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.

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The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin

TheLeftHandOfDarknessThe Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin (1969)
Review by Chris White

“I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.”

So begins Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. The story is one of an ice-planet named Gethen (Winter), and the arrival there of an Envoy from a vast human empire (although that’s an odd way of describing the Ekumen League of Worlds), sent alone to invite the humans of Winter into their collective. After all, “One alien is a curiosity, two are an invasion”.

The Envoy lands in the kingdom of Karhide, where all kings are mad. The inhabitants of Winter have evolved in a singular (or rather, a binary) way – no Gethenian is male or female. They are neuters, until they reach kemmer (which is analogous to animals being in heat), and they rapidly change gender (or gain gender, I suppose.) Which leads to great sentences like “The King was pregnant”.

It also leads to a near-complete misunderstanding of social cues, and even between the two humans – “Ai was exhausted and enraged. He looked ready to cry, but did not. I believe he considers crying either evil or shameful. Even when he was very ill and weak, the first days of our escape, he hid his face from me when he wept. Reasons personal, racial, social, sexual – how can I guess why Ai must not weep?” It is a fantastic exercise in the social and psychological snags between two alien minds, even when so similar.

Ursula Le Guin writes beautiful science fiction, my favourite style of science fiction: anthropological science fiction. From the Kingdom of Karhide to its rival, Orgoreyn, she explores different political extremes as well. Karhide, an aristocracy, torn by power struggles at court and with a complex system of honour and social positioning, is dysfunctional, “Karhide is not a nation but a family quarrel”, especially when seen alongside Orgoreyn, at least at first. Orgoreyn is a socialist nightmare, is dystopian.

“He was a hard shrewd jovial politician, whose acts of kindness served his interest and whose interest was himself. His type is panhuman. I had met him on Earth, and on Hain, and on Ollul. I expect to meet him in Hell.”

With Estroven exiled, the Envoy departs for Orgoreyn with the King’s words still in his ears: “…you’re not a traitor, you’ve merely been the tool of one. I don’t punish tools. They do harm only in the hands of a bad workman”.

This review originally appeared on Chris White Writes.

For more information about this book, please see the entry on kwerey.com.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

handmaidstaleThe Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
Review by Chris White

“Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising, like the dawn? Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon, like a black sun behind cloud cover. Like smoke from an unseen fire, a line of fire just below the horizon, brushfire or a burning city. Maybe night falls because it’s heavy, a thick curtain pulled up over the eyes. A wool blanket.”

I’m disappointed to say I’d never read this book until now, for my Year of Reading Women. I’d heard of it, of course. A United States that has fallen, the President assassinated, Congress assassinated – the Pastors step in. Dystopian, fundamentalist Christian enclaves spring up. This novel is a warning, and a reminder, like all good science fiction (or speculative fiction, as Margaret Atwood would insist.) It is also brilliant and has fantastic literary qualities, beautiful prose (which are perhaps why Atwood strives to avoid the SciFi Ghetto). It reminds me of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, but with Huxley’s inherent racism turned around, as a misogynist society strives to keep women in their place. An American Taliban.

The Republic of Gilead is a white Christian man’s paradise. Offred is a Handmaid, in the service of her Commander and his Wife. She is allowed to leave the house only to go shopping for what meagre rations her coupons permit her. Each day, permit in hand, head lowered, she passes the Guardians, teenage boys with submachine guns. In her blood-red habit she meets with another Handmaid (they can go nowhere alone, they are women, after all) and they go shopping.

The Handmaid’s only task is to bear children. They’ve taken all the ceiling fixtures, the rods from the cupboards. She is not allowed a knife – they’ve lost too many Handmaids.

This novel is gripping, a terrifying glimpse of dystopia, of control and of hidden societies.

Right up my alley, then.

I loved it.

This review originally appeared on Chris White Writes.