What’s in a name?
For James Tiptree Jr, well, quite a lot. Exposed later as Alice Bradley Sheldon, Tiptree shocked many with her identity, and shamed some others. Many claimed that there was an inherent “masculinity” about her writing, something innate that proved without a reasonable doubt that she was a man. Finally reading some of her short stories, I find that train of thought somewhat worrying, considering the subject matter in many of them. Some considered her stories to be inherently sexist, such as “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” before she was exposed as a woman. It interests me, the sheer difference in feeling given by knowing the gender of an author. Perhaps I would feel differently about the stories I read if I had assumed that Tiptree was a man, but I already knew about her identity. If I ever were to teach Tiptree, I am not sure what I would do—let them believe the alias first, and then reveal halfway through discussion?
"The Screwfly Solution" would be incredibly uncomfortable to read from the pen of a man (though I guess Alfonso Cuarón has some something like it with CHILDREN OF MEN), but it is of no use to imagine how it would be received if published under the name “Tiptree”, for it was not. “Raccoona Sheldon” was another pen name occasionally used by Sheldon, and for this sort of story depicting mass, graphic violence towards women, it probably was a necessity to see a female-looking name attached to it. As graphic and violent as the short story is, the story is funny. And it has to be. “When one man kills his wife you call it murder, but when enough do it we call it a lifestyle,” she writes, sardonic, biting. And, to an extent, joking. We do see this sort of rationalization when it comes to domestic abuse. According to studies by the National Center for Women & Policing in 1991 and 1992, over 40% of cops have domestic violence at home. This heightened percentage of domestic violence has been more or less an open secret for many years, simply expected and excused due to “stressful work environments”. If there was a study that exposed that 40% of accountants beat their wives, would we outage then? Tiptree isn’t so sure. The ending, too, is just serious enough to cinch the twist, but humorous enough to have the reveal of “aliens caused all men to kill all women” not be clownish. “I think I saw a real-estate agent,” reads the final line of "The Screwfly Solution", and it tells readers all they need to know about the situation in a punchy, concise, and darkly funny way.
"Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" and "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" read in similar ways, biting, morbid. I could easily imagine a Cronenberg-esque amalgamation of flesh and metal while reading TGWWPI, along the lines of THE FLY or VIDEODROME. They are warnings of many things: The use of technology to force women to perform ‘perfect’ femininity, the socialization of male violence, the dangers of preoccupation with youth. However, I am not so sure what Tiptree is conveying what should be done about these things. Not every story needs to have a cut and dry livable moral à la Aesop fables, that is true. But when I read "Houston, Houston", although I enjoyed it, I do understand the frustration that some have with it. Looking at this story alone, someone could reasonably glean a reading where male violence is an inevitability, and women should never interact with men because of it. How would this story be different if a boy had been among them? Is there a possibility for innate male violent tendencies to be eradicated? Or is this an indictment of the gender as a whole? I agree with the frustrations I read in her stories, I feel them myself, but I am also unsure what to do with them. Perhaps the only thing to do with these frustrations is to write stories of one’s own to vent them out in the same way.
Tiptree/Sheldon was a master of science-fiction, her style cool, sleek, and even a touch menacing. Her stories are a testament to the effectiveness of expressing frustrations with the world through fiction, especially fiction detached from reality. While her stories often fell on the side of the cinematic, I almost fear the possible made-for-TV adaptations of her work, for they are all immensely satisfying works of writing that should be read first and foremost. Skilled with realizing both the importance of the identity of the narrator, but also the identity of the author, it is of no surprise why Tiptree is still regarded so fondly in the world of science-fiction, even with the multiple scandals in her lifetime.