ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read’ considers what would happen if there were no longer men on Earth, and then brings three of them back from the past.

Naturally, rape is attempted, but by now I am getting rather depressed: why does a male-female encounter in a Tiptree story always include sex, whether she wants it or not? Is there really no other option in the future, other than this kind of power play? ‘With Delicate Mad Hands’ is a masochistic escape-from-torture novella that ends in the suffering woman’s epiphany and all the brutalising men dead. ‘A Momentary Taste of Being’ is all about sex, in the biological sense, and yes, there is a flashback of critical importance about child sex too. Oh dear. Are we there yet?

‘Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled Of Light’ is about an alternative reality where a happy woman is running freely along a long abandoned highway, a courier for the all-women society that seems to have replaced the one who built the crumbling roads and buildings, but, of course, it’s all in her head, and you can guess what happens under the freeway. ‘We Who Stole The Dream’ varies the rape narrative by making it a pan-planetary colonial nightmare, rather like Le Guin’s The Word For World Is Forest.

All Tiptree’s stories require attentive reading, and often re-reading. She doesn’t make anything easy, and delivers wonders, even if they’re often unpalatable. The title story, ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’, is hard work, about time travel controlled by psychic scarring. The event that causes the scarring is, predictably, sex. ‘Love Is the Plan the Plan is Death’ is my preferred story of all in this collection because Tiptree gets right away from the corruption of human (actually 1950s American) social norms, and imagines the life cycle of a devouringly powerful race of giant spiders who feel love and passion in the most erotic terms. This story allows love to dominate, rather than violent lust, and is a linguistic triumph in conveying multiple shades of affection and selfless desire that isn’t based on a male-female binary. ‘Slow Music’, a story of the last potential breeding couple on Earth, does include sex, but in its proper place, as only part of the complicated relationship that people must develop when considering impregnation to restock the Earth with people.

The remaining stories are not about rape, thank goodness, but they are absolutely about deaths that are inevitable but slow. A schlock situation is given grandeur and pathos in ‘On the Last Afternoon’ when a herd of immense breeding lobsters crashes into the bay where the humans’ post-crash settlement is struggling to survive. ‘The Man Who Walked Home’ and ‘And I Have Come Upon This Place By Lost Ways’ are so sad, stories of the desolate loneliness of death, tempered with pleasure in new knowledge, but not by enough. One man is rushing through time in the same point in space for centuries, trying to get back home, watched with interest by generations of settlers at the desert spot where the explosion threw him out of time. The other has left home for good to get to the top of the forbidden mountain to see what’s there in his last moments. ‘She Waits for All Men Born’ is possibly the ultimate in powerful, lonely women: a mutant girl who can never be killed, and whose gaze kills everyone. What can withstand that?

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is a very dense reading experience. It took me several days, and I needed respite in between, to clear my mind of nightmares and hopelessness. Tiptree’s writing is astonishingly powerful, and reading these stories all in one go is probably not at all what she intended (this collection was assembled after her death). The magazines who bought her stories are also factors in considering why she included so many violent sex episodes in her plots: was this a requirement by the editors? Did New Dimensions 3, Phantasmicon, Nova 2, Galaxy, Stellar 4, Interfaces, Amazing Stories, to list only some of the collections or magazines that published these stories, have a high tolerance for sexual violence, or readers with an appetite for it? Was Tiptree unusual or the norm in her detailed writing about rape in space? I find it interesting that Clute doesn’t mention the stories’ obsessive attention to sexual violence in 1990, whereas Sleight does in 2014. Have Tiptree’s violent lessons in feminist thinking about women, sex and fiction finally percolated through into the cultural norm?

This review originally appear on katemacdonald.net.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, James Tiptree Jr

hersmokeHer Smoke Rose Up Forever, James Tiptree Jr (1990)
Review by Chris White

Now, I’ve done a bit of research, and apparently when you review a collection of short stories you have to review each individual story – I’m not going to do that. And it’s not only because I’m lazy – I actually don’t want to ruin any of these beautiful stories for you. You should buy this book, I’m not joking.

James Tiptree Jr was probably one of the best science fiction authors to have ever written. Why am I tagging a bloke called James Tiptree Jr in my year of reading women? Because James Tiptree Jr was actually Alice Sheldon, an intelligence agent for both the USAF and the CIA, who wrote as Tiptree to protect her professional career.

“It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.” – Robert Silverberg

Tiptree’s work collected here deals with sex, and violence, and arousal, and death. From the tragic xenophobic xenophile of ‘And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side’ to the story that has haunted me since childhood – although I forgot the name of the author, I always remembered ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ to the sad, haunting victory of ‘With Delicate Mad Hands’. Yes, James Tiptree Jr was a master of titles.

I cannot recommend this collection highly enough, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is a beautiful, moving exploration of humanity and of real science fiction – our humanity is exposed through our non-humanity, to each other and to the aliens that we conquer and subjugate in her stories. The cold hostility of humanity toward the conquered in ‘We Who Stole the Dream’ and to one another in ‘The Screwfly Solution’ are breath-taking, as is the beauty found in ‘Slow Music’.

What a beautiful collection. Equal parts terrifying, beautiful and tragic. Glorious science fiction.

“Passing in any crowd are secret people whose hidden response to beauty is the desire to tear it into bleeding meat.”

This review originally appeared on Chris White Writes.

Up the Walls of the World, James Tiptree Jr

upthewallsofhteworldUp the Walls of the World, James Tiptree Jr (1978)
Review by M Fenn

I came to Up the Walls of the World knowing very little of James Tiptree, Jr. I knew that the author’s real name was Alice Bradley Sheldon and that her publisher kept her identity secret until 1977 (the year before Up the Walls of the World was released). The science fiction community argued over who Tiptree was (some sort of government spy perhaps) and what gender (both Robert Silverberg and Harlan Ellison assumed male).

But that’s all I knew. I’d never read her stuff, even though several of her books have been on our bookshelves for ages. So, it was with a lot of curiosity and excitement that I started reading what was Tiptree’s first novel. It held up to that approach, I’m happy to say.

Up the Walls of the World is a complicated tale, starting in the brain of the Destroyer, an entity larger than a solar system moving through space in existential pain. It considers itself evil and a betrayer of its kind.

Tiptree introduces us next to an entity that can pick up on that evil. She is a Tyrenni, part of a race of creatures resembling manta rays who ride the winds of a large gas planet’s atmosphere and communicate telepathically and through the changing colors of their bodies. Something is destroying the Tyrenni’s planet.

Next we meet a group of plain old humans. Well, not exactly. They’re a group of supposedly telepathic folk conducting experiments at a US Navy laboratory.

The book moves amongst all three of these. I was most interested in the Tyrenni because I had never read anything like them before. Tiptree did a great job of creating a wholly other sentient species that is utterly unhuman, and she still found space to play with gender and society. In Tyrenni culture, males are the childbearers and hold a higher place in society because of it. The females are the explorers and have all the fun.

The humans took time to grow on me. I initially found the group’s medical doctor (and our introduction to this aspect of the book) to be annoying in his attitudes and near fetishization of the team’s only Black member and IT chief, Margaret Omali. But there’s an aspect to Daniel Dann’s character that reveals itself slowly through the book and helped diffuse some of that.

The Destroyer itself is simply brilliant and the reveal of its true mission made me smile, as did the way Tiptree wove all three elements of the book together into a satisfying conclusion.

Up the Walls of the World is one of the most original books of any genre I’ve read in a long time and a fun read. I ended up loving most of her characters, especially Tivonel, the first Tyrenni we meet. And the book kept me guessing most of the way. Highly recommended.

I also wonder if this is where Joss Whedon got Faith’s catchphrase, because there it is on page 133.

“Five by five!” Costakis calls out again, and then Winona exclaims in a strained voice, “Doctor Catledge, this is wild. I know we’re getting them.”

This review originally appeared on M. Fenn.

Houston, Houston, Do You Read?, James Tiptree Jr / Souls, Joanna Russ

houstonHouston, 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…

soulsThe 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.