Crown of Stars, by the Estate of James Tiptree, Jr.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Crown of Stars is a posthumous collection of Alice Sheldon [aka James Tiptree, Jr.]’s unpublished short stories and those published in the final years of her career. It is copyrighted to “the Estate of Alice B. Sheldon” and was first published in 1988 by Tom Doherty Associates. Crown of Stars is 340 pages in length. As is common with posthumous printings of unfinished works, there are a few excellent, classic stories set amongst a number of awkward and disjointed pieces. Here we have ten short stories that generally represent Sheldon’s last contributions to literature, advertised to include her final burst of creativity.  I’m going to break the work down, story by story, since they vary vastly in tone and intended audience. I will mainly focus on the stronger works in the collection. A major flaw of this anthology is that it would be difficult for all the works to appeal to one person. The musical pairings are optional.

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms.” Friedrich Nietzsche Alice Sheldon. 

The first two stories in Crown of Stars: “Second Going” and “Our Resident Djinn” are about God, gods, and the death of God. They are written for the middle-school level up. “Second Going” is the collection’s centerpiece, a true sci-fi classic. Narrated as a documentary from NASA’s chief archivist, we learn of humanity’s First Contact. Interstellar-wandering, telepathic aliens contact Earth after we launch our first mission to Mars, stating that they will meet with the astronauts once they arrive. The Angli (large, blue cephalopods) turn out to be benevolent, if technologically simple, space tourists. They are interested in spending several months exploring Earth, then moving on. They are puzzled, though, by the lack of temporal gods on Earth; which exist on every other planet they’ve visited. Hmm….  If you read just one story from Crown of Stars, this is the one.

The next two stories, “Morality Meat,” and “All This and Heaven Too,” are a microcosm of tonal problems in this anthology. “Morality Meat,” is easily the third best story here and a pure, white-knuckle sci-fi horror story. It’s also the most unabashedly feminist story, by a mile.  I won’t spoil the story for you, even though this work makes Animal Farm look coy and subtle.  Basically, this is the tale of a 16-year-old black girl living in a right-wing, dystopian future California. After being raped, she has become a single mother, since abortions are illegal. She is forced to give her baby up for adoption, since she cannot afford to feed two. The story is incredibly dark and is not suitable for children. It is thought-provoking and worth the read, but quite grotesque.

“All This and Heaven Too,” on the other hand, is a pleasant summer idle about young lovers, fairy-tale geopolitics, and ridiculous court intrigue. Set in a happy, utopian kingdom and an adjacent polluted, industrial  kingdom, the principalities’ heirs astonishingly fall in love. (Who’d have thunk it?) This story isn’t really suitable for adults. It’s insipidly sweet and not very well-written. It feels middle school. After reading taut horror in “Morality Meat,” I was really disappointed by this cheesy fantasy.  You wouldn’t expect to see them in the same collection, let alone side-by-side.

“Yanqui Doodle,” is the fifth story and might be the best overall. The US is fighting a full-fledged war in Latin-America and the Congressional Armed Services Committee is on a tour of the front and will soon stop at a field hospital to visit the wounded. Soldiers are encouraged to take government-issued drugs (mainly amphetamines) to become remorseless killing machines. A soldier is recovering from a landmine explosion in this field hospital and it quickly becomes clear that drug withdrawal is a far more serious concern than his wounds. This is also a horror story, although more psychological. I really liked it, both for the dark humor and intelligence, even if it isn’t very original.

The sixth story, “Come Live With Me,” and the second, “Our Resident Djinn,” are both good, light, fun stories that are both thought-provoking for adults and appealing to middle-schoolers.

Our last four stories, “Last Night and Every Night,” “Backward, Turn Backward,” “The Earth Doth Like a Snake Renew,” and “In Midst of Life,” are just not very good. Only the first was published before Tiptree’s death. “Last Night,” and “Midst,” are about humans made into Death’s servants. They are dull and fairly uninteresting.  “The Earth Doth Like a Snake Renew,” is just awful and unabashedly anti-feminist. I find it interesting that Russ’ criticism of Tiptree’s portrayals of women still hold water in stories written after Sheldon’s outing.

*SPOILERS* “Backward, Turn Backward,” is the most disturbing thing I have ever read. I hate myself for even picking it up. It’s horror, although not as scary as the other two, but the meaning and context is stomach-turning. It’s also anti-feminist and an awful, self-loathing thing. The story is a tale of a girl who ends up murdering the boy who saves her and makes her happy (though he doesn’t give her everything she always wanted) by shooting him in the back in bed, which also kills her due to time-travel. A few months after this was written, Alice Sheldon shot her husband, then herself, in their bed. It’s a murderer’s fantasy. I walked away convinced that Sheldon murdered her husband and that it was not really a willing double-suicide, as is sometimes suggested. If you’re researching Tiptree, I think reading this work would give you a bit of perspective. But, it hurts your soul.

It’s damn near impossible to summarize Crown of Stars. Flights of childlike fancy among horrors that scar the mind. Feminism and woman-hating are side-by-side. The contradictions are too much and the house falls. Consider reading some stories from this book, but not the whole book. Or, maybe, that’s just life and we all need to learn how to compartmentalize.

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One response to “Crown of Stars, by the Estate of James Tiptree, Jr.

  • cstabile

    Excellent review, Quintin, of a collection of stories that’s tough to summarize. I believe that all the stories save one tories had been published in magazines, while only one — “Come Live With Me” — was published posthumously. I believe that Sheldon herself put the volume together shortly before her death, which explains its unrelenting darkness. Would be interesting to ask Jeff Smith what he knows about the volume. Nice work!

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