Most science fiction enthusiasts know that James Tiptree, Jr. was the pseudonym of Alice Sheldon, an employee of the CIA who killed her ailing husband and then herself back in 1987. A brilliant biography called “James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon” by Julie Phillips won the National Book Critics Circle Award a few years ago.
Though James Tiptree Jr. is a pseudonym, I will use the name in this essay, as that is how she is know for most of her wonderful writing. Usually when I list my favorite short story writers I list her at number one. She wrote a few novels too, but it is in the short story genre where she excelled. She wrote so many dynamic short stories that it is very difficult to choose just five, which is an arbitrary number to which I have limited myself. In an essay on my favorite short stories I have already written about “The Women Men Don’t See”, one of her most famous stories, not because I consider it better than the others, but because it was so significant to the field when it first appeared. Here are five more of her stories that blew me away:
1. The Girl Who Was Plugged In. This novelette won a Hugo the year it came out, and for good reason. It’s a hip, fast-paced satire on advertising, the appeal of superstars, and the loneliness and alienation of the billions of unhip, unattractive ones who adore those that appear in the media. The ugly P. Burke becomes the lovely ethereal Delphi and enters the world of glamour and riches, only to discover that it too is a world of ugliness, only it is the ugliness of hypocrisy and deceit. The shattering climax is inevitable but masterfully told.
2. And I Have Come Upon This Place by Lost Ways. A group of scientists have come to a far planet to conduct research. One of them, Evan, doesn’t quite fit in. He’s too unorthodox; he doesn’t want to follow the rules. On a high mountain called the Clivorn he spots a strange anomaly, but when he tries to point it out no one will pay any attention to him. Risking everything to follow his hunch that it is important, he leaves the research ship as it is about to take off for home, fights his way past local aliens who try to stop him from setting foot on the sacred mountain, and climbs up to the summit to discover a strange alien artifact that has been there from beyond memory. This encapsulated version cannot, of course, capture the power and sense of wonder of the story itself. It ends in tragedy, as so many of Tiptree’s stories do, but leaves the reader with a sense of the overwhelming vastness of the universe.
3. On the Last Afternoon. This is a monster story, but though the monsters are huge and overwhelming and destructive, they are totally indifferent to the human colonists who have crash-landed and are trying to eke out an existence in a jungle clearing at the edge of an ocean on this alien world. They are like a force of nature, like a hurricane or a tidal wave, but no less lethal to the tiny group of human survivors. Once the humans realize the creatures are on their way they try to evacuate the vestiges of culture and technology they have managed to preserve from the wreckage. One old man, Mysha, must risk everything to try to stop them. The amazing thing about this story is the description of the alien invasion from the sea and the Earthlings’ attempts to stop them. It’s hard to beat this kind of heart-pounding action writing. The immense creatures that overwhelm the colony are some of the weirdest, most bizarre aliens ever presented in science fiction literature, and though they act out of instinct and not malevolence they are no less nightmarish and deadly.
4. The Screwfly Solution. Alice Sheldon originally published this story under the pseudonym “Racoona Sheldon”, but it was later included in collections by James Tiptree
Jr. It won a well-deserved Nebula Award. It’s a dark, creepy tale about a slow-spreading virus of the psyche that comes over men all over the world that causes them to begin to kill women. At first those susceptible seem to be only the violent and fanatical, but then it
spreads until all women are in danger. Tiptree frequently wrote about gender issues, and this is one of her most devastating, effective stories on the subject. In the end, the reader discovers the reason for this wave of murders, but I will not spoil the story for you by revealing it here.
5. Houston, Houston, Can You Read? This is another story on the gender issue. It won both the Hugo and the Nebula. A spaceship bearing three men circles the sun and somehow ends up in the future, where all men have died in a plague and only women, who reproduce through cloning, remain. The men come across a spaceship full of women. At first they are rescued and welcomed, but then the differences between the two cultures
make it difficult and then impossible to get along. The women come to the conclusion that the men have nothing to contribute that would make it worthwhile to integrate them into
the culture of the future. Men have become redundant. Tiptree smears the gender issue in the readers face, but she does it masterfully in the context of a science fiction adventure story, so that the reader is willing to get hit with a reality blast at the same time as she or he is being entertained.
There are other stories too, just as powerful, that I could have included here, such as “The Milk of Paradise”, “A Momentary Taste of Being”, “Slow Music”, and “Love is the Plan, the
Plan is Death”. I urge you to seek out these stories and read them. There is a great anthology that includes most of Tiptree’s best stories called”Her Smoke Rose Up Forever”.
It’s a good place to start.