Thursday, February 24, 2011

What is it to Write as a Man?

James Tiptree Jr. aka Alice Sheldon is able to explore topics of female inequality through her adoption of the male pseudonym. Julie Philips refers to this adoption of a male pseudonym as raising "questions [to] all our assumptions about writing and gender" (Philips 6). Tiptree was thought of as an oddly pro-feminist writer. The mystique surrounding Tiptree was rather large, Sheldon claimed, "My secret world had been invaded and the attractive figure of Tiptree-- he did strike several people as attractive-- was revealed as nothing but an old lady in Virginia" (Philips 3). That this constructed pro-feminist male writer could be considered

Sheldon's work often deals with the gender binary, especially in the story of The Screwfly Solution.  Sheldon switched from the penname of Tiptree to Racoona Sheldon for this story, a woman who was believed to be a student of Tiptree. The story explores the concept of a global catastrophe stemming from a mixing of the pleasure gained from "agression/predation and sexual reproduction in the male... shown by (a) many of the same neuromuscular pathways which are utilized both in predatory and sexual pursuit, grasping, mounting, etc., and (b) similar states of adrenergic arousal which are activated in both" (Tiptree 25). Through the letters and correspondence between Ann and Alan we are able to see the degeneration of a loving husband and father as his psyche switches from love and desire to feelings of violence and a lust for blood.

The impact of the title, and of Alan's position as scientist studying how to remove parasites, comes to a head with the conclusion of the short story and the reveal of the "angels." Starving and feverish, Ann encounters one of the fabled angels that motivated the mad ravings of the Sons of Adam Cult. This angel takes samples of the earth, and utilizes a system they used to eradicate the screwfly population: "Pinpoint the weak link, wait a bit while we do it for them" (Tiptree 31). The angel clears the earth of the parasite, in this case man, for reasons unexplained. Ann speculates that they have taken on the role of "a real estate agent," but it is never explained whether the angel is either magical or alien. Based on the evidence in the short story we can determine that the aliens are clearing the world of humanity, yet for what end we cannot tell.

The use of angels, God and the cult's name referring to Adam all hint towards the aliens reverting the Earth back to a prelapserian sort of world and the inevitability of man's destruction. A world before the fall and the spread of humanity throughout its border. Something resulting from the change the aliens brought about drives Alan, a former loving father, to murder his daughter. This inevitable movement towards sin, as if it is within man's nature to destroy himself, serves as a forceful embodiment of the gender divide and the essential nature of women in society in order to temper these destructive impulses.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Conceal and reveal

Given the remarkable truth of James Tiptree, Jr.’s identity, I was naturally more inclined towards biographical readings of her work than usual. A good number of the stories, I found, rewarded such an approach on multiple levels, from the conceit to the narrative or prose style. Both “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” and “The Women Men Don’t See,” for example, have as their subjects female figures who are in some way seeking an exit from the constraints of their identity and social standing. Although the latter story concludes immediately after the revelation of this dilemma, it’s also relatively clear in both that this urge for gender transcendence can obtain fulfillment only in a tragic or destructive manner, with the brutal death of P. Burke in the former and the horror of “a woman [who] choose[s] to live among unknown monsters” in the latter—though we can hardly trust a narrator who refers to a woman as a “classic penetration target” (143, 133).

Of course, this longing is part of Alice B. Sheldon’s story—James Tiptree, Jr.’s is instead a story of incredible, nearly lifelong concealment. What I found especially interesting about these two stories is the way in which concealment and disclosure also feature prominently, seemingly as necessary correlatives to a successful transcendence of gender. The issue is less fundamental to “The Women Men Never See,” although it quietly pervades its conversations, which always appear hamstrung by the male gaze, to the point that deft concealment seems the only defensive tactic available to a woman. These are offered as imperatives or direct statements of fact, as if with them Tiptree addresses Sheldon: “Answer a question with a question.” “Competent, agreeable, impersonal.” (120, 128) And it dominates “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”: P. Burke can only “pass” as Delphi while her body is concealed deep within the GTX compound, “five thousand miles away . . . [as] the monster down in a dungeon smelling of electrode paste” (66). Worse yet, the ending’s tragedy follows logically from Paul’s naïve impulse to liberate the woman behind the woman. In so doing he disregards not only the technological and physiological limitations on their relationship—insofar as P. Burke appears to have atrophied to the point of being unable to survive outside of her chamber—but also, arguably, its social conditions. P. Burke’s death allows Tiptree to avoid answering what must, for her, have been the hardest question: whether one of the “gods” could ever have loved or respected a mere woman. Everything in—and behind—the story at this point indicates otherwise.

The Shifting Ideal

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Rhiannon brings up an interesting point that I also came across when reading: are Tiptree’s stories describing utopias or dystopias? There doesn’t seem to be just one answer for every character in each story- things shift and change and sometimes end up in the middle between the horrifying and the ideal. Gender seems to be the first way to answer to this question of utopia/dystopia, especially in “The Women Men Don’t See”, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” and “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”. The men and the women each see the world in a different way, and their view of the world can change throughout these short stories.

The last pages of “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” shows the last breathes of both P. Burke and Delphia as they both express love for Paul before their deaths and how themes can shift. Paul’s view of the world quickly switches from blissful infatuation with Dee, to anger that she is being controlled, to further horror that Dee is a shell and P. Burke is the personality he has been interacting with. P. Burke’s ideal life also shifts very quickly from her ideal world driving Delphia’s body to death, which might be taking P. Burke to an even greater utopia. Thus, Paul and P. Burke’s ideas of the ideal are not constant throughout the story.

Mrs. Parson’s acknowledges that the world we live in, I would say both in the 60s when Sheldon wrote these stories and even today in the 21st century, is a man’s world. Women might feel more or less alienated by their positions under men, but what seems most startling about Parsons story is the belief that women today might feel they have better odds living with aliens than living in a world they know, yet are unsatisfied with.

P. Burke complicates the simple idea that the Parsons have, that women don’t want to live in a world run by men. Burke finds exactly what she wants, as she is allowed to take form in a new, perfect body by becoming property of a series of men (from Joe to the corporate heads). Thus, a world run by men does not necessarily make it a world that women don’t want to live in.

These three stories can be divided into stories about the present and stories about the future. The fictional future that is portrayed in “The Girl Who was Plugged In” is shockingly possible, but not true in the present day. The same can be said of the men up in space. What draws the line of something that “could” happen falls into different categories: what could have happened in the past, what could happen in the future and what could happen in the present. Both the future stories of astronauts and P. Burke are possible, but not in our current reality as we know it. For me, this lessens their shock value, or the paranoia they can stir in a reader. The Parsons ask the reader to think about a choice that might have to be made at any second- as soon as an alien offers to take you into space, which could technically happed at any time. All Tiptree’s stories, and all texts we read in this course, ask us to rethink our present society and how the past has lead to the present and how the present will lead to different possible futures. However, the Parson’s force the reader to analyze our current society in a different way more pressing way, offering up a complex situation in the present day.

Shut up, Narrator

One aspect that struck me as particularly strange about “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” was the narrator, particularly in the first act of the story. It is a very colloquial narration, which isn’t too odd in and of itself, we have seen that in many novels, but more than that it is that the narrator seems to assume he knows more about us, the readers, than he has any right to. He makes constant commentary on what we are “looking at” or “see,” or even refers to actions we seem to have done, but certainly do not recall.
The first thing it made me think of was a film, as the narration is so clearly focused on providing a replication of a visual experience. “I'll give you just one goodie. Maybe you noticed on the sportshow or the streets? No commercials. No ads…That's right. NO ADS. An eyeballer for you,” (2) says the narration. The way the narrator assumes he knows what you have “seen” can support either two interpretations: that he is assuming a film-like experience, where you are being shown what he wants, or that you are standing right there with him. The first causes problems because he seems to make reference to what the reader has “looked at,” implying that he can see us as well, rather than just show us, while the second cannot be possible because he is a seemingly invisible narrator. However, as this is a short story that exists only in print, neither of these interpretations are possible at all. I can’t help but wonder what purpose this confusing of the medium of “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” achieves.
Then again, the capitalized buzzwords and melodramatic gesturing also echo vintage copywriting. The whiz-bang, snake-oily style of “But you're curious about the city? So ordinary after all, in the FUTURE?” (2) or “Look around. Not a billboard, sign, slogan, jingle, skywrite, blurb, sublimflash, in this whole fun world,” seems like it is called by a carnival barker. This draws an obvious connection to the themes of the story and seems to me to be the most compelling rationale for an interpretation of the narrative style.
However, because of this I find the narration to be, in a word, annoying. To me the narrative style is gimmicky. Moreover, the confusion of media that I mentioned seems only to take me out of the story. Once the narrator sends us on our way (“But it's time to go back down, far below to our girl. Look!” [3]) and departs for a moment, we get into the gory details of Burke/Delphi’s transformation and Tiptree reveals herself to be a capable science fiction author. Once the narrator returns, however, I just have to fight the urge to find him and kick him. To me, one of the strengths of Science Fiction is its ability to immerse the reader, and in this case, the narrator’s gimmicky, somewhat smug narration constantly yanked me out of the story, and disturbed me more than any of the actual themes of the story ever could.

Reading as Remote

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Perhaps because I just read the story last week, I drew many connections between E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Sandman” and Tiptree’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.” “The Sandman” tells the story of a man who falls in love with an automaton, grapples with a variety of father/creator figures, and destroys the doll and himself in the process. From a superficial level at least, these basic plot points correspond well with components of “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.” Delphi is repeatedly referred to as a doll, and she certainly shares many qualities with one – a lack of agency and real life – but I’m also interested in drawing out the connection a little further to gain a different perspective on Tiptree’s work.


In the Gothic literature class (COM 372/ENG 303) in which we read “The Sandman,” we focused on “The Uncanny,” which Freud describes (using “The Sandman” as one of his primary examples) as the experience of something that is simultaneously familiar but foreign, which leads to discomfort. Freud focuses on the Uncanny in relation to “the idea of being robbed of one’s eyes,” which is represented in “The Sandman” by repeated eye loss imagery stemming from the male protagonist’s traumatic (and possibly imagined) experience of a father’s friend attempting to blind him. Reading back through “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” I found a lot of imagery of the eye or obstructed vision, going back to the beginning of P. Burke’s story. Her initial description includes the note that when she smiles, her jaw “almost bites her left eye out” (44), and the characters conclude that Delphi has died by observing her eyes (77). Ayse hinted at the fact that Delphi doesn’t speak with her own voice. Once she commits to living remotely through Delphi, P. Burke cannot see the world through her own eyes, either.


While “The Sandman” focuses on the perspective of the man who falls in love with a an automaton, “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” instead provides the perspectives of the “doll” herself and shows the limitations on those perspectives, also reflecting the reader’s narrowed view. We experience the world of the story by proxy as well. I think this idea of a shifted, obstructed point of view moving from the male world to female one can also bring out some themes within the work. I don’t agree with all of Freud’s explanations, but it’s interesting to note that he connected the fear of losing ones eyes to a fear of castration. This idea is complicated when the character losing the power of sight is a woman.


I was particularly interested in moments in which the language suggested a duality of perspectives. For example, when P. Burke emerges from the transformation process that allows for her connection to Delphi, the narrator explains, “And here is our girl, looking – If possible, worse than before” (47). That pause in the middle of the sentence allows readers to imagine P. Burke as someone who looks and is looked at. She has a perspective as well, one that changes when she becomes fully engaged in her Remote.


This ability to look through someone else’s eyes comes at a cost – P. Burke must end her own life in most senses of the word. Though this story deals with it very directly, I noticed the theme of seeing beyond the limitations of one’s own life throughout the works we read this week. From a pessimistic perspective, many of the stories deal with the inevitability of death from the beginning. As Seth mentioned, “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” is certainly a foreboding title. Even before the opening sentence of that story, a sense of ending pervades. “The Girl Who was Plugged In” is also narrated by someone speaking to people who are already presumably dead, telling tales of a future they won’t quite live to see. I think the use of the term “zombies” is particularly apt here. Through the act of narration, and the taking on of a different perspective, the readers become, in a sense, undead. It ties into last week’s discussion of reading as a form of time travel that can take us further than expected. Reading becomes a means of creating a Remote – gaining access to a world we otherwise wouldn’t see.

The Psychology of Sheldon

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I think that The Psychologist Who Empathized with Rats: James Tiptree, Jr. as Alice B. Sheldon is an interesting place to start this week. This article does a great job laying out the timelines and various paths her life took: she started her education at Berkeley in the fall of 1935. There she took an important basic level psychology class by Edward Chace Tolman--the experience would become important to her work as a psychologist and as a Science Fiction writer. Next, she suddenly dropped out and pursued work at the CIA. 20 years later, she decided that the work she was doing was ethically troubling and wanted to return to her education so that she could pursue psychology. Specifically, she " Wanted to, "understand everything that could be known about visual perception and value, and to devise some experimental benchmarks in the murk."" (3) So, at 43 she finished her undergraduate work at American University and began the PHD program at GW. Then, after some significant successes in the field, she became disappointed and moved on to writing Science Fiction.
What I have described above was the basic trajectory of her life, but the article goes into a great deal more depth on her motivations--looking to her life to try and find explanations for the choppy nature of this indisputably brilliant woman's life.
One section that I found to be particularly compelling was the discussion of
her formative years and how that shaped her entire life. She was such a young girl, paraded around by her mother in foreign lands--put on display, and the article, I think, correctly identifies this as a major force in her life. It was a force that caused her to pull back into a basement laboratory, hide behind a persona with her writing. Further the discussion of the oppression of women and other minorities all over the world undoubtedly contributed to the construction of her own identity and contributed thematically to the Science Fiction she wrote.
Another part of this essay that fascinated me was the relatively brief discussion of Nuclear Script: " a nuclear script is a recurrent emotional and behavioral pattern in which an individual is strongly drawn to a situation that promises great joy, high emotional rewards. The individual invests much hope and effort in the situation; when it falls apart, he or she struggles to recreate its joys but fails, leaving things even worse than before." It goes on to say that an expectation of failure whenever anything good happens can be a result of this. I think it is remarkable how high functioning she was, even while enacting this nuclear script over and over again. She got into Berkeley, she worked in the CIA, she had some tangible success in psychology, and she was an iconic Science Fiction writer. In class I think it would be very interesting to look at this idea of a nuclear script she was enacting and applying it to her fiction, but also where she was in the nuclear script cycle in her own life while writing each story. In other words...was she in the enthusiastic phase of her writing career or the demoralized end of her career in psychological research?
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Like Jasmine, Michael and Kai, I came away from reading Tiptree's fiction feeling depressed and terrified by her visions of the world. However, when reading Houston, Houston, Do You Read?, I found myself more afraid of the present and the past than I was of the future.

In his Introduction, Michael Swanwick comments that this short story is a twist on "a familiar thought-experiment," which went on to demonstrate the "wrongness" of a world without any men. With his comment that "Humanity, despite all final solutions, remains what it has always been" (xi), Swanwick seems to suggest that humanity has a natural inclination to repress and dismiss the "other," that whether man or woman is dominant, they will always consider the other sex as "irrelevant" (216).

However, as I read this story, I had to wonder whether the world Tiptree presented was a utopia or a dystopia, or something in between. Each man on the ship seems to have a different interpretation, as Bud thinks of a utopian world with himself as the only man, where all the women will "worship" his penis (209), and Dave, considering the women "lost children," decides that he also shall "rule over them" to bring them into God's dominion (212). Yet how do the women feel about their own world? Aggression is gone. Wars are gone. There are no struggles for power, and everyone seems connected and content. The only problem with this world, in fact, is that progress is not as fast as the time-travelling men would prefer (although they seem to dismiss the progress that has been made, including great leaps in bio-engineering and space travel, based only upon their biases that "women are not capable of running anything" (212).) Indeed, from our limited glance at the world, there don't seem to be any problems, except the ones created by bringing men forward in time to disrupt this peace.

I therefore think Tiptree's conclusion is even more complex and uncertain than Swanwick suggested. Both Bud and Dave eventually explode in fits of their own superiority, and attempt to dominate over the women, despite their status as outsiders and guests, because they feel themselves naturally superior. Without men, "nothing counts" (211), and so to make things count, they both attempt to commit acts of either sexual or physical violence against the women to bring them in line. Even Dr. Lorimer, the more sympathetic character, explodes in a fit of lost privelege, as he shouts, "I'm angry. I have a right. We gave you all this, we made it all" (215), assuming that his legacy of oppression was a gift. Furthermore, when he bursts out that men built "your dreams," he suggests that even the women's thoughts and goals could only have been created by men. Men "gave" all this to women, not because women were oppressed and forbidden from contributing, but because they would have (in his opinion) been unable to create it themselves, unable to conceive of anything without the other sex. Now the women are literally conceiving by themselves, and conceiving of advancement, of a new structure for society, the men find themselves unable to cope with the hint of irrelevancy that was felt by women for centuries. "They mustn't do that to Dave, treating him like an animal, for Christ's sake, a man - ", Lorimer says, suggesting that Dave deserves better treatment, not because he is a person, but because he is male. He makes no such protests while Bud is abusing Judy.

The short story therefore seems to present the bleak outlook that only one sex can exist without oppression developing. Tiptree cannot conceive of a world where men and women are equal, because men, it seems, will naturally attempt to dominate if found in world where women display any kind of power. If any man finds himself in this utopian world for women, he will have to be removed, or else he will bring back violence, pain and oppression. Similarly, however, women also cannot be trusted not to be oppressors if given a position of power. When Lady Blue confirms that there is no point "taking the risk of giving [men] equal rights," because "what could [they] possibly contribute?" (216), Tiptree presents a role reversal that suggests that humanity has a natural inclination to belittle and dismiss. One sex, no matter which, will always consider the other inferior. There is no "utopia" for one sex, without a dystopia, if not an utter lack of existance, for the other.

Titles, Names, and Gender in "The Women Men Don’t See”


Tags: Titles, names, blindness, projection of preconceptions, gender

Seth points out that one of the highlights of “The Women Men Don’t See” is that the reader is inclines to think that the great mystery of the story must have something to do with the Parsons. Of course, some of this inclination comes from Tiptree’s clever manipulation of the title. One of the conventions of the science fiction genre is to refer to the main element of novelty in their story (the “part that’s sci-fi”) in the title itself – “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”, for example. The title “The Women Men Don’t See” is an example of Tiptree’s clever manipulation of convention that ultimately reflects the structure of the entire storyand causes us to project our preconceptions about science fiction onto the story in the same way that Don Fenton projects his preconceptions about women onto Ruth and Althea.
            After all, we as readers never truly see Ruth Parsons and Althea Parsons – the great irony of this story is that it is told from the point of view of a man, whose narrative is made unreliable by virtue of the title alone, as emphasized by the first line of the story - “I see her first” (115). We soon discover that in this act of “seeing” Don does not “see” very well at all – only a “double female blur” (115) – thus the very first act of seeing in the story is rendered myopic at best.
Don continues this myopia later on, up until the end of the story with the example Arlyn points out – Don’s total obliviousness and blindness to the fact that the world Ruth is leaving is in not her own, which is why she’s leaving it – but also earlier, with his insistence in using the title “Mrs” with Ruth even after he has found out her true marital status (132). The title of “Mrs” is one which he himself projected on her after learning her surname was Parsons – and even learning the truth about Ruth does not allow him to get rid of his former preconceptions of her, which are formed almost the moment he first sees Ruth and Althea for the second time – “It’s the woman and her young companion – daughter?- picking….” He describes the two women. Less than three sentences later, when he mentions Ruth again, she is referred to simply as “the mother” – in such a way, his initial speculation immediately becomes fact in his own mind, without any confirmation by the women themselves (not yet anyway) – this is the beginning of Don’s projections onto Ruth and Althea.
As might be expected in a story by Tiptree, names seem to play a significant role, even beyond the use of titles. Ruth and Althea’s names are marked by the influence that men have on their lives. Parsons is a surname, and surnames indicate either the influence of a man somehow, whether as father or husband, or emphasize the absence of a husband. The fact that Ruth and Althea initially use it as their only name (118) strips them of the individualizing power of their first names, and their whole being briefly becomes a reflection of either the influence of a man or the emphasis of the absence of a husband.
Paradoxically, both interpretations seem to fit Ruth and Althea equally well – especially when we do learn their first names, for both the names Ruth and Althea refer to Biblical and Greek mythological women whose stories and fates are heavily dependent on the influence of the men in their lives:



Ruth’s name is particularly interesting because of the other traits it associates with her (both loyalty and love and a foreignness). Ruth has great success assimilating into a foreign land in the Old Testament – will Ruth Parsons share her success in a foreign world? 

What Alice Didn't Know

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ENG 396 Week 4: Gender Appropriations: James Tiptree, Jr.

It’s no surprise that animals are well represented in Sheldon/Tiptree’s stories, especially as representations of the feminine. Women’s status is reduced and compared to that of secret possums, pigs, sought and hunted ducks, or even obsolete spacemen.

What if Sheldon portrays something more sinister than just antifeminism? After all, she was the experimental Psychologist Who Empathized with Rats (not unlike the Japanese “Princess Who Loved Insects,” a model for Miyazaki’s Nausicäa), and her research was supposed to probe fundamental biology and animal behavior beyond the messy social influences which humans endure and learn from. Tilly Lipsitz’s rats, subject to starvation, penetration, and blindness, stand in as more than scientific toys, not unlike Carol Page, who is probably more than a voice for woman as humans understand.

This is all quite vague; consider instead a sort of related biological idea. There is a thought among the physics community (one that is prevalent here) that life is “optimized” for its tasks, whether it is to maximize the sensitivity and resolution for images discerned by the retina, or to minimize in the eardrum the random noise that fogs up the precise sounds made by humans and animals. Down-to-earth examples may suggest a grander “theory of life,” which may be BS but at least suggests that there does exist a logical plan in the design of life which may be understood through scientific theory and experimentation.

As much as Sheldon was a scientist, she did not identify with those scientists who hacked off rat heads, and instead she felt the misery of the rats (89). She was a scientist but not a part of Science, which in its violence is unempathetic and masculine. Yet Science, supposedly, seeks the unadulterated truth of Nature, who is female, and the capitalization is curiously common in scientific texts. If Science is done from the male viewpoint, can it still supply the truth? Perhaps only half of the truth.

But for Sheldon there is a more fearful possibility, one that “Love Is the Plan the Plan is Death” most strongly suggests: What if Nature is sexist? What if there is a cosmic Plan, the Plan is sexist, Moggadeet is always doomed, and Carol Page must die a rara avis? Sheldon’s answer is only halfway negative. On the one hand, the women of “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” have dismissed the millenia-old male institution for something equally viable, and even more “human” (216). But although the perspective is balanced through the male experience, the statement of truth has shifted to female. There seems not to exist any conciliation between male and female truth; even the beatification of Carol Page was in the arms of the female Cavaná (273).

Then this is Sheldon’s dilemma: As much as the female and male perspectives are equally truthful, they share no mutual resolution from their own pools of thought, so that the two worlds must remain orthogonal. (For the brave among you… consider the spin of an electron, which can exist in any superposition of “up” and “down,” but any observation, such as by light heading toward a human eye, collapses the spin to either up or down and never both.) Perhaps, from Sheldon’s own message, the best way to understand is through alienation from one’s own world—for the scientist to be aloof of Science, for a man to be removed from masculinity, for a human to acknowledge and pass up their terrestrial place. Sheldon lifts science fiction from literary method to an epistemological Plan for comprehending all Plans.

hope through struggle

In her introduction to the concept of James Tiptree, Jr., Julie Phillips suggests that the author “couldn't always imagine her way out of the problems she raised” (6). Like Michael, who brought up the idea that “death is the answer” to these problems, I believe that Tiptree's tendency to end her stories pessimistically offers more than just a reflection of lifelong depression. Instead, I want to argue that the inevitability of death and futility of struggle that pervade Tiptree's writing serve to complicate and highlight what Jasmine might call their “anthropological” undertones. In addition, Phillips notes that Tiptree's voice was “utter convinced of its authority and the urgency of its message” (1-2); the hopelessness of her stories certainly emphasizes such urgency.


The Girl Who Was Plugged In” offers a bleak outlook for the future of humanity. A corporate empire effectively controls the minds of the population through pseudo-advertising institutions, and even the idealistic few who attempt to resist its dominance eventually submit to the system. Paul's ascension to his father's position appears to complete an inevitable corporate cycle that reflects the greater cycle of life and death; meanwhile, Burke's struggle for identity through the avatar of Delphi ends in similar pessimism. Not even love can subvert the corporate oppressors. Yet at the same time, Tiptree offers a window into the struggle against such oppression and, in doing so, includes the possibility of hope. Though the protagonists ultimately fail to inspire change, the fact that they existed at all illustrates the idea of cycles of resistance underlying the life cycle of an oppressor.


It is difficult, however, to separate the pessimism in Tiptree's science fiction from the events in Alli Sheldon's life. A major clinical symptom of depression is the feeling of hopelessness, and it is impossible not to see its influence on Tiptree's writing. Furthermore, Sheldon's suicide seems to confirm the author's sense of hopelessness and pessimism regarding life. On the other hand, numerous critics we've discussed so far (including Margaret Atwood) delineate science fiction as a genre that allows its authors to explore humanity in a visceral and speculatively explicit way; Sheldon's anthropological explorations through visions of dystopia may have been the only way she could convey the urgency of her message.


Finally, I want to discuss Sheldon's own notions of identity in light of Tiptree's writing. “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” includes an explicit personification of her struggles with identity, particularly with respect to being a woman. The objectification of Delphi also provides some social commentary on traditional gender roles in the media. Though Tiptree never offers a resolution and scoffs at the mere notion of resolution through an indignant narrator, her repeated incorporation of these issues suggest that there are people out there who she might reach. In fact, the act of writing counteracts the sense of futility that pervades Tiptree's stories; if she truly thought there was no hope for humanity, she would not have written to try and save it.

The Woman People Didn't See

“The Women Men Don’t See” is alternately hilarious and depressing. Tiptree uses Don’s abrasive, ignorantly anti-feminist remarks brilliantly. He compares “the women” he is stranded with to his image of what women should be. After the plane crashes, he checks the women for signs of hysteria - an illness only associated with women. He is “irritated” when he realizes that “the damn women haven’t complained once” (120). When he begins to grow suspicious of Ruth Parson’s actions, Don writes off his subconscious thoughts, and reassures himself that Ruth is “a decent ordinary little woman, a good girl scout,” even though he knows something creeps “under the careful stereotypes” (130). The remarks become more jarring when he is “surprised” that Ruth leaves her daughter alone with their pilot - she claims that the pilot is a “very fine type of man,” and Don only notices that she doesn’t defend her daughter as a “good girl.” It is okay, then, for Don to judge the little women, but it is strange for Ruth to judge a man. The story takes a more obvious feminist satire slant when Ruth and Don discuss women’s lib, and Don expresses his concern that Ruth wants to be “some kind of professional man-hater” (133). My favorite obnoxious line of all: “Well, what’s wrong with any furtively unconventional middle-aged woman with an empty bed?” (133). I’ll restrain myself from quoting all of Tiptree’s brilliant lines.

Despite all of Don’s annoying-lecherous-old-man comments, he really hits the message of the story home when he asks at the end of the story “How could a woman choose to live among unknown monsters, to say goodbye to her home, her world?” (143) Obviously, he misses the point. Ruth speaks of men as an alien race - she can analyze Captain Esteban as a very fine type of man, just as she can appreciate that hating men is like hating the weather - there’s no reason to despise a different species. She explains that “Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us” (134) - women are the oppossums that live everywhere, alive only because men don’t perceive them as threats. At one point, Don notices that “She’s as alien as they” (the “real” aliens) (138), but he seems to forget that observation when he laments that she’s choosing to live with unknown monsters. The story makes it clear that Ruth does not consider Earth to be her home, her world, or anything that could ever belong to a woman. I say that it’s “depressing” because, although Ruth’s solution to women’s problems is funny in its extremity, it is also a hopeless view of the world and women’s present/future place in it.

I think this story works brilliantly alongside the article “Who is Tiptree? What is he?” Sheldon, writing as Tiptree, narrates this story through the eyes of an old man (presumably the “type” of man that Tiptree was assumed to be), uses exaggerated comments to show how men can construct crippling stereotypes to analyze women, and through those stereotypes, they can refuse to “see” them as anything but “the Other.” On another level, Sheldon is “the woman no one saw,” someone who could operate cleverly within gender stereotypes and burst somewhere beyond them. My favorite part of “Who is Tiptree? What is he?” is the quotes from Joanna Russ - someone asks her if Tiptree was a woman, “by which I gather he can’t recognize a female point of view if it bites him” (3); Russ also believes that Tiptree has ideas that “no woman could even think, or understand, let alone assent to” (3). I found myself wondering how Russ could think that if she read “The Women Men Don’t See,” but perhaps she could argue that seeing the women men don’t see requires a separation from or transcendence of that gender binary.

Tiptree’s Women: Themes of Alienation and Escape

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Although all vastly different, several of the stories that we read in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever share a common theme: women’s response to crisis, and their reaction to and escape from the specter of male-dominated society.

In the highly disturbing “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”, we see a girl so desperate to escape the stigma she suffers for her own ugliness that she first tries to take her own life and then, when provided with the opportunity, throws herself so completely into a fictional life created for her that she essentially abandons her own identity. A parallel escape into fantasy occurs in “With Delicate, Mad Hands”, as CP uses her fantasy of an “Empire” in which she is accepted to power her dedication to her work and to allow her to distance herself from and cope with the pain and humiliation she suffers on a daily basis. In both these examples, the protagonist’s suffering is clearly presented as the product of an oppressive, male-dominated society in which she simply cannot fit. In “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”, modern consumerism bears the brunt of Tiptree’s attack: celebrities are “gods” and a girl initially described as being full of guileless love can only find happiness by assuming a “perfect” image that is nevertheless empty (“Delphi” has no say in her own life, she is constantly monitored, her physical senses are dimmed, and her sexuality dampened). Even the romance of the story is a superficial lie; Paul is quick to reject the idea that his love could be anything but the beauty in front of him. In “With Delicate, Mad Hands”, CP is, like P. Burke, ostracized because of her physical appearance, which, in a society where a woman’s purpose seems essentially to fulfill sexual needs and serve as “a low-status noncompetitive servant and rudimentary mother figure” (219), is enough to condemn her to a life of abuse that culminates in murderous insanity. Both of these characters, as seems to be the norm for Tiptree, are quite doomed—they die young, after experiencing only the briefest tastes of love and acceptance.

The female characters in “The Women Men Don’t See” and “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” are of a different breed entirely. Calm and professional, these women aren’t fazed by the attempts at domination by the men they encounter. Like P. Burke and CP, Ruth and Althea are misfits in a patriarchal society, and seek escape. However, as Ruth’s ingenuity shows, they need neither man’s approval nor men themselves. Similarly, the women in “Houston, Houston” have absolutely no desire to include men in the culture they have developed. Although one could definitely argue that their society is handicapped by their lack of progress, individuality, and desire to feel deep emotions, they clearly don’t feel that gaping hole in their lives that Bud and Dave feel driven to fill.

While all of these stories share a theme of women escaping the domination of men, they illustrate two widely divergent forms of escape: Escape by rising above prescribed societal roles (and, indeed, any need for men at all), and escape by falling below them.

Delphi, Oracle of Things

Yes, "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" is on some level a tragedy about the futility of love (when neither person can ever know the other). But the more insidious effect is a sort of photograph of this world that is so totally run by commodities and corporations that even people are not people. And one of the figures making this world so terrifyingly possible is Delphi, controlled remotely by a 17-year-old girl named P(hiladelphia). Burke. The name is a clear derivation of “Philadelphia”, but also refers to the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, home of the Oracle of Delphi. In the mythology surrounding the sanctuary, the Oracle spoke for Apollo and spoke as Apollo--a human mouth filled with a divine voice, just as Delphi is a divine mouth filled with a human voice. The body of Delphi is a receptacle for the consciousness of P. Burke, as the Oracle was occasionally a receptacle for the consciousness of Apollo.

As an extended aside, there's a reason why Delphi is the priestess and not the god, even though the story seems to suggest that she is one of the "custom-made" gods of the future (43). P. Burke's identity stays just strong enough so that Delphi always seems exactly this distant, this much an outsider. She never things that she could be a god, even though the other "gods" are no different from her, not really. They're just as crafted, just as controlled, just as commodified.

If Delphi is a priestess, what is the god to which she constructs her altar? The narrator, explaining to the "zombie", offers a lucid unraveling of the tangled mythology of the future:

“What do gods do? Well, everything beautiful. But (remember Mr. Cantle?) the main point is Things. Ever see a god empty-handed? You can’t be a god without at least a magic girdle or an eight-legged horse. But in the old days some stone tablets or winged sandals or a chariot drawn by virgins would do a god for life. No more! Gods make it on novelty now. By Delphi’s time the hunt for new god-gear is turning the earth and seas inside-out and sending frantic fingers to the stars. And what gods have, mortals desire.” (56)


In this new world, Delphi is an oracle of wealth, and her god is Things. Her entire existence is subsumed to the products sold through her, and it is only thanks to these products that Delphi exists at all. Love and death do not even register for this consumer darling, this perfect doll.

Tiptree: Master of Deception

The pervasive element I noticed in James Tiptree Jr.'s short stories was the effective use of deception to draw in and fascinate his readers. In his stories, the characters' secrets range from hiding one's true actions to simply sheltering his/her fundamental and pessimistic beliefs. Similarly, he also appears fond of hiding the true nature of the narrative until its conclusion which fools the reader into both making false assumptions and focusing intently on otherwise unimportant details up until the final twist. Naturally, this ties heavily into Tiptree's own existence as an fictional author created as a pen name by Alice B. Sheldon.

While the inherent pessimism of Tiptree's stories has been touched upon in other posts, there is the underlying element of deception both by Tiptree's characters and by his own writing style. In The Last Flight of Doctor Ain, the story is cadenced and told in a manner to suggest the titular character is trying to evade his own past crimes. With a rather ominous title and a narrative style the suggests it was compiled from eyewitness or police reports, the story is both a brainteaser and a thriller. Only in the final pages do we discover that Ain is not responsible for some petty (or even capital) offense. Rather he is responsible for the death of millions (billions?) in a global pandemic spawned by his laboratory. In this manner, Tiptree expertly masked key facts in order to build the tension in the narrative, finishing the story by revealing that Ain's crime was of an unanticipated magnitude.

The "Last Flight of Doctor Ain" is told as though compiled from news reports, only heightening the suspense leading up to the final reveal Ain's fatal crime.

Conversely, in other stories, the characters deceive each other while the reader is able to see the full picture. In The Girl Who Was Plugged In, Delphi's true nature as an "avatar" of the deformed P. Burke is not revealed to Paul until he accidentally kills both her true self and the body he fell in love with. Unlike The Last Flight of Doctor Ain, the excitement comes not from the reader seeking the truth, but rather from he/she discovering how the characters in the story finally realize the actual situation. Despite a predictable outcome (it is something of a failed-love story after all), we still empathize with Paul as he unknowingly kills both forms of his love, Delphi. Deception is once more used to build tension, though it is that of the characters rather than the reader that builds the suspense.

I had a feeling that "The Women Ment Don't See" had more to it than this.

Finally, Tiptree weaves both of his deceptions in The Women Men Don't See. In this case, the true story is hidden as the narrative simply follows the story of survival for a plane-wrecked quartet. I for one, suspected there was mischief afoot since the story seemed remarkably bland and straightforward for a Tiptree piece, at least until Aliens make a surprise appearance. In the closing pages, not only do Ruth and Althea suddenly reveal their pessimistic views of society, but also they commit to departing Earth in hope of experiencing an exciting and free world among the stars. Thus the truth of both the Parsons' eventual goal and the Sci Fi twist of the story are revealed simultaneously to the reader and the protagonist (Don). As a mark of excellent writing, Tiptree had convinced me (up until the conclusion) that the root issue would be a deeper mystery surrounding the Parsons. However, the final pages reveal that while there is in fact a mystery, it instead derives from the appearance of extraterrestrials rather than Ruth or Althea's shady past.

Much more Sci Fi now.

All in all, Tiptree is a master of using deception to excite, misdirect, and draw in the reader. Whether the reader him/herself or the story's characters are sheltered from the truth, the end result is the same, and exciting and suspenseful Sci Fi tale.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

When I wake up I'm Dead

Like Jasmine J., I too was terrified after reading Tiptree’s short stories. Her literature creates a pervasive feeling of fear born of her characters’ inability to escape historical momentum. Jasmine wonders, fairly I think, to what degree Tiptree’s depression influenced her writing:

It’s possible that the pessimism that is a major theme of her short stories was the result of her personal psychological strife, does that mean that the themes of her works should be discarded with? The word that Sheldon paints seems too real in its horror to be the product of a serotonin imbalance. Perhaps that is a testimony to the power of depression. (Dystopia and Depression)

But reading depression as a disconnection from our shared reality is a problematic rendering of the nature of the psyche. Sheldon’s depressing literature highlights characters trapped in memory, forced to negotiate a reality in which choice is limited by internal (the mind/ collective socialization) and external (aliens) forces. This does not seem like an inaccurate description of the world but rather an uncomfortable interpretation which clashes with the popular modernist progressive outlook. Tiptree’s dystopic vision may more accurately be described as an unbiased retelling of real power relations.

I was particularly struck by the fact that many of her stories end in death, something which seems uncommon in most of the literature I read. My own writing is concerned with creating open-ended literature which allows for the possibility of revision, reliving and recasting. Influenced by Japanese authors such as Harakumi who end their novels without resolution – suggesting that life continues even when the novel ends – Tiptree provides a conflicting analysis. Her novels end the way all lives do; in death. Her ill-fated characters articulate an unpleasant truth which clashes with the modernist, progressive narrative: Whatever our technological advances, our personal tragedies and triumphs, all of our lives end in death.

It was unsurprising when I read in Phillips introduction that Tiptree ended her own life. But Phillips elides Tiptree’s inability to “imagine her way out of the problems she raised” (6) with killing off her characters, as if to suggest that every problem can be resolved. I think an equally valid interpretation is that death is the answer. To believe that the human condition, what with its alienation, fear, longing, love and hate, can be ‘solved’ through an active imagination seems more fantastic than any story about aliens or time travel. Tiptree’s ‘solution’ to the human condition is quite simple; stop being human. By killing her characters off – or having them never be alive like in “Her Smoke Rises up Forver” – Tiptree offers a startling literary technique which forces the reader to recognize the inevitability of death while also suggesting that some social problems are part and parcel of human existence.

Dystopia and Depression

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“The Girl Who Was Plugged In” left me, in a word, terrified; I was shocked at the violent reaction that I experienced in the aftermath of its reading. Science fiction dystopias are, of course, often horrifying and depressing. However, they often offer optimism, positing the universes they live in as warnings, rather than predictions, and utilizing their genre as a tool of revelation and subversion. The corporate wasteland described in Tiptree’s story is particularly depressing because it seems impossible to escape. Paul Isham III, a son of one of the media titans that controls the world’s information, describes it as such: “You can’t break in or out of it, you can’t get hold of it anywhere.”(88) Paul possesses a talent for producing media images that challenge the dominant paradigm put forward by the world’s corporations; the narrator describes his work as “bizarre techniques and unsettling distortions pregnant with social protest.”(65) However, his very own statements label his efforts as a futile endeavor; the strength of the corporate mega-state lies in its ability to assimilate its resisters and their messages into larger brand-images. In the end, Paul finds himself unable to tell the difference between a real human being and a robot ad-delivery device; he fails to evoke any real change in the structures of his society, but becomes the heir to his father’s empire. P. Burke and Delphi each die and are quickly forgotten, as the future rapidly buries the past.

So far, we’ve read science fiction as a source of insight. We’ve described sci-fi authors as anthropologists, philosophers and scientists. In “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”, Tiptree functions as all of these things; hovering over all of these roles, however, is the specter of the narrator as Cassandra. A repetition of the word “FUTURE” in all caps implies this dystopia’s inescapable horror. An implicit undermining of Paul’s subversive media techniques implies that the medium of the story itself is useless as a means of evoking change. If our fate is really this grim and unchanging, is it useful to wonder about it? Or is this portrayal of an unavoidably awful future a way of provoking readers to think more clearly about the role of science fiction and the trajectory of our society?

The other readings for this week offer some context for my initial reading; the introduction to the anthology notes that Tiptree/Sheldon suffered from chronic depression, a serious illness that almost certainly colored her ability to place hope in a better future. It’s possible that the pessimism that is a major theme of her short stories was the result of her personal psychological strife, does that mean that the themes of her works should be discarded with? The word that Sheldon paints seems too real in its horror to be the product of a serotonin imbalance. Perhaps that is a testimony to the power of depression, perhaps to the power of her writing. Literary analysts often discourage readers from explaining works in terms of biography; but the alternative, in this situation, means seriously engaging with the potential of an exquisitely crafted nightmare. “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” defies attempts to explain its philosophies; it stands as implacable oracle, offering a terrifying vision but few clues as to its probability or means of avoiding it.

Evolution and Gender Equality in the Future

Although I really enjoyed reading Tiptree’s stories this week, I came away a little depressed at the dark themes which they addressed, most primarily the challenges women face living in a male-dominated society. In The Women Men Don’t See, despite being strong-willed and hardy enough to cope with life in the wilderness, Mrs. Parsons does not believe that there is any future for women in their society, and she prefers to leave with the aliens for an uncertain future, rather than stay and face an unchangeable, oppressive future. Similarly, the women in Houston, Houston Do You Read choose to kill the three male astronauts from the past, believing them too much of a threat to be controlled, rehabilitated, or successfully integrated into their way of life. Extrapolated from Tiptree’s personal views on gender equality, these stories certainly provide a grim depiction of the fears women have about life in a male-dominated society, and their setting in the present or near future suggests that Tiptree believes this state of affairs is not going to be changing anytime soon.


The body’s natural instincts also play an important role in Tiptree’s stories, which rather demoralizingly highlight the futility of attempting to resist these instincts. Lilliloo and Moggadeet attempt to do so by breaking from the Path, and avoiding the old traditions of having to kill one another in order to survive the winter, but in doing so end up giving in to it in their own way, just as the Old One predicted they would. Similarly, after the male astronauts in Houston, Houston have spent time aboard the Sunbird, surrounded by females who they were used to viewing as subservient to them, they give in to their aggressive fantasies, which are arguably the product of the male instinct to dominate. Bud, under the effects of the inhibition-reducing aphasia drug, attempts to sexually exploit Judy, whereas Dave attempts to seize control of the space station through violence. Both these examples portray man as being ultimately subservient to his most primal desires, suggesting that no matter how much we might evolve, these subconscious desires our ancestors once had will always be present in us as well.


Interestingly enough, Tiptree’s stories also address another aspect of evolution, namely the desirability of the “survival of the fittest” paradigm in evolutionary biology. In the original Time Machine text, Wells proposes that such conflict is desirable, as it forces mankind to adapt and evolve, and the lack of intellectual curiosity and physical fitness in the conflict-free Eloi society is depicted as being undesirable, as exemplified by the Time Traveler’s negative impression of them. However, in Houston, Houston, Tiptree suggests that such conflict is not necessarily desirable, as even though the women of the future have not made much technological progress in their time, they are certainly more at peace with one another and with nature, as evidenced by the wildlife and plants which their ship can successfully sustain in outer space. Thus through this depiction of a society free from the conflict male behavior purportedly causes, Tiptree raises a rather uncomfortable question: is the evolution which “survival of the fittest” brings about necessarily more desirable than the other kinds of progress we might make, following other evolutionary paradigms? Tiptree’s answer appears to be no, as the actions of the women who remove the astronauts from the past from their society suggest.

James Tiptree, Jr. & Gustav Klimt: Painters of Woman?

I can’t say I have ever read many stories (or any at all) quite like those of James Tiptree, Jr. Given my inability to compare Tiptree to any other writer I am more familiar with and somehow try to orient myself, I found myself thinking not of literature but of art—specifically, Gustav Klimt (this is thanks in part to ARC 242 again). There is a chapter in Carl Schorske’s book, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna Politics and Culture, entitled “Gustav Klimt: Painting and the Crisis of the Liberal Ego.” Crises of ego and identity were as characteristic of Klimt’s time as they are of Tiptree’s. Klimt was involved in an artistic movement that Schorske describes as “oedipal revolt.” It was an attempt by the young generation of artists and designers to “save culture from their elders” and fashion a new identity fit for modern man.


Schorske describes Klimt as “the psychological painter of woman” whose work attempts to “capture the feeling of femaleness.” Several of his paintings and drawings involve women and water. Schorske points out how Klimt’s women are “at home in a liquefied world, where the male would quickly drown.” These water-loving ladies “overwhelm the male…with a sense of his inadequacy in the face of their seemingly inexhaustible capacity for carnal bliss.” This reminded me of Doctor Ain, who is described as “obsessed with her, with the miracle, the wealth of her body, her inexhaustibility” (4). There seems to be an inherent disconnect between the inexhaustibility and limitlessness of the female and finitude of the male.


As we saw in “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” the relationship between the Martians and man is not quite mutual—the Martians get what they need from Gallinger, and then the two go off on their separate ways. This issue of an unbalanced mutualism is further addressed in Tiptree, especially in “The Women Men Don’t See” and “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” In these stories, men seem to need women (or at the very least, to really, really want women) but women get along just fine on their own. In fact, they can not only get along but also thrive without men. As one of the Judys puts it: “Why do there have to be men?” (210).


Interestingly, the epidemics that strike Mars in “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” and Earth in “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” affect only the male segment of the population, implying how different men and women are. They are almost two different species, and not even the same viruses can infect the two. The same is true of Klimt’s women: they are at home in a watery, “liquefied” world where men would drown—men and women cannot even inhabit the same space.


Carl Schorske concludes that Klimt’s attempt to “liberate sexuality from the constraints of a moralistic culture” resulted in an outbreak of psychological problems. A “fear of sex” replaced the “moral sense of sin” that had existed before, and woman’s sensuality in particular was seen as “threatening.” Is this the same fear that seems to infect the men of “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”? But it seems now to not be inexhaustible female sensuality but women’s independence that may make men anxious. In “The Women Men Don’t See,” Althea likes their Mayan pilot because he is more “independent” than other people she has seen in Mexico (119). But in “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” a world of women is a stagnant world—there are no wars or significant conflicts, but there is also little progress or technological advances made. Does this world represent an ideal, almost utopian vision or is it just a dead-end?


Here are two links, not related to my post, but of possible interest to the class:

· one on interesting SF book covers: http://flavorwire.com/153215/sci-fi-cover-art-the-good-the-bad-and-the-totally-bizarre

· another on artists and video games: http://flavorwire.com/152604/10-artists-who-use-video-games-as-their-medium