Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Classic Sci-Fi- Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

We had a first for the April's Classic Sci-Fi Meetup, discussing a short story collection instead of a novel. And a truly classic selection: "Her Smoke Rose Up Forever", collecting many of the best short works of James Tiptree, Jr.

While published in 1990, it collects work originally printed between 1969 & 1980; something we commented on for many of the stories was how ahead of their time they feel.

Much talk of sex, gender, and death surrounding these stories. Spoilers below!

First spoiler, BTW, though it's been out of the bag for three decades or so: "James Tiptree" is the pen-name of Alice Sheldon. Tiptree's work sits (intriguingly uneasily, imho) amidst the best feminist SF of the 1970s, and his short work is particularly impressive for how incisive it is--often dark, violent, or cynical, not without a kind of humor, excelling at using science-fictional gambits to reveal uncomfortable truths about the human condition.

PRONOUN ASIDE! I'm a little uncertain about this. But Sheldon used "Tiptree" as more than just a convenient name; there was an entire male persona there that she enacted in correspondence. So I tend to think that when talking about a Tiptree story we should use he/him; but this is complicated by the fact that Sheldon also used female names when writing, her own as well as several noms de plume, most notably "Racoona Sheldon", so one has to go on a story-by-story basis.

By the way, I highly recommend Julie Philip's "James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double-Life of Alice B. Sheldon" (2007), it's a smashingly good biography, and it doesn't hurt that Sheldon had a really fascinating and far-ranging life.

Discussion points: collections are always a little hard to talk about, because the idea-density of short stories is so much higher than in novels. But, things we talked about:
  • "Love is the Plan the Plan is Death" and presenting an alien point-of-view successfully. Compared to Nagel's "What is it like to be a bat?" (1974), an influential short philosophy essay. (Read it online in pdf format if you'd like. WARNING: may lead to qualia, and qualia are garbage.)
  • "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" is so cyberpunk! Yet it predates the first canon cyberpunk (Gibson, or maybe Brunner's "Shockwave Rider") by years! Also, the trope of "direct neural control of a physical avatar"--how early an example is this? Compared to Cameron's "Avatar" (2009), for instance. We really dug the "reality show future", which, again--early example of, and the frenetically hip writing style is a big bonus.
  •  "The Screwfly Solution" is just so good. Slash terrifying. Spent a lot of time talking about this one, particularly the theme of "being betrayed by/unable to escape from one's biology", which recurs throughout this collection. We also liked/found uncomfortably plausible the ease with which violent urges towards women were incorporated into a patriarchal religion; the theme of men belittling/using women, which Sheldon frequently pokes at forcefully, is here carried through to its most violent expression.
  • "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?", also just so good. This is the easiest to relate to big feminist SF works--Russ's "Female Man" (1975),  or Piercy's "Woman on the Edge of Time" (1976; we read it last year).
    • We liked the attention paid to the astrophysics, and the space-jump-and-tether-rescue had us referencing films like "Gravity" (2013), "Mission to Mars" (2000), and "The Martian" (2015). Apparently Hollywood just LOVES those space-jump-and-tether-rescues.
    • Gender issues particularly on the sleeve for this one, with the drugged male characters speaking every thought going through their head. (Reminding one of Austin Powers and also that House episode "The Social Contract".) I really liked some of the male-male psychology in play here.
  • "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side": aha! This is a line from Keats' "La Belle Dame sans Merci". Again with that theme of being betrayed by one's sex drive, of super-stimulus, and the fatal attraction for the other.
  • "The Women Men Don't See" is such a superb piece of writing, and perfectly encapsulates the Tiptree paradox. It's written from an almost Hemingway-esque masculine point of view, without reducing that to caricature, and yet manages to include and gesture towards some deep gender criticism.
I'd passed around a list of suggested reads (a practice I borrowed from Think Galactic, where we routinely read collections--makes it easier to focus the discussion), but a few of us read the whole collection and had praise for other stories--there's really not a weak one here.

I also exhorted the virtues of the Tiptree Award, given to SF/F that engages issues of gender and sexuality. The Tiptree is also connected to Wiscon, the wonderful con in Madison at the end of May. If you're reading this, you should probably come.

We had a very Star Trek-heavy post-discussion. If you're into Trek, highly encouraged to come to DePaul's conference May 7th--free and open to the public, likely to be very good.

Next time for Classic Science Fiction, we're reading Arthur C. Clarke's "Childhood's End".

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