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Warm Worlds and Otherwise, James Tiptree, Jr., Del Rey, 1975, 222 pp.
Of the three collections of Tiptree's early stories -- this one, Ten Thousand Light Years from Home, and Star Songs of an Old Primate -- I chose Warm Worlds and Otherwise for this column for two reasons. I remember Tiptree's "Milk of Paradise" as one of the best stories in Ellison's Again, Dangerous Visions. The second reason is the spectacular introduction by Robert Silverberg. Why spectacular? Silverberg tries to defend a certain position that is worth quoting at length:
The Introduction is followed by "Postscript - Three Years Later," where Silverberg talks about finding out that "Tiptree" was the pseudonym for a woman named Alice Sheldon.
Hindsight is the safest position from which to heckle, so I won't say anything more about Silverberg's misstep than to point out how neatly it illustrates the debate over Tiptree. The short stories written under the pen name of James Tiptree Jr. are some of the best in the genre, bar none, and trailblazing in their attention to gender and social construction of sex roles. How could a man write such stories, with regard to the latter? And if Tiptree, shrouded in secrecy, were actually a woman, how could a woman write such excellent stories? Tiptree seemed to prove that it was possible for men to gain a perspective outside their gender, and it's interesting that Silverberg would feel the need to defend Tiptree's purview as typically male. I don't mean to contend that the state of science fiction today is perfect, but I breathe a huge sigh of relief that this particular debate is (largely) over. Female authors are not hugely outnumbered (if not numerically equal), and their works certainly span the genre, from space opera to hard sf to literary sf to feminist sf. Sheldon's revelation in 1976 about her use of the Tiptree pseudonym put one final nail in a long overdue coffin.
"Milk of Paradise" turned my attention to Warm Worlds and Otherwise, but there are three other topnotch stories here, quality of the level that any writer would be lucky to produce in an entire career. Two of the stories I am referring to won awards: "Love is the Plan, The Plan is Death" won the Nebula for best short story in 1973; "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" won the Hugo for best novella in 1974. The fourth story that I consider to be of surpassing quality is "The Women Men Don't See."
"Milk of Paradise" is a well-sustained little shocker, perhaps a bit lacking in substance, but it lodged in my mind many years ago with a tenacity demonstrated by none but a handful of short stories. Tiptree deconstructs human desire, both the kind known as lust and the kind known as greed. Plus the story boasts an opening paragraph the like of which few stories can match: "She was flowing hot and naked and she straddled his belly in the cuddle-cube and fed him her hard little tits. And he convulsed up under her and then was headlong on the waster, vomiting" (25).
"Love is the Plan, The Plan is Death" is Tiptree's contribution to the attempts in science fiction to imagine the truly alien. Moggadeet is that alien and "she" struggles to survive and to improve the quality of life, and all in concepts and in writing that are bizarre and often violent. The story is written in first person, and the strength of it lies in Moggadeet's self-involved narrative. We the human readers of the story have no clear idea of what is going on -- for example: "My secret hands begin to knead and roll the stuff that is dripping from my jaws" (176) -- but why would Moggadeet explain the things that are obvious to her? And the ending chills us as we understand at least the broad outlines what the title might mean.
"The Girl Who Was Plugged In" is an extended meditation on the nature of the body and its relation to the media. It is a future where advertising has been banned. GTX is a company that raises perfect and beautiful clone bodies, gives the clone bodies remote-control operators who will follow orders, and sends the clones out into the jetset society of the world (which is heavily covered in tabloid-style media), all in the hopes of influencing the buying habits of the common folk. P. Burke is an ugly woman who tries to commit suicide; GTX rescues her and gives her control of a clone body named Delphi. Complications ensue, and the beauty of the story is in the writing. Early in the story, Delphi (i.e., P. Burke) is first realizing her newfound power over the masses: "She's in gigabuck mainstream now, at the funnel maw of the unceasing hose that's pumping the sight and sound and flesh and blood and sobs and laughs and dreams of reality into the world's happy head" (100). A keener description of the way things operate could hardly be found.
To close the review, I'll say a few words about "The Women Men Don't See." Written in first person from the perspective of a very macho and self-impressed man, the story has a curious doubleness to it due to Tiptree's real identity. This story is one that Silverberg cites as evidence of Tiptree's ineluctable maleness, and a closer examination (again with the hindsight knowledge of Tiptree's identity) shows how much of a sham the narrator is as a person. A female character says at one point, in a line that has become rightly famous: "'What women do is survive. We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine'" (154). The narrator offers lame repartee by reflex and not much more.
It is difficult to separate the Tiptree/Sheldon issue from any discussion of the Tiptree stories. But the power of the writing is such that the stories persist in their greatness, both before Sheldon's identity was known and now that the secret has been out for approximately twenty-five years. And that's perhaps the best way to describe New Wave material in general: no matter the hype or the backlash, the writing itself remains the sole criteria for excellence, and the reputation of this category of science fiction is much-deserved on this basis.
Last modified: July 20, 2000
Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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