Our book today is another one that doesn’t exist yet, The Collected Stories of James Tiptree, Jr., put out in a big, beautiful deckle-edge brick of a paperback by Random House just in time for Christmas – some Christmas – when every science fiction fan can give it as a present to those one or two open-minded readers they know who’d read more sci-fi if only it were good. When Tiptree – the most prevalent pen-name of Alice B. Sheldon – turned to science fiction comparatively late in her life, she went at it with the same thoroughness and daunting skill with which she’d done everything else in her life, and the result was a body of work equalled by virtually no 20th Century practitioner of the genre.
She also went at it with her typical zeal for privacy, which is why those early stories – submitted to editors under the name “Tiptree” from a Post Office box, with never so much as a phone call from the author – incited so much speculation. The most famous example of that speculation must infamously be laid at the feet of another giant of the genre, Robert Silverberg, who wrote the introduction to a collection of Tiptree short stories called Warm Worlds and Otherwise in which he made the kind of straight-up “This Dickens person will never amount to anything” pronouncements his long-time friends know and love him for: he flat-out declared that the underground speculation of James Tiptree being a woman simply couldn’t be true – that (shovelling steadily deeper) there was an ineluctable quality of masculinity about these stories, that they could no more have been written by a woman than the novels of Jane Austen could have been written by a man.
It was the kind of stuff that’s virtually guaranteed to blow up in a person’s face, and it promptly did, when James Tiptree, Jr. – whose works would be collected in such volumes as Ten Thousand Light Years from Home, Warm Worlds and Otherwise, Crown of Stars, Out of the Everywhere, and Star Songs of an Old Primate – was revealed to be a soft-spoken middle-aged woman named Alice Sheldon. It was as if the gods decided to gift-wrap a ready-made lesson in writing and gender assumptions and hand it to the science fiction community.
As Tiptree’s friend (and yet another sci-fi titan) Ursual LeGuin later commented, plenty of people thereafter claimed that they’d known all along that Tiptree was a woman – that they’d been able to tell from the stories. That’s of course every bit as much hooey as the ‘ineluctably masculine’ line. It’s true that women (alien and human) play consistently large and sympathetically portrayed parts throughout these stories, but that alone doesn’t prove any suppositions that Leo Tolstoy and Gustave Flaubert don’t immediately dis-prove, although it does lend a certain playful edge to such famous Tiptree story titles as “The Women Men Don’t See.”
What these glorious stories do have in common is the thread of – no clever word-play intended – alienation that runs through all of them. In classic tale after classic tale – “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” “I’m Too Big but I Love to Play,” “We Who Stole the Dream,” “The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats,” “She Waits for All Men Born,” “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” – the reader is shot through a prism of sad and lonely intelligence into the kinds of brutal and unsafe thought-worlds relatively few sci-fi authors dare to create, even though it’s the purpose of their genre. There’s a savage bleakness at the heart of so many Tiptree stories (the tragedy at the heart of the sublime “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!” is so simple and stark that an entire fantasy-land is needed just to obscure it), but there’s a very grown-up and satisfying version of hope as well (caught wonderfully, for instance, at the very end of “Beam Us Home,” the single greatest Star Trek story ever written, and yet – in classic Tiptree fashion – also not a Star Trek story at all).
Virtually none of James Tiptree, Jr. is currently in print, and oddly enough, this almost certainly would have pleased the author. “If you’ve got me taking up shelf-space,” she might have said, “you’ve got no room for some smart new writer whose name starts with ‘t’.” But maybe some day an enterprising publisher will create The Collected Stories of James Tiptree, Jr. and hope its diffident author’s shade doesn’t mind too much. Myself, I hope the book is called Star Songs of an Old Primate – when you’ve found a perfect title, stick with it.