Out of Everywhere

A James Tiptree Jr. Critique

“Mamma Come Home” Review

“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.

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July 9, 2012 Posted by | Books, Feminism, Near Future, Review, Society, Soft Science Fiction, Ten Thousand Light-Years From Home | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Snows are Melted, the Snows are Gone” Review

“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.

April 14, 2012 Posted by | Books, Death, Feminism, Review, Soft Science Fiction, Ten Thousand Light-Years From Home | , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!” Review

“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.

June 9, 2011 Posted by | Books, Byte Beautiful, Death, Feminism, Her Smoke Rose Up forever, Out of the Everywhere, Review, Soft Science Fiction | , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“The Women Men Don’t See” Review

“The Women Men Don’t See” (Copyright © 1973 by Mercury Press, Inc., for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, December, 1973)

First Published in Warm Worlds and Otherwise – (cover art is from this story)

Also appears in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

This is the other story we read for my Science Fiction Literature class. And like “With Delicate Mad Hands,” I had already read this story in HSRUF. Also like with With Delicate Mad Hands,” I was disappointed when I saw we’d be reading this story because I remembered not liking it the first time I read it. However, I did not reread this story and suddenly like it. I still didn’t like it. After having a class discussion about it, I can appreciate what the story is doing, but I still don’t like it. My main problem with it is that it is a story told by a male character who is societally sexist, who encounters female characters he doesn’t like. This makes this a story about characters who are unlikable to the narrator, told by an unlikable character. There are no likable characters. And I have a problem with this. It is exactly the reason I don’t like Wuthering Heights. How can I sympathize with characters who I despise? While I don’t hate these two nearly as much as I hate Catherine and Heathcliff, it still has the same problem.

Spoilers up ahead. You have been warned. The story starts with the narrator pointing out his “manliness” by talking about “serious fishing” and how he is not like the normal American tourists. It is supposed to be satiric and obnoxious. This is one of Tiptree’s stories that takes place in “modern” times (i.e. the seventies). It is set in Mexico, because I think Tiptree went there once, or lived there. Many of her “modern times” stories at least partially take place in Mexico or around it. The Tales of the Quintana Roo is all about stories that take place in Quintana Roo, which is a state of Mexico, on the Eastern part of the Yucatan peninsula. This one even mentions Quintana Roo, as the characters pass over it in a small, private plane. The Man (he has a name, but it doesn’t matter to the story) is trying to get to his fishing and two women (a mother and a college-age daughter) are trying to get to Chetumal. They get caught in a storm in a small plane, but the pilot manages to land them on a sandbar along a coast of jungle. The mother and the Man head to the coast in a attempt to find fresh water and get stuck over night. All is fine and normal until the Science Fiction comes blasting in. That night, some aliens come to investigate their camp, and the next morning the woman barters with them to take them back to the sandbar and then take her and her daughter with them off Earth while the Man freaks out.

The details aren’t really important, because it is not the story that is important. Here, the symbols are very important. Again, the male character is the symbol of society. He is not overwhelmingly sexist, as the captain in “With Delicate Mad Hands” is, but he is still a product of his society. He feels women should feel helpless or threatened by a man. He wants to be the valiant protector. He wants to be desirable to the women because he is A Man. So when the women a) do not go into hysterics when they crash, b) show no interest in him, and c) end up helping him because he breaks his leg freaking out about the aliens, his world sort of gets turned around. Also, there is a subplot about the fact that the mother isn’t married, and comes from a long line of women who would go on vacation, find a hot guy, sleep with him, get pregnant, and go back with a baby. (Her daughter’s biological father is Swedish. She leaves her daughter alone with the pilot so that she can get pregnant and continue the tradition.) This completely blows the Man’s mind. He can’t comprehend women not needing men — the women men don’t see. In the end, the women are bored with Earth, and its never-changing social sexism, so they go off with the aliens. Here are characters who feel “alienated” and connect with the “aliens” more so than with humans. In this way, the “alienated” character becomes the “alien” character. The Man cannot comprehend the women to the extent that they become alien to him, even as much as the real, satellite dish-headed aliens are (check out the cover of WWaO — the cover art is from this story).

Overall, this story gets a 2 out of 5 from me. I appreciate what it is trying to do with the alienation=alien concept, but it still has the problem of dually unlikable characters, which is something I personally don’t enjoy. I need to find a 5 star story to do next, otherwise you all will think Tiptree writes crap. I promise you, there is a reason she is my favorite author.

P.S. You can read this story online! Just click here.

February 16, 2011 Posted by | Books, Feminism, Her Smoke Rose Up forever, Review, Soft Science Fiction, Warm Worlds and Otherwise | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“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.

February 13, 2011 Posted by | Books, Byte Beautiful, Feminism, Her Smoke Rose Up forever, Out of the Everywhere, Review, Soft Science Fiction | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

   

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