On Rereading Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr.

James Tiptree Jr. has been one of my favorite short story writers for over forty years.  Lest anyone get confused when I refer to the author as “she” or “her,” James Tiptree Jr. was a pseudonym for Alice Sheldon, a reclusive ex-employee of the CIA, who managed to protect her privacy while making a huge multi-award-winning splash in the science fiction field back in the 1960s through 1980s until investigating fans found her out.

Some of her stories are among the best the field has ever produced, and I have read and reread them over the years, usually mingled in award anthologies with the works of other writers.  Placed in settings such as those, they shine as the most brilliant of jewels.  In a collection like this, one after the other, it’s almost an overdose.  That’s not to diminish the power, technical virtuosity, or emotional impact of the tales.  Let me explain.

Taken one by one, Tiptree’s stories are clearly magnificent.  All together, they seemed, to me at least, in the mood and situation in life I find myself at this moment, too much of the same thing.  Don’t get me wrong; the stories are not imitative of each other.  Each is wildly original.  What they share in common is their darkness and their theme, which after pondering it I summarize as the inevitability of failure.  Every one of the stories is dark; there are no happy endings.  Many are exercises in futility and despair.  Although many also share a feminist theme that was intensely controversial four decades ago, the desperation, angst, depression, and pain of the characters and situations go far beyond that single emphasis.  Tiptree posits, rather, the ultimate futility of all humankind, men and women, in story after story.  Her gift is that she had great grasp of story and so did it beautifully every time.

Perhaps it’s partly me and what I am going through right now.  I bought the book in Greece years ago and read it then, and I don’t remember the negativity of the stories affecting me so profoundly.  But now I feel sometimes I am hanging on the edge of a cliff myself, and I can’t constantly be reminded of my frailty and insignificance or I might lose my grip and fall.

Tiptree/Sheldon did.  Despite the success and acclaim and the awards, one night in 1987 she killed her husband and then herself with a shotgun.

One of the things that struck me as I read the book this time was that the recognition and the awards – all the things I confess I crave when I ponder my own lack of success as a writer – didn’t bring her happiness.  I know that sounds like a cliche, but it has a ring of validity.  Sometimes as I go through my struggles day by day and week by week and so on, I think about how everything would fall into place if I achieved recognition, awards, money, fame.  My life would be easier, for one thing.  I could allow myself to relax more.  I could ease off the nonfiction hack work and concentrate on the stories I really want to tell.  I could get a more comfortable place, buy a car, travel more.  I’d have more friends, or at least more acquaintances.  I’d go out more, do things, maybe even go on dates.  As it is now, I spend all my time struggling to survive.

But no.  There’s no guarantee such things would buy me happiness anymore than they did for poor Tiptree/Sheldon.  True, she put her pain on the page and her brilliant prose continues to bring happiness to many readers.  But for herself?

That’s why when it gets down to it, as I have learned through painful experience throughout my travels, the raising of my family, riding the rollercoaster of ups and downs that life inevitably brings, that one cannot count on any future event to procure some sort of mythical happiness.  Contentment, serenity, and joy can be found in the circumstances one is in at present, or they cannot be found at all ever.  The acceptance of a story by an editor, the winning of an award, the cashing of a big check may bring a momentary thrill, but if the life in between such peak moments is not full of significance as well, then there’s nothing but a huge crash after those high points.  The thing to do is to imbue life itself with relevance, make the living of life an art form of which the writing of stories is only a part.  Anything else leaves too many empty spaces.

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