Alice B. Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr.)
Over at BLACK GATE, Thomas Parker delivers a thoughtful overview of the legendary James Tiptree, Jr. and the collection HER SMOKE ROSE UP FOREVER.
Though “he” wrote two novels (Up the Walls of the World and Brightness Falls from the Air), James Tiptree Jr. made “his” greatest contributions to science fiction in shorter (though often still fairly long) forms. (And, with your permission, that’s it for the quotation marks.) The cream of this work is collected in HER SMOKE ROSE UP FOREVER. Edited by Jeffrey D. Smith, it gathers eighteen of Tiptree’s finest stories, and is an absolutely essential volume that everyone who takes science fiction seriously should own and read and re-read cover to cover. It’s also blessedly still in print, so stop reading me and go get a copy — now. It’s the best $13.26 you’ll ever spend — I guarantee it. Don’t worry — I’ll wait until you get back. Oh, while you’re at it, you had better buy several copies — you’ll want to have them on hand to proselytize with.
The surface of a Tiptree story is always lively and popping with energy; many of the early ones use a slangy, jokey, fast-talking, wisecracking diction that Sheldon largely abandoned by the time she was doing her best work. (Most of these still very readable stories are found in 10,000 Light-Years from Home. The only mature story told — and it’s told very effectively — in the earlier manner is “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.”)
But always underneath the narrative swiftness and the crackling clash of outrageous ideas, the core is midnight-dark. As John Clute and Peter Nicholls said in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, “It is very rarely that a James Tiptree story does not deal directly with death and end in a death of the spirit, or of all hope, or of the body, or of the race.” That is precisely true, and it makes the work of James Tiptree Jr. strong medicine indeed.
The Tiptree universe is a blind alley, a place where all human ambitions and aspirations are thwarted and where all human drives are overridden by the universal impulse toward self-destruction. Tiptree’s people are locked into performing acts that are as futile as they are extreme; they are the butts of a cosmic joke, doomed to war with their own biology, a biology far stronger than rationality and its feeble products, and that eternally victimizes them.
Read the rest of Parker’s fascinating article, which includes reviews of every story in HER SMOKE ROSE UP FOREVER, at BLACK GATE.
Alice with husband Ting.
For more info about HER SMOKE ROSE UP FOREVER, visit the Tachyon page.
Cover by John Picacio.