Tag Archives: James Tiptree Jr.
Dear Ursula K. Le Guin,
At several different times in her letters, James Tiptree Jr. aka Alice Sheldon said that she did not plan on outliving her husband. In the ever-so-clear hindsight, we can see that Tiptree was alluding to her suicide, possibly suicide pact, with her husband. But, did you guess that that was what she intended to do? Tiptree often makes light of her depression, describing and disguising it with humor. But, it is quite obvious that she was depressed. Knowing this, did you have any inkling that she was going to commit suicide? If you could go back in time, would you have tried to persuade Tiptree out of thinking of suicide, or do you believe her suicide was justified? And, if you had told her not to commit suicide, do you think your words, whether in person, written letter, or phone call, made any difference to Tiptree’s resolve?
I hate to sound horribly mean and accusatory, but these questions have been nagging at me for ages. It’s hard to get a sense of your reactions to Tiptree’s letters because the letters you sent to Tiptree are mostly not included in the archives. Thus, there is just silence. Suicide and depression are things that strike a chord with me personally. It is disconcerting and saddening to read someone’s letters of depression and intent of suicide. I guess, I just wanted to know whether or not Tiptree’s letters scared you as much as they did me, and if you did try to confront her. I would like to hear your side of the story.
Stevenson, M. C. (2007) Trying to plug in: Posthuman cyborgs and the search for connection. Science Fiction Studies, 34-1, 87-105.
This week I chose an article that focused on the cyborg as a philosophical vehicle in science fiction, first because I’ve always had an interest in the subject, and second because I’ve just read “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” by Tiptree. In this article, Stevenson approaches the various theoretical iterations of cyborg theory and decides to focus on two major works on the subject: Haraway’s cyborgs and Hayles’s theories of identity. She first discusses Haraway’s feminist utopian notion of the cyborg as an opportunity for women to make social network connections formerly impossible in their corporeal form (due to hierarchical power imbalances and the like). She then discusses Hayle’s theories in response to posthumanist fantasies of eternal life through a downloaded soul, which imply that human experiences are formed by embodiment as well as cognitive interactions. She then relates the two major theories by their (pretty much only) point of juncture: Hayles’s “splice” and Haraway’s “weaving” summarized by Stevenson as “the fruitful connections made between bodies and identities across categorizations previously thought to be mutually exclusive.” This notion of connections constituting humanness becomes the crux of her discussion on Moore’s “No Woman Born,” and Tiptree’s “The Girls Who Was Plugged In.”
She discusses Moore’s cyborg character Deidre as “superhuman” in the abandonment of her physical body, along with some other implications regarding the male gaze and political economy (she makes a similar point in regard to Tiptree’s P. Burke — saying that her identity, as well, was refracted and represented through the male perspective. A rather interesting point that Stevenson does not spend a great deal of time on). She then focuses on P. Burke as a narrative personification of Butler’s performativity, arguing that Delphi is a positive, or even progressive, example of both Hayes and Haraway’s feminist cyborg theories — she (Burke) is both free from her body and embodied at once, and is making social connections that she would otherwise not have made, thus making her more human.
She concludes by viewing both characters within these theoretical frameworks as both successful and unsuccessful in different terms. She explains that both characters fall short in that they are isolated, unique beings, and therefore cannot form a community within which to make connections and interactions — the (post)humanist imperative Stevenson opens the article with.
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.