Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Brilliance of James Tiptree, Jr. (or as she was born, Alice Sheldon)

Found on

This is a collection of stories by Tiptree, collected before Tiptree was discovered to be a woman. The introduction by Robert Silverberg is almost comical, especially when he defends the questioned masculinity of Tiptree: "There is 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 the same way I believe the author of James Tiptree stories is male" (xii). Silverberg's supposition calls into question the definition of male and female writing. If in his mind Austen is the quintessential female writer and Hemingway the male, then his radar concerning the gender of authors is seriously misguided, more notably when he compares Tiptree to Hemingway. Silverberg manages to unknowingly pen several sexist claims, like Tiptree must be male because he talks about things like fishing, hunting, travelling, and the government with such authority. Reading the introduction reminded me of LeGuin's article "The Carrier Bag of Fiction", where she talks about the origins of what is intrinsically human, and it turns out not to be violent (and supposed) male tendencies, but the ability to gather, (a supposed) female tendency. It seems as if Silverberg is trying to legitimize Tiptree's place in science fiction by insisting on Tiptree's maleness, as if the possibility of Tiptree's womanhood would do the opposite.
There are two short stories I read in the collection, starting with “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”. If anything, the story takes place in both a utopia and dystopia. The world as laid out by Tiptree has outlawed advertising. It was deemed immoral, and word of mouth is the only way companies have of getting their products sold. That’s where J. Burke comes in. She’s described as ugly, but company execs have their own ideas on how to make her pretty. After she attempts suicide, they know she is desperate enough to accept their offer: to plug her brainwaves into a beautiful humanoid. Through the new J. Burke (re-named Delphi when in humanoid form), the execs are able to wield an alluring and subtle spokesperson for their products. A man falls in love with Delphi, and discovers in part her secret. When he finally meets the real Delphi (J. Burke), he is disgusted at her appearance and accidentally kills her.
The story is a reminder of how humans will do their best to undermine the law, even when the law is put in place to enhance their rights. Another theme of Tiptree’s short is the lie women must keep up with their looks. J. Burke/Delphi could be an analogy for said lie, with J. Burke being how men view women without “cute” clothes/make-up on, and Delphi being how they view women in their costumed perfection. In the story, Delphi’s admirer was na├»ve in believing she was a paragon all the time, and he is disillusioned, even horrified, to discover his real love shares her likeness with a monster.
In “The Women Men Don’t See”, a group of people have to survive a plane crash on a sandbar in the Yucatan. Two women make up part of the group, and two men make up the other. The story is told from a male perspective, with the man constantly being surprised in the unflappable nature of the two women. When he expects them to complain, they remark on the scenery. When he expects them to make demands, they make kind concessions. This second story I read really had little to do with utopia/dystopias, and everything to do with how men expect women to act, versus how women can act.
Overall, the book is a great example of how women are seen not just in science fiction, but through the eyes of men. What’s ironic about it is that Tiptree managed to write from the male perspective so convincingly she had everyone believing she was a male, and they thought it patronizing and progressive of “him” to take small feminist stands in his writing. How must they have viewed Tiptree’s writing after discovering he was a she? I have an idea as to what they were thinking, because Silverberg puts a postscript at the end of his intro, describing the letter he received from Tiptree. She confessed to him her true sexuality, and of it, Silverberg wrote, “What I have learned is that there are some women who can write about traditionally male topics more knowledgeably than most men, and that the truly superior artist can adopt whatever tone is appropriate to the material and bring it off” (xviii).

Tiptree Jr., James. “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”.  Warm Worlds and Otherwise. New York: Doubleday, 1973. Print.

            -. “The Women Men Don’t See.” Warm Worlds and Otherwise. New York: Doubleday, 1973. Print.

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