Out of Everywhere

A James Tiptree Jr. Critique

“With Delicate Mad Hands” Review

My first story review! Exciting! Why this one? It’s one of the ones we read for my Sci Fi Literature class. Onward…

“With Delicate Mad Hands” (Copyright © 1981 by James Tiptree, Jr.)

First published in: Out of the Everywhere

Out of the Everywhere cover

Also appears in: Byte Beautiful and Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

So I had read this story before, way back when I read HSRUF at the end of high school. I vaguely remember my first impression of this story was dislike, but I didn’t remember anything else of my reaction. When I learned that of all the stories Tiptree wrote, one of the two we would read for this class was “With Delicate Mad Hands,” I was a bit disappointed. However, I went to look at my online pdf through my school’s library website, just to see how many pages it would be to print and found myself reading over the first few sentences. That turned into reading the first few pages, and finally that turned into reading the whole story, all 53 pages of it. As far as short stories go, this is a pretty long one. It floats somewhere in that uncertain territory between a long short story and a short novella. I would say the main downside to this story lies in its length. There are a few pages of exposition, followed by about five pages of an intense action sequence, including a fight to the death, reminiscent of a slasher movie in which the monster keeps coming back to life. The next ten pages involve drifting through space and following a voice. The final resolution takes up the last third of the story, with the really important stuff in only the last few pages. It is a very slow ending, and takes a very long time to get there. In my opinion, it almost has the feel of a backwards plot development. Quick rising action, a fight and climax, slow, long falling action, and a gentle resolution. The story would be very good if it didn’t take so long to get to its point.

Putting aside the length, because I did read it all in one sitting, regardless, let’s look at the actual story. I am going to go in-depth to the plot, so if you don’t want it spoiled, don’t read the rest. It begins with quite a powerful attention grabber: “Carol Page, or CP as she was usually known, was an expert at being unloved” (Byte Beautiful, 1). Her features are described as “…entirely spoiled and dominated by a huge, fleshy, obscenely pugged nose.” This becomes a theme in the story, especially as CP comes to stand for “Cold Pig” due to her nose and her attitude. By the third page, the sexism of the society, which is a very prominent motif in Tiptree’s writing, appears. A manager in charge of assigning space crew to missions says about women, “And to these tinderboxes you want to add an even reasonably attractive woman, sonny? We know the men do better with a female along, not only for physiological needs but for a low-status, noncompetitive servant and rudimentary mother figure. What we do not need is a female who could incite competition or any hint of tension for her services. …on board a long flight, what we need sexually is a human waste can” (3). What this rather two-dimensional, symbolic character tells us is that in this “futuristic” society, women are used primarily for a) housekeeping, and b) sex. While they can travel in space with the men, they can only do so if they clean up after the men and open their legs to them. This is very important to set up so early, because it appears in a more physical form when the Captain of a small research mission around Uranus rapes CP, and then tells her to make him a sandwich after. Of course, she gets her revenge by poisoning his food and dumping all the air out of the ship so he will suffocate.  While this is not only murder, but mutiny, it is justifiable because of the violence inflicted on her, and because what she kills is not just the captain, but the sexist system he represents. In this view, it is not so much mutiny, but rebellion, which is a much more sympathetic cause.

Wasn’t that exciting? Full of sexism and rebelling against the oppressing society. It could be a complete story on its own, and it is only a third of the story. The next third is spent stealing the ship (after dumping the captain’s body) and drifting out of the solar system towards the unknown. This is the part of the story which becomes tedious. Since, technically, nothing does happen, it moves very slowly. The pace picks up again when CP catches a telepathic link and follows it to a planet without a sun to orbit. It provides its own light and heat from massive amounts of radiation that literally make the planet glow. After a rough crash scene, CP meets some of the natives and discovers they speak primarily telepathically and come in many shapes, sizes, and colors. One last alien (or would she be the alien since she is on their planet? –Aulnian, then) comes and turns out to be the telepathic voice that she heard her whole life and who guided her to this planet. They have a brief Romeo and Juliet romance as they are two incompatible species and she cannot leave the spacecraft due to the radiation. Eventually her air runs out she goes to spend her last few days with Cavaná, her alien lover, and slowly dies from radiation poisoning.

The really interesting part is the last four pages, when the narrative switches from a close third on CP, and moves to a slightly more distant third of several other people on the planet. The view is entirely un-human, and Tiptree does a good job of conveying the sense that the narration is actually written by a native of this planet. This is also when we see the “ideal.” On this planet, people can choose their genders, showing the absolute equality between them. CP rebels against, and partially defeats the sexist society she comes from, and escapes to an ideal society for the battered woman. However, it is a society that is so foreign to humans that it is radioactive and kills her.

Overall, I give it 3 out of 5 stars. It is a good story, though very dark, and worth reading through at least once. The main problem I had with it was the length and the fact that the most exciting action happens at the beginning.

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February 13, 2011 - Posted by | Books, Byte Beautiful, Feminism, Her Smoke Rose Up forever, Out of the Everywhere, Review, Soft Science Fiction | , , , , , , , ,

3 Comments »

  1. […] fact, I found this story very similar to “With Delicate Mad Hands.” It seems like the male version of that story, except it is all about the efforts to get […]

    Pingback by “Beam Us Home” Review « Out of Everywhere | February 19, 2011 | Reply

  2. I think this story was first published in Out of the Everywhere, not Byte Beautiful as you indicate. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Out_of_the_Everywhere_and_Other_Extraordinary_Visions)

    Comment by carl | July 8, 2013 | Reply

    • I even had in my notes that this story is in Out of the Everywhere, but I must have missed it. Thank you. I updated it.

      Comment by Samantha Kornblum | July 9, 2013 | Reply


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