Out of Everywhere

A James Tiptree Jr. Critique

“Painwise” Review

“Painwise” © 1971 James Tiptree, Jr.

Appeared in Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home
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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.

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March 10, 2013 Posted by | Books, Death, Hard Science Fiction, Review, Ten Thousand Light-Years From Home | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“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?)

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

One down…

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.

February 17, 2012 Posted by | Collecting, Personal | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” Review

“Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” Copyright © 1973 by James Tiptree, Jr.

First published in Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Also appears in Byte Beautiful and Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

Available online here.

This story is an odd one. First, let me state that I really like the title, though I do find it interesting that there is no comma in the middle. However, in Byte Beautiful, the book I just read it in, the title is separated onto two lines, suggesting the pause in the middle. It is something I have always thought interesting, but I don’t have a “so what?” about it. It is just curious. As for the actual story, as I said, it’s an odd one. It is so far from human, that it is almost difficult to read. The story is about alien creatures and “the Plan,” which is their mating ritual, or natural instincts. There is never a mention of humans or any kind of space travel. This is not a science fiction story in the way we are used to viewing them, but could almost be a “fantasy” story in the way it is written. In fact, I would say this one is more in the “speculative fiction” category, which I know many people say is the less geeky term for “science fiction,” but I feel has a different connotation. However, I believe it is as most alien stories are, in that the point is to show something “alien” in order to reflect on what is human.

Spoilers. So this story is narrated in first person, but to a second person “you.” However, the “I” and “you” do have conversations. The whole story is about a mating ritual, “The Plan.” Throughout the story, the narrator, Moggadeet, tries to defy the Plan. He assumes giving in to the Plan means giving in to natural, animalistic urges. There is also a fear of the cold, because it takes away conscious thought, and makes the creatures into vicious brutes. This story is strong with the theme of the fear of atavism, which is the fear of regression, of being more primitive. On this world, the main sentient creatures come in three varieties: The Mother gold, the Male black, and the Female red. A lovely description in the story is, “Gold is the color of Mother-care but black is the color of rage. Attack the black! Black is to kill! Even a Mother, ever her own baby, she cannot defy the Plan. …Red is the color of love” (Byte 75). The babies start out with gold fur, and then shed it to either black or red fur as they get older. The Mother chases away the red ones, but she tries to kill the black ones. Black ones compete to kill each other over red ones. Moggadeet finds a pinkish Red and kills another Black for her. He knows cold makes him senseless, so he takes “his” Red and retreats further to the warmth as winter comes on. There is a strange ritual where he makes silk and binds her, as a spider would, and everyday he unbinds a limb at a time to clean her before rebinding her. She starts as small as him, but once she is the same size, and a scarlet red, he fully unbinds her because he cannot help it, and they go through their mating ritual. The two use affectionate terms with each other with every sentence. Moggadeet says things like “my redling” or “my fat little blushbud” (77). This is part of their “defiance” of the Plan. She tries to defy it more than he does because she asks to be rebound after mating, and he refuses because he wants to look at her. He feels the Plan is to bind her, and since she is larger than him by this point, she attacks and eats him, which is actually the Plan.

The “plot” is hard to describe because the biggest push in the story is the narrative voice, which is such a self-assured first person. As with “With Delicate Mad Hands,” Tiptree does a very good job capturing a voice that is completely unhuman. However, it does make it hard to relate to or understand the characters a bit. The point is something about mating rituals, or fighting instincts. The whole story, what Moggadeet thought of as fighting the Plan was actually exactly the Plan, itself. So, by the end, even though the narrator is quite happy to be eaten and feeding the soon-to-be Mother and her young, there is a sense of futility. There is no circumventing the Plan. And this is the title. The Plan starts as love, but then it becomes death. To have one, you must have the other. There is no escaping it.

Overall, I’ll go with 3 out of 5 stars for this one. It is a good read for the narrative voice, but is just a bit too foreign to comprehend fully upon the first read.

February 26, 2011 Posted by | Books, Byte Beautiful, Death, Hard Science Fiction, Her Smoke Rose Up forever, Review, Warm Worlds and Otherwise | , , , , , , , , | 4 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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