“Painwise” © 1971 James Tiptree, Jr.
Wooo. It has been a long time since I’ve updated this blog. It’s always been in the back of my mind, though. TTLYFH sits on the top of my pile of books on my bedside table (which happens to be five books deep, not to mention the ARC I have to finish at some point and the pleasure reading book I have. …And a knitting guide I want to finish reading. The point is, I am in the middle of a lot of books.) I’ve also drifted a lot from adult science fiction. I rediscovered YA, particularly fantasy, last year and spent my time making my way through various YA series. To reboot my attempts to do reviews of all 69 of Tiptree’s short stories, her collected essays and poetry, and her two novels, I’m glad “Painwise” was next in the book.
My first thought upon reading most of these stories is,” I don’t know what to make of this, but…” Proof that most of these stories need at least a second, and perhaps a third reading. In most cases, you just will not understand what is happening until at least half way through the story. “Painwise” is definitely one of those stories that benefits from a second reading. Having been stuck in YA land for a while, it was almost annoying to get back into the thick stories and prose that Tiptree loves. However, when I finished, I put down the book, went and made cookies, and then came back and reread the story. It is still a bit thick, but it makes much more sense.
The story starts in media res, which just adds to the initial confusion. It literally jumps right into the title of the story with “He was wise in the ways of pain. He had to be, for he felt none” (118, Ten Thousand Light-Years From Home). The human man, who remains unnamed for the rest of the story, had his nerves reattached to something other than pain receptors by scientists sometime before the beginning of the story. What I gathered from rereading it was that he was then sent off to explore habitable planets in a single-man, mostly automated spacecraft, called the “scouter.” The reason he was altered to not feel pain is due to the inherent danger of his mission. The first page of the story lists several ways he has been tortured by alien races upon landing on their planets. Instead of feeling pain, he sees flashes of color. He has also been altered to be somewhat indestructible. Every time he is injured, the scouter picks him up and the boditech puts his back together. The boditech is a separate semi-organic computer that is trusted with making sure he lives and gives a report upon returning from each planet. Understandably, the fact that he can feel no pain and is on a seemingly endless journey begins to drive the man insane, which is where the story picks up. He realizes he can get the boditech to speak to him if he claims to be injured and then starts purposefully injuring himself in really gruesome ways, especially whenever he is dropped off on a new planet. He tries to teach the boditech that he will stop injuring himself if she (yes, she) talks to him. He names her Amanda, and falls in love with her in his own twisted, Stockholm way. His main purpose is to convince her to turn the scouter back towards Earth, because he does wheedle out of her that they are overdue for the signal that should have called them home. He has no idea what he will return to, but above all else, he wants to go home. The scouter’s main computer takes over “Amanda,” and forces him to resume his mission until an alien psi-force invades the ship and destroys it, teleporting him inside their own ship, which is some kind of organic shell-pod. Inside he meets the three aliens that psychically move the ship: a golden bushbaby, a psychedelically colored butterfly creature named Ragglebomb that may or may not be one of the Dameii from the numerous Stars’ Tears stories (I will have to come back to you on that), and a black boa named Muscle. They are all three empaths, and slightly telepathic. Ragglebomb is also psychic and is the one who moves the craft though space. Their mission? To eat as many delicacies from as many worlds as possible. The problem is that while they are shielded within their ship, once they go out onto a world, they feel all the pain and suffering that is natural of any living thing. You can see why they picked up this human man who does not feel pain. As powerful empaths, he is the ultimate balm for them. They send him down onto the worlds they find to pick up delectable foods for them. So he basically is on the same kind of mission he was on as before. And once again, it starts to drive him insane. They tell him they are on course for Earth, be he eventually learns they do not know where it is, having never been there. The man falls into despair and refuses to eat, thinking he will never see Earth again, or at the very least, it will take thousands of years if he truly is undying. A passing comment the Bushbaby makes catches his attention because he thinks it could have only come from Earth. So he begs them to go back to whatever planet Bushbaby gleaned it from. He cannot get out of the pod fast enough once they land, and the moment he is on the ground, his body erupts in the strongest, most crippling sensation he has ever felt. Having never felt anything like it before, the empaths must explain that it is pain he is feeling. They are also in agony since they are still connected to him. He realizes that his pain receptors were tuned away from feeling pain at bodily harm and instead tuned to feel pain at the very environment of Earth, proof that whoever sent him on his mission ever intended for him to return. He starts to crawl back to the pod to escape the searing pain so they can leave, and just before he climbs in, he thinks about how he can continue on forever, never feeling pain with these aliens, or he can suffer for however long he has left on his own Earth. He chooses the pain and Earth and sends them away.
Funny enough, “Pain” by Three Days Grace just came on as I was writing this. Actually, their two points dovetail here: “I’d rather feel pain than nothing at all.” While repetition can certainly drive someone insane, as pain is the main subject of the story, it is the lack of an ability to feel pain that ultimately drives the man crazy. And he would rather embrace this pain than live forever in reasonable comfort, feeling nothing. Pain has been described in many different stories as being one of those things that is a sign of being alive, and while that is not openly stated here, I believe that is the point of the story. After all, what is life without pain? How can one experience happiness without knowing suffering? It is also interesting that the lack of pain becomes its own form of torture for this man, as opposed to the more physical bodily harms he goes through at the beginning.
After rereading this story and thinking about it a bit, I decided 5 out of 5 stars. I really liked it, and it really got me thinking about what exactly pain is. I had a very emotional reaction to the end of the story, especially the second time once I knew what was happening. And the good thing is it’s available for free online here! Now go read it.
“Help” © 1968 James Tiptree, Jr.
Appeared in Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home
This story is a direct sequel to “Mamma Come Home.” I wish I had known that, because I would have read both at the same time. It deals with the same Earth and the same characters, but different themes than the previous story. “Mamma Come Home” was about feminism and sexual power plays whereas “Help” is about religions. But they’re both about one group of people dominating another.
So this takes place a little while after the Cappellans from the previous story have high-tailed it back to their system. The same CIA team is now considered experts on aliens because of their plan that saved the world and their communication with the aliens in the previous story. Suddenly, a new ship with a new type of alien (resembling a blue T-Rex) shows up on the moon and observes what the Cappellans left behind. They set up some massive satellites with writing on them around the earth and then leave just as quickly. Everyone is freaked out for a while. And then another type of alien comes, melts the floating Rosetta stones, and actually lands on the planet. This time they’re small, yellow bug-like aliens from Cygnus, who happen to be deeply religious. Their religion is based around the “Great Pupa.” Like butterflies, this is a metamorphosis race that starts as cocoons and then hatch into the yellow bug creatures they appear to the humans as. There is the belief in a second metamorphosis that will give them wings. The only Cygnian that’s actually gone through this is the Great Pupa, and only after people wrapped him in acid-soaked cloths to kill him. He arose reborn as a winged-Cygnian. Sound familiar? Tiptree plays with how a Catholic man reacts to finding out about this. He thinks it is proof of Christianity elsewhere in the universe. All the big religious powers take the Cygnians around to show off their cathedrals, and temples, and mosques. However, after seeing it, the Cygnians start destroying the human places of worship and start preaching the religion of the Great Pupa. Once again, we get another history parallel from our narrator about how missionaries viewed tribes in Africa when they started preaching Christianity to them. They view the original religions as savage and refuse to see the similarities. Then, another Cygnian ship lands on earth, but this one holds red Cygnians instead of yellow. Apparently they’re a different sect and the two start duking it out over what religion earthlings will convert to. After a bit of this, the blue dinosaurs come back (remember them from the beginning?) and chase both types of Cygnians away. Apparently they’re a galactic police (Judoons, anyone?) and what the Cygnians were doing was illegal. For a moment, earth breathes a sigh of relieve, then our main characters remember what happened to the non-Western world when after missionaries came. There’s a parallel to Viet Nam in there as well. It’s dark and foreboding. A calm before a storm.
Basically, the earth is screwed. It seems the people in this story are going to always have to deal with aliens coming and trying to do something to them because they will always have less power. Though I do like anything that turns the Jesus myth (I want to make that “myth” is big, bold, italicized, underlined screaming caps) on its head. Or what people have done in the name of the Jesus myth. It’s also a warning. Christianity is a dominant religion now, but other religions have been dominant in the past. There is always some more powerful crusader waiting to change your culture around. 4 out of 5 stars. Like the last story, it was a little hard to follow, but I liked using the same setting for a different theme.
(Here’s a tidbit for you: “Mamma Come Home” was originally published as “The Mother Ship,” and “Help” was originally published as “Pupa Knows Best.” Now what does that say about the roles of men and women in society that the “mother” story was about sex and the “father” story was about religion?)
“Mamma Come Home” © 1968 James Tiptree, Jr.
Appeared in Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home
This one is a near-future alien first-encounter story. It combines a few of Tiptree’s favorite things: female-dominance, impending doom, and sexual power plays. Other than that, I don’t really know what to make of it. The prevalent theme, through all the gender power plays, seems to be that history repeats itself.
As for the story, basically this alien ship comes to earth and it’s full of very human-looking women except for the fact that they’re nearly twice as tall as human men. There’s a lot of technical jibber-jabber that goes back and forth about where they come from and what they want, and etc. Also, the first person narrator works for the CIA, so you can see where Tiptree’s experiences are coming out. (For those of you that don’t know, Alice Sheldon worked for the CIA before she retired and started writing science fiction.) It wasn’t hit-you-over-the-head obvious personal experiences like some of Stephen King’s author characters can be, but there was a lot of technical CIA jargon going on; I suppose to set the atmosphere. It turns out the reason these Cappellans (from a system near Cappella) look so human is that they are the ancestor race of Earth humans. Cappellan men are the same size as Earth men, but Cappellan women go through a second growth-spurt to reach over 8-feet tall. However, long ago, there was a mutation that caused the women to only have the first growth spurt. So they rounded up these mutants and sent them off to distant planets, like Earth. They never bothered to check on Earth until a group was mining ore near the solar system. I like that as an explanation for why “aliens” can look human, because so oftentimes in science fiction they just do. Like in early episodes of Doctor Who. Anyway, that’s just explanation. They point is, they treat their men like sex slaves, and are actually running out of them, so getting a whole new lot of exotic Earth-men slaves would bring in way more money than ore. And to make sure the natives don’t get vicious while they’re shipping the first batch off, they are going to wrap the sun in some kind of exhaust from their ship which will create an ice age on earth so no technological advances can be made. Scary, right? However, the big minds at the CIA come up with a tape that shows a monstrous robot attacking their “home world,” and they use one of their own women who looks very similar to the Cappellans. The monster robot is taken right out of fifties scifi movies, including the damsel who gets her clothes ripped off. Apparently it works, and sends the Cappellans home in a hurry before they can gunk up the sun. So Earth men win the day.
What’s odd about this story isn’t so much that the men “win,” but that the earth wins. Usually those two don’t coincide. Throughout the story, there is repeated mention of history, and showing all the warning signs of the Cappellans plans, such as how the Europeans/Americans came to Africa to steal people and make them into slaves, and when the Europeans first landed on Hawaii, and how harems don’t like new sex slaves (integral to their plan was getting the male Cappellan technician to run their “footage”). I find it interesting that this is a theme in this story, and then, once again, the men win by a bigger show of rape and male dominance. And that is what scares off the Cappellans. The woman who looks very much like a Cappellan was also gang-banged before she was recruited by the CIA as a living weapon. And she had to reenact a “rape” scene for the sake of saving the earth. The raped is once again raped. It’s all circular history.
Don’t get me wrong, while reading it, I was rooting with the main character that they’d come up with a good plan to save the earth. I find it interesting that in many of Tiptree’s stories where women have formed a kind of “female-only” utopia, there is something wrong that doesn’t really allow the society to flourish. Oftentimes, there is no war, but then there is some kind of mutation, or genetic defect like in “The Snows are Melted, the Snows are Gone,” or they find difficulty in reproducing. What does that say about society? Men are more violent, but without that violence, society will become stagnant? I’m not really that knowledgeable about Sociology, so I can’t really tell you without thinking on it more.
However, I will tell you, I found this story intriguing, partly for it’s plot and set-up, and partly for the implications of their “victory.” Over, I give it 4 out of 5 stars.
“The Snows are Melted, the Snows are Gone” © 1969 James Tiptree, Jr.
Appeared inTen Thousand Light-Years from Home
So… another long title, but that’s nothing new. It’s taken me a while to get around to reading more Tiptree, and then this story only took me about ten minutes to read. It was very short, and nothing much really happened in it. There’s a girl with no arms, and a wolf, and a naked guy. Really, that’s about it. Okay, but honestly, let’s get into it.
What’s there to spoil? Well, the story starts with this armless girl and her wolf companion, who seem to have some kind of advanced, albeit post-apocalyptic-ruined technology, like radios and military rations and such. They find this tribe of seemingly more primitive people and managed to lure away one of the big men by having her strip and then run off. (The wolf helps her strip and get her clothes back on. It’s a very intelligent wolf.) Eventually, someone else comes who is a “boy” but seems very effeminate (“Houston, Houston, Do You Copy?” anyone?), and has no legs (duh duh dun!) and helps get the guy onto a truck bed, saying things like “There’s your Y-chromosome.” which implies this is in a future world where most men have died, hence why they have to capture one. It also seems post-apocalyptic because the narrator makes a point of stating that when it gets warm there are no insects, and the story ends by stating this used to be Ethiopia.
This means that as soon as winter is gone, as the title states, bugs should be swarming, however, something has happened to this world to not only kill off men, or make them sterile, but to kill off insects. We don’t ever find out what happened or what exactly is lost and what not. It’s one of Tiptree’s vague stories, that tries to make a point through round about ways. There’s some point in there about humanity and procreation and the endurance of women, etc, but it’s not very clear. I might have some sudden realization to the meaning later, but for now, that’s about all I can process.
2 out of 5 stars, because it’s not that it’s an awful story, it’s just a bit boring. At least it’s short.
“And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” © 1971 by James Tiptree, Jr.
First appears in Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home
Also appears in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever
While, for the most part, I really like the titles of Tiptree’s stories, they do get a bit tedious to always type out. (The only title that is possible more tedious to type out is The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, but that is neither here nor there.) Unlike the last story (which I am going to refrain from typing out) I can actually see how the title of the story pertains to the plot, which is about sex drives and aliens and society, and a whole slush of things like that.
Spoilers. So, the story starts off with a news reporter who’s managed to get himself onto a international (inter-planetal?) space station because he wants to get some shots of aliens. He meets a human man there and wants to ask him some questions, but then the man goes off on his own story about how he met his first aliens in a bar, and how humans are inexplicably attracted to the different with a desire to impregnate it, and that humans always go seeking sex from the aliens, even the ones who reproduce in completely different ways from humans. He says it has ruined him because he cannot even look at regular humans anymore, and that since most of the species are not compatible with humans, people will die trying to sleep with them. However, the story ends with the reporter not taking in any of it, and instead rushing off to the crowd he can see heading to dinner that includes aliens.
The writing style was what I found particularly interesting more so than the story itself. It almost reads like a news story, where reporters don’t tend to quote themselves, but will summarize the questions they have. This story did that a bit, since it was mostly a story around a monologue/conversation. The narration, first person, would say something like “One of the early GR casualties, I thought,” (Ten Thousand 2) and the man responds to the though, which shows the narrator clearly said it out loud, just didn’t convey that to the reader. And while the narrator never seems to truncate any of the man’s testimony, whenever he gets a chance to get his narration in, it’s always to poke fun at him or degrade him in some way. So the English major in me likes to go “Ha! Untrustworthy narrator!” As for the title, I feel it applies to the man in the story, not the narrator, which is interesting cause the story and the title are in first person, but the speaker is a different person for each. The title is the man’s realization of the situation humanity is in, which the narrator has not yet realized. The other thing I found noteworthy about this story is the mention of Stars’ Tears, and that’s only cause I’ ma huge nerd. It’s only the briefest of mentions, as it often is when the story is not actually about Stars’ Tears. It is noteworthy because the Stars’ Tears universe, as I like to call it, is Tiptree’s favorite. There are so many “future earth” stories that take place in this universe, and you always know it’s this universe because of the mention of Stars’ Tears. I like it so much because it’s the universe of my favorite story, “We Who Stole the Dream” and of Brightness Falls from the Sky. However, I am going to come back to Stars’ Tears when I talk about those stories.
Overall, 3 out of 5 stars. I liked the story most of all for the Stars’ Tears reference, but it wasn’t bad.
So, I finished Byte Beautiful, finally. It was only eight stories, but it just took forever for me to finally get around to reading “I’ll Be Waiting for You When the Swimming Pool is Empty.” It was a bit disappointing that the story wasn’t really that good either. I always want the last stories in collections to be good, but sometimes the order is picked randomly and you can’t always win. I read a Stephen King short story collection last year (Nightmares and Dreamscapes, I believe it was) and he said in the intro that he’d chosen the order of his stories in his last collection by assigning them each a number or royal from a suit of cards in a deck (since he had 13 stories) and then shuffled them and drew them and that was the order. I don’t know how other people do it, and I know it’s not a universal thing. Sometimes the order is picked purposefully and sometimes it’s not. Anyway. Since I finished a book, I thought I’d give an overview. “With Delicate mad Hands” was a great opening, aforementioned super long title was a not so great ending. Overall, I rated the whole book a 3.375 (or 3 ⅜) with the majority being 4 out of 5 stars, which is pretty good. I think my favorite story was “The Man Who Walked Home,” with “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light” coming in a close second. The story I obviously liked the least was “The Peacefulness of Vivyan,” with the only 2 star rating. I understand it’s point, I just didn’t like the way it was done. It had one story that you cannot find in any other collection (“Excursion Fare), but the three best stories (including “With Delicate Mad Hands”) can all be found in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, which is still in print, and you should go buy, cause it’s a great collection. As for Byte Beautiful, it’s better than good, as my rating says, but not a must-have unless you’re a Tiptree fan like me and you want all the books for the sake of having all the books.
“I’ll Be Waiting for You When the Swimming Pool is Empty” copyright © 1971 by James Tiptree, Jr.
Originally published in Ten-Thousand Light Years from Home
Also published in Byte Beautiful
So, it’s been months since I’ve updated this, mostly because I thought no one was reading it, so it didn’t really give me any motivation to continue. (I also read something like ten books in those months, with the majority of those being YA books, which didn’t really put me in the mood for Hard political science fiction.) But I finally got around to reading the last story is Byte Beautiful, which, after “Excursion Fare” is a little baby of a story. I think I finished it in ten minutes. It’s one of those stories that make me wonder more about how the order of the stories was chosen for the book than the actual story itself. This book begins with “With Delicate Mad Hands,” a very long, mostly feminist, close-to-our-time story, whereas this one does not really have any feminist themes (which is rare for Tiptree) and even seems to mock it at one part, and it is set far, far in the future. It’s story about the future and evolution of society, particularly as it is influenced by an outside, advanced force.
Anyway, spoilers (but in a non River Song coy whisper way, in a literal way). The beginning doesn’t spend a lot of time describing the main character, past that he is “a nice Terran boy” (Byte 166). He comes from an “Earth” that is far advanced and has moved past the point of wars and has more of a free-love vibe. Oh yeah, you can tell this was written in the late 60’s/early 70’s. Anyway, every Terran gets to go off on a little trip of his or her own as a rite of passage kind of thing. So this boy decides to go to a very remote area of space, to a planet that is still agrarian, and warlike. He comes down in the middle of a battle and tries to talk the very vicious warlords into ending the war, which they eventually agree to because they are afraid of his advanced weapon, like the shield around his ship that can vaporize any threats it detects. He then tries to move their civilization towards industrialization and show them the fallacy of their current religious beliefs, which involve sacrificing babies and such. And since he has a much longer life-span than this planet, he is around for a couple of their generations to see the massive changes he makes, especially when he starts his own school (started with the offspring of a massive orgy he has with women sent to kill him, but that’s something else entirely). Eventually, he gets called back home and leaves them something so they can communicate with him, and a while later, they contact him and tell him they’ve fixed up the planet so that it’s all nice and not warlike anymore, and what should they do next. He tells them to build space ships and spread the knowledge around to other planets. Years later, they send a message again that they’ve done that and fixed all the planets they could find and what should they do next, but they get no response. It doesn’t say, but the assumption is that the Terran died.
I… don’t really know what to say about this story. I mean, I can sort of see where it’s going, with going in and changing a society to be like your own, in your own image, as it were. Or perhaps, it’s a bit of a reflection on religion, based on the Christian ideology. God creates the people in his image, and then continues to point them in the direction he wants (the Flood story, Moses, Jesus, etc.). And after all this direction, the people have come to rely on it, so when it suddenly disappears, the people don’t know what to do because they were not allowed to develop society on their own. But I’m just throwing out ideas. I’m not entirely sure what her meaning was with this story. Though I would love to know the thought process that went into the title. I’ve puzzled over that a bit, and I can’t come up with a good answer for how it relates to the story, except that maybe the emptiness of a pool, as a symbol of the end of summer, could be equated to the loss of direction, the end of childhood. But it’s a bit of a stretch.
Overall, 3 out of 5 stars. It’s not bad, but it’s not great either, or at least, I can’t really figure out the point to the story, so it doesn’t mean much to me.
“Excursion Fare” copyright © 1981 by James Tiptree, Jr.
Published in Byte Beautiful
I’m used to Tiptree’s stories being on the shorter side. This is one is over thirty pages long, which means I didn’t read it all in one sitting. And since I got distracted by life at several points while reading this story, I don’t have as crisp a memory of how it goes. However, I don’t think the whole build up and plot that happens in the first 20-25 pages is really important to the story. This is another one that builds set-up just to get to the point being made at the end. Which is a reflection on humanity and choices, namely the choice to die free or live caged. I think it’s interesting because it feels very real to me, the way it ends and the way the ultimatum is set up.
As for the plot, it goes something like this: these two young explorer types are trying to play Jules Verne, however their hot air balloon gets caught in a freak storm somewhere in the North Atlantic. Just as they think they’re about to die, a cruise ship picks them up. Turns out this is a hospitality cruise, which is a ship specifically for people who are dying with a 0% recovery chance. There are a few odd things about it, such as where it gets the money to do all this, and the fact that the doctors have no qualms about non-FDA approved treatments (which have actually made some patients last longer), but nothing major. Once the explorers recover a bit, they talk about their adventure, preparing, etc. One night, while fooling around in a hallway, they stumble into a secret room and find aliens. Turns out human doctors aren’t the only ones experimenting with treatments on this boat. These are alien medical students. However, the explorers are caught and told no one can know about the alien interference on this planet. They are told they will dock in one week, and the two of them have until them to determine how they want to die, because they cannot be alive when they reach port. The interesting thing is that it’s not malicious. The head alien offers them the easiest death and when exactly they’d like to die, plus any food they want. All in all, he’s actually very compassionate about it, just unmovable on his decision. This is one of the parts that feels so real to me. I’m so used to the evil villian “Then you will die…” sinister vibe, that is entirely over-dramatic. (You know, “Do you expect me to talk?” “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.”) But this isn’t like that. The head alien is upset they have found the secret, but he understand how it happened, and so bears the explorers no ill will, he just knows they can never leave the ship. As a last ditch effort, they start talking about how the aliens they stumbled upon seemed really interested in them, and maybe they could stay on as healthy test subjects, since all the other humans except the crew are on their death beds. The head alien tells them he will consider and give them an answer in the morning. The last few pages are them contemplating if they would rather die than live caged as test rats, especially because the head alien was most interested in their “fertility.” They talk a lot about how dying would be a “clean goodbye,” however, they finally decide that they would be more disappointing in themselves for “just giving up.” The verdict comes back that they can stay as test subjects, and they are content with that.
I feel they choice is also more realistic to the human condition than other glorified sci-fi/war movies that we see. Humans have a natural instinct to survive at all costs. So only when the situation is very, very dire is death actually preferable, such as after weeks of torture. In this case, what they give up is their freedom, because they can never leave the ship, and their privacy, because their lives will most likely be monitored 24/7 by these alien medical students. While it does sound like it could be bad, it’s still an existence verse none at all. It is only after living like this, if it becomes too unbearable, that they might choose death, but I don’t think they would before they have experience it. So that’s why it feels realistic to me. However, the story ends just after the final decision, so the reader does not know how it turns out for these two, and that is the point. It is not so much about the end result as the choice, and the decision making that goes into that choice.
Overall, I would say 4 out of 5 stars. It’s a bit long, so there are parts that are less interesting, but I feel the overall message and point makes up for the length. I think it’s a bit of a shame this was only ever published in Byte Beautiful. I wonder why. Anyway, it doesn’t seem to be a popular one, but it is good.
“The Peacefulness of Vivyan” copyright © 1971 by James Tiptree, Jr.
First appeared in Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home
Also appears in in Byte Beautiful
This story is… interesting. This is the type of science fiction story that throws a lot of alien terms and technology at you at the beginning, and then you have to play catch-up the rest of the story. The problem with this method in a short story, as opposed to a novel, is that there isn’t really room to play catch-up. Short stories are about being concise, not throwing around extra words, which is a bit what this story does. the good thing is that by the end, you realize the point isn’t to try and play catch-up and know what all the words mean, and how this planet differs from our own, but that it’s just about war and human atrocities. The downside to this, of course, is that the reader puts so much effort into trying to understand the beginning, and then it does not pertain to the point of the story at all.
I’ll stop being vague now. Story spoilers. Basically, the story starts by following this media man who is going to a planet that had recently been at war with Terra (the common name for Earth is sci fi) to interview the head of this “rebellion” or army or whatever you want to call them. However, the reader doesn’t know this at the beginning, or at least, I didn’t. All I understood was that this newsman was blindfolded and lead into underground alcoves of an alien planet. There, while he waits for his interviewee, he meets a man who smiles a lot and shows him a fossil before wandering off. A woman who works for the leader tells the newsman that he is Vivyan, and then the story goes into a close third to Vivyan. We learn he is very good with biology, especially marine biology, and that he can rattle of names of plants and animals, and that he always tries to stay happy and “peaceful.” Get the title yet? Anyway, as a boy, he meets a man whom he only calls “the brown man.” Later, on this new world from the beginning of the story, he meets the man again. Vivyan always talks about needing to speak with his friend at each planet he goes to. As he goes to do this, the natives of the planet (some kind of seals) take him to one of their underground caves and present him to the “brown man,” whose name we learn is Cox. He then tries to make Vivyan remember how he grew up on this mystery third planet that warred against Terra and lost. It turns out Vivyan was a prince of that planet, but had then been brainwashed by the Terrans to forget and then work for them as a spy, although he doesn’t even realize it. He just thinks of it as “telling his friend.” Some fighting happens and Vivyan escapes to talk to his friend again. After the battle is over, they find him and bring him back. Cut back to the present. Cox is the man the newsman is going to interview, and he was also a prince of this third planet, thus Vivyan’s older brother. The woman says they believe Vivyan has some kind of mental retardation, so he could be a spy without knowing what he was doing, and that made him more dangerous because he seems trustworthy. The story closes with them listening as Vivyan talks to a rock and reports all the information they had just been discussing.
So there you have it. The peacefulness of Vivyan is his mental disorder, which made him a great spy, so much so that he doesn’t even realize the people he spied for destroyed his family and his planet. It’s just about war and the awful things people do. And once that it clear, it is hard to accept, because the majority of the story is spent in a close third person around Vivyan, so the reader has come to like him because he seems so peaceful and happy. It is sad to see how he’s been twisted into hurting his own family. His “peacefulness” is a way to forget his past and horrible things he saw when he was five. And it turns out to be a negative thing because that’s how the Terrans control him, thus the irony of the title.
Overall, I give this one 2 out of 5 stars. It is really difficult to follow and only clears up a little bit once you realize the terms and names don’t matter much to the story. However, all the extra fluff is unnecessary, and just adds to the crap in the way of realizing the point. Also, the only Tiptree collection it was published in was Byte Beautiful, so that has to say something.
“Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light” Copyright © 1976 by Alice B. Sheldon
First published in Out of the Everywhere
Also appears in Byte Beautiful and Her Smoke Rose Up Forever
Wow, what a depressing story. I mean, I’m used to these kinds of stories, having just graduated from an all women’s college, but that doesn’t make them any less hard. As you may have guessed, this is a story about a woman who eventually gets attacked. And, of course, because she is a woman, she cannot just be attacked, but must also be raped, which is one major difference between men and women. Men are so rarely attacked in a sexual manor, and yet the majority of assaults on women are sex-driven. It is dangerous for a woman to wander around a bad area at night not just because she may be attacked and killed, but because she may be attacked, raped, and killed. (However, suggesting that women should take out health insurance for that, as if it’s an eventuality and not a possibility, is ridiculous! But I’m not going to go into politics, even if many of Tiptree’s stories are political.) The main point is not the final attack, however, but a larger topic of oppression against women, particularly psychologically and with various hysterical “treatments.”
Story spoilers. Anyway, this story starts with an unnamed woman, who only calls herself “a Sister,” capital “S,” walking along a seemingly abandoned elevated freeway, claiming to be a courier who travels by foot along the deserted roads and highways of an apparently post-apocalyptic world, or at least of a world that has had a major decrease in population and a major change in society. She talks about other Sisters she’s met along the road, and her journey west to deliver mail. In a scene shift, we are suddenly in the present with a woman explaining to a police officer how she picked up a hitch-hiking woman who seemed to be stoned because she was so happy and spoke very strangely of Sisters and Mothers, and seeing light in their faces. This pattern continues with the woman walking through the, in her mind, deserted streets of abandoned Chicago, while the present switches always happen in the future, with people speaking of having seen her, after she passed, and always talking about how strange she acted, calling everyone, even men, Sisters. Eventually, in one of the “present” moments, at a hospital, a psychologist explains how she escaped from the hospital, and lives in a delusional world where everybody is kind to her, making her trusting of everyone, and thus an easier target. Throughout the story, there is also mention of various treatments she has undergone, such as shock therapy, which, in her world, give her headaches and hallucinations. Her parents, after a woman gives them a tip about having seen her on the street that night, later talk about how she started going bad, and was unable to recognize her own baby, making it seem like she had some kind of severe post-postpartum depression, which has made her lose her connection with reality. The final “present” moment is when the same officer is questioning another officer who was on a stake-out in the area and saw the woman pass, followed by four men, but did not do anything to stop them, claiming she was two blocks away when the woman was actually attacked, and that she could not leave her stake-out for one girl being foolish. Of course, this foreshadows the ending from the woman’s point of view of dogs following her. She thinks she can scare them away by saying “Boo!” but they attack anyway, “rearing up weirdly, just like people!” (Byte 111). She still thinks this is an attack of wild dogs when they tear off her clothes around her stomach, thinking dogs rip out peoples’ guts. However, she thinks she sees people coming, and is not afraid because she thinks they will carry her mail the rest of the way to Des Moins when she dies.
Yeah. Depressing, right? And I don’t know if it’s more depressing or not that she doesn’t even realize she is being raped, only feeling “agony [cut] into her crotch and entrails” (112). It is also sad because it seems the system has ruined her with brutal treatment and lack of consideration. The psychologist is not concerned she has escaped, and only tells the police to call her once they’ve checked the morgue. Even her parents are only concerned so far as to blame her husband for her going wrong, and to wonder why she couldn’t handle it when other wonder could. Her “hallucinations” that accompany the headaches seem to be flashes of reality, which she rejects as wrong. She does not want to live in reality because it is there that she was not free. Clearly, this story has awoken anger in me, but not at the story, at the system. If we were living in better times, perhaps I would look at this as only a story with a sad ending, however, the political climate we’re in now (yes, sorry, going to go into politics, can’t help it) is one of a sexist attacks against women. This is not just in terms of the absurd fight against abortion, but also from the lack of funding for Planned Parenthood, eliminating birth control and health exams for thousands of women, and from the political battles around rape laws in various states. One wants to call victims “accusers,” which plays into this “blame the victim” mentality that is disgustingly the norm when it comes to main-stream views of rape. Another wants abortion to not be covered under health insurance in cases of incest or rape, unless a woman takes out a separate policy for those two possibilities. I’m sorry, but you want women to plan to not only be raped, but be raped by a family member? Getting a flat tire is not nearly as traumatic, you asshole, nor would it cost you so much monetarily and mentally. And you have life insurance because you will eventually die. Are you saying women should eventually be raped?
Whew… I’m okay now that that’s off my chest. And no, I am not being some crazy feminist bitch who is looking too deeply into this. These things are attacks against women, and women’s rights. And they all tie back to what I said before. Men are attacked. Women are raped. It is impossible for men to pull the image of “sex” away from women. Therefore, even in politics, they must attack us sexually.
Anyway… As for the story itself, separate from all the emotions it stirred, I thought it was good. Craft-wise, I liked that it was this continuous stream of her walking through the city, broken up by these moments of reality, and that the reality was actually in the future, with people looking back on having talked with her or having seen her that night. It helped keep her delusional world separate from the real one because we never saw her speak with anyone, only think back on having spoken with them. Overall, 4 out of 5 stars. I can’t really tell you why not five, but I think it has to do with the sad ending. Clearly this thirty-five year old story is still relevant, sadly, to what women deal with, being screwed by the system. Too bad it’s not online like some of the others, otherwise I would recommend trying to read it.