Out of Everywhere

A James Tiptree Jr. Critique

“Help” Review

“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?)

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August 26, 2012 Posted by | Books, Death, Near Future, Religion, Review, Soft Science Fiction, Ten Thousand Light-Years From Home, War | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“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.

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

“And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” Review

“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.

February 20, 2012 Posted by | Books, Hard Science Fiction, Her Smoke Rose Up forever, Review, Society, Ten Thousand Light-Years From Home | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Excursion Fare” Review

“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.

August 28, 2011 Posted by | Books, Byte Beautiful, Death, Review, Soft Science Fiction | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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