January 29, 2014

Warm Worlds and Otherwise

James Tiptree, Jr. will be the honored ghost at this year's FOGcon (March 7-9 in Walnut Creek, CA). The theme of the convention is Secrets, so Tiptree is an apt honoree. The writer published acclaimed science fiction stories throughout the late 60s and 70s but remained a mysterious figure, so "Tiptree" was widely recognized as a pseudonym, perhaps of someone working for an intelligence agency. A decade into Tiptree's career, the author's true identity was revealed. Tiptree did indeed have a background in military intelligence, and her real name was Alice Sheldon. The Tiptree Award, which recognizes "science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender," celebrates Sheldon's contributions to the field.

I'd been aware of the Tiptree mythology for years but never read any of her work. WARM WORLDS AND OTHERWISE, her second story collection, blew me away. These are really well thought-out stories, with unusual premises, surprising characters, and fascinating narrative voices. The plots develop in unexpected ways and end in satisfying resolutions. Many of the stories contain humor, many are quite dark, and some fit both these descriptions.

What really makes these stories outstanding is the way they unfold without explanation, requiring the reader to figure out what's going on. This is a quality I love and admire in fiction when it's done artfully, as it is here. Robert Silverberg describes this well in his introduction to the collection: "He likes to create a sense of disorientation and alienation, gradually and never completely resolved as the story reaches his climax." (The introduction is worth reading, and not only for the fact that Silverberg weighs in on speculation that Tiptree is a woman, declaring "there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree's writing.")

Alice Sheldon was used to being an outlier, not only as a woman writing science fiction, but as a woman in the military and in academia. "The Women Men Don't See" addresses this situation most directly, but the theme of outsider status runs throughout the collection. The longest story, "The Girl Who Was Plugged In", takes a character who doesn't belong and gives her the chance to fit in by assuming a secret identity. It's a beautiful, horrible tale, and was recognized with the Hugo Award for Best Novella in 1974.

Another award winner, "Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death", (Nebula Best Short Story, 1973) might be my favorite from the collection, though it's hard to choose. This is a love story from the viewpoint of an insect-like creature, and it mixes the alien and the familiar in a masterful way.

If you are a science fiction fan and haven't read any Tiptree, you owe it to yourself to check out the work of this amazing writer.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Kevin Baker presents his awkward tale of crashing a book club meeting: "I was embarrassed not only for myself but for the members of the club. How would they feel once they discovered the author they had just dissed was sitting right there?" (Thanks, Lynn!)

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