In Robert Silverberg’s introduction to James Tiptree, Jr.’s 1975 collection, Warm Worlds and Otherwise, he said, “It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing. I don’t think the novels of Jane Austen could have been written by a man nor the stories of Ernest Hemingway by a woman, and in the same way I believe the author of the James Tiptree stories is male.” A few months later, he and the rest of the science fiction world found out that Tiptree’s award-winning stories were written by Alice Sheldon, a 60-year-old government bureaucrat with a history in experimental psychology and art.
Tiptree’s stories in this omnibus collection, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, revolve (no, revolve is too gentle a word, they veer) around sex and death. Every story screams around these two axes: sex, sometimes as a biological imperative, as profound connection, as a radically different way of thinking about a species, or as the absorption of one being by another; and death, sometimes as the end of all hope, the end of a species, the end of a person’s life, the end of a way of thinking, the merciful and happy end of pain, or the beginning of a new entity who brings only death to others.
That her stories revisit these themes over and over does not make them repetitive. Tiptree has stories based in our world in the present (the sharply frightening “The Screwfly Solution,” “The Women Men Don’t See”) and in the near future (“The Last Flight of Dr. Ain,” “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”) as well as worlds that would be unimaginable if Tiptree hadn’t written them (“We Who Stole the Dream,” “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death,” “With Delicate Mad Hands”). The voice shifts from dreamy fable to sharp satire to matter-of-fact tale-telling. Some of the stories are hard science fiction; others have virtually no “science” in them at all.
Some of the stories in this collection are novella-length, and some are much shorter. I will say that my own favorites tended to be from her shorter, earlier work. While I really liked “With Delicate Mad Hands” for its detail about the planet C.P. lands on, the other long works felt as if they were just at the edge of veering out of the author’s control. Dense, driven, and not quite enough in them to justify their length, they smacked a little of burnout. But there were many stories here that were spot-on. “The Screwfly Solution” is a frightening examination of what might happen if the gender aggression/ sexuality balance were disturbed by an outside force. “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!” swings back and forth between two perspectives until it’s difficult to tell which is real and which is mad, and the reader winds up questioning her own sanity. And “The Women Men Don’t See” offers two different definitions of the term alien, from the male narrator’s perspective: is it the quiet, competent women, or the extraterrestrials who take them somewhere they can thrive?
This brings me back to Robert Silverberg. How do we know what is a male voice and what is a female voice? What would we do if we found out Ernest Hemingway’s work was written by a woman? Language, of course, is something learned, appropriated. Alice Sheldon wrote about crucial gender issues, often subversively, in a language that many people saw as masculine. She stepped inside a male-dominated field, like pulling on a jacket, and made it her own, but without needing to appropriate at the same time the old tropes: dominant men and subjugated women, with no consequences. (Sometimes the old tropes show their faces, but by God there are consequences.) Tiptree’s women are full subjects, even when the narrator is male. They are capable of anything: clinginess, murder, pity, poetry, engineering, finding a milch cow in a post-apocalyptic landscape. It is perhaps this full humanity that sets her work apart, not from men’s work, but from most work.