Niall Harrison (coalescent) wrote,
Niall Harrison

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

I think I am jealous of anyone who was reading science fiction before 1976. [1]

I'm jealous because I wish I could have read the stories in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever without a legend leaning over my shoulder. It would have meant I could have read most of them twice: once before knowing that James Tiptree Jnr was Alice Sheldon, and once after. As it is, only the second reading was available to me. And I'm jealous because I want that moment of realisation. I want to know how I would react. Whether I would be Robert Silverberg, egg-on-face after insisting that Tiptree's writing was 'ineluctably masculine', or whether I would have been more agnostic. As it is, I can't ever know.

And I want to know because some of these stories are without question some of the most important--the most worth thinking about--in the science fiction canon. Oh, some of them have undeniably dated. The central image to which 'A Momentary Taste of Being' builds, for example, is striking, but it's also absurd; it's hard to read it with a modern eye, and impossible to imagine a modern writer carrying the same idea off with a straight face, except possibly at a much shorter length. But for the most part, even the ways in which the stories have dated are interesting. You can see science fiction changing before your eyes, as you read, from the pulps to the new wave. The conflict is almost literal in stories like 'And So On, And So On', and 'Houston, Houston, Do You Read?' but the threads are there throughout, even in the devastating critique of exogamy embedded in 'And I Awoke And Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side.'

Of course, this is not primarily science fiction about science fiction. In fact, the extent to which Tiptree used classic sf ideas was a surprise to me. I bought the reissued Her Smoke Rose Up Forever at the end of 2004 and had, until recently, only read four stories from it, and they hadn't been representative. (I wasn't going so slowly because I didn't want to read the book, but because I was reluctant to have read the book. Either the stories couldn't possibly live up to the hype (although just about every time I read one it turned out to be very good), or they would, and then I wouldn't have the book to look forward to any more.) They were, for want of a better phrase, respectable science fiction. Stories like 'The Women Men Don't See', 'The Screwfly Solution', 'The Last Flight of Doctor Ain'--set in the world, focusing on human reactions in the more-or-less here and now.

Half the stories in this collection, though, while not as outright bizarre as 'A Momentary Taste of Being', are about as brazenly science fictional as you could ask for. I think I was most surprised by the number of stories with an almost Stapledonian perspective, skipping across time like stones across water; and though 'She Waits For All Men Born' didn't do a lot for me, I suspect the final, vivd images of 'The Man Who Walked Home' and 'Her Smoke Rose Up Forever' (the future folding down into the present) will be with me for a while yet. And there are stories told completely from an alien perspective, too: 'Love Is The Plan The Plan Is Death' with its excitable, oblivious narrator, hurtling towards his end; and, more succesfully, 'We Who Stole The Dream', which flirts with parable and allegory without ever committing to either.

And the intensity of them! Tiptree tells her stories with a force, with a ruthless conviction that leaves much contemporary short sf looking distinctly anemic. Perhaps Lucius Shepard can match her in this regard, but perhaps he also has less range. Tiptree's themes--biology and society, intelligence and instinct, men and women--recur, but her visions are extravagant. And somehow, for all that most of the stories end with death, or decline, or loss, it is not, finally, a bleak collection. There is that feeling you seem to get only from science fiction, that humanity is a small part of a vast and uncaring universe, but that the passion of life is what makes it worth living, on its own terms. The extraordinary penultimate story, 'Slow Music', captures this best: at the end, we are told, 'mortal grief fought invading transcendence.' Tiptree makes the words more than dramatic rhetoric.

Best and worst stories? The weakest are the ones that are obviously the work of a beginner--'The Last Flight of Doctor Ain', ambitious beyond its means--or have lost their context, and therefore their relevance. 'A Momentary Taste of Being' is one of these, as mentioned, as is the overlong and overmanipulative 'With Delicate Mad Hands'; they are stories whose anger is directed at targets already mostly demolished. The strongest are, by and large, the ones that everyone already knows. There's the familiar, pitiable, unconsciously prejudiced viewpoint of the narrator in 'The Women Men Don't See', which serves as the most economic articulation of some of Tiptree's central arguments. There's the intense cynicism of 'The Screwfly Solution', and the firecracker writing (and unexpected poignancy) of 'The Girl Who Was Plugged In'. But even beyond the award winners there are important stories. 'And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill's Side' is chilling in its simplicity, manifold in its implications; 'Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled Of Light!' is harrowing. To complain too much, or to argue that these are the favourites everyone should have, just seems mean.

And there's probably my favourite story in the collection, 'Houston, Houston, Do You Read?' in which three astronauts are cast from Then into the Future, where they encounter a woman-only world (men having been killed in a plague). Elsewhere, immortalradical said that:
The society developed by the women in 'Houston, Houston' is fascistic, sterile and myopic, yes. It has become obsessed both with purity and the Greater Good, and is not particularly interested in individual identity, exploration or new knowledge except in so far as it contributes to that Greater Good. When something turns up that is perceived to throw a spanner in the works of that unity and purity, it is treated with initial fascination, its useful sperm characteristics taken and assimilated, and the individuals concerned exterminated.

The fact that our narrator, having seen his friends degraded, dehumanised and manipulated, and having realised that there is no free place in such a society for him, willingly goes along with his murder is hardly an argument in favour of that society.

Let it be noted he liked the story, for demonstrating that women and men are as bad as each other. And admittedly, individual reactions to a story like this will vary; it's a mark of how skillfully Tiptree asks questions about gender and power. But to me, his reading seems a little lazy, and almost offensively wrongheaded. The society in 'Houston, Houston' is not obsessed with purity or the Greater Good; and I'm not claiming it as a utopia, but it's certainly not fascistic. It is, simply, a society that works tolerably well but that has no place for men--more, in fact: it is a society to which men are inimical. The astronauts are not perceived to throw a spanner in the works; they do throw a spanner in the works, just by existing. The women of 'Houston, Houston' do not need men to love, or for anything else. They don't hate men, either, and they certainly don't fear them. In fact, they're not missing much of anything. (Is there a reason they should, do you think?) There are some hints that their society is less vital and expansionist than it would otherwise be, but those are not inherently bad things, and their world is also clearly less conflict-riven world than our own (although part of that is likely to be simply that the population is much smaller than ours currently is). But the presence of men would inevitably destroy the society that has been created in their absence, and something worse would take its place.

The strength and the tragedy of the story, for me, then, is in just how comprehensively irrelevant men are, and that the narrator--clearly the most balanced of the astronauts, despite the unreliability of his perspective--has the self-awareness to realise the damage his life would cause and, while lamenting, face up to the consequences of it. It's not a question of refusing to recognise difference; it's that coexistence is not possible without one or other party being shackled. Is that a bleak view of the relationship between the sexes? Hell yes. In 'Houston, Houston', men and women are literally aliens to each other. Do I believe in it? No, and I don't think Tiptree did either. But to assume the premise makes for an extraordinarily powerful and provocative story.

As are many of the rest. It's unfair to compare a retrospective like Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (Michael Swanwick's introduction calls it 'a partial corrective') to most other collections I've read. The stories here are the pick of just twelve extraordinary years. But I'll say this: if you haven't read these stories, you need to--if only to argue with them.

[1] And there’s a moment of perspective for you. I had unconsciously assumed that, as it would today, the news of Tiptree’s identity had flashed around the sf community in the space of a day. But of course, no: we’re talking letters and fanzines, not the internet. 'Everything But The Signature Is Me', in Meet Me At Infinity, is compiled from letters between November 1976 and 1977; in his introduction to Her Smoke Rose Up Forever Clute uses 1977 (because it was the '77 Worldcon where it was hot news?); in In The Chinks of the World Machine Lefanu uses 1976.
Tags: book review, feminist sf, james tiptree jnr
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