Uncanny Valley Digest: James Tiptree, Jr.

Hello science fiction lovers! Welcome back to the Uncanny Valley. Last week, we let Cordwainer Smith take us on a insightful, dangerous, but somehow whimsical ride through the human mind. This week, leave behind the whimsy, ’cause we’re going to Big Junction, where the only people laughing are the aliens!

“And I Woke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side” (1972), by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Bradley Hastings Sheldon)

DerStandard.atThe Bio: Tiptree was a raised by intellectual parents, a lawyer father and writer mother, and before joining intellectual life, worked for the military, then the intelligence community. In 1942, she joined the war effort as a cryptographer and rose to the rank of Major. After WWII, she worked briefly as a CIA spook (‘52-’55), then returned to academic and artistic pursuits;  very conversant in military culture, and that made her gender deception more believable. Another interesting biographical tidbit, thought by David to be a rumor, that just before she died, Tiptree killed her husband. Meg verified this bare fact with elaboration. Tiptree and her husband had a sort of death pact. Rather than decay into dotage, they chose to go before the very end. She shot him and then herself.

The story: A news reporter visiting a human built, alien-populated space station interviews  a human sex slave drug addict who is bitterly  enthralled with the aliens and tells a cautionary tale or two.

David: A weird gender dysphoria, or misidentifcation or dysfunction.

Meg has taught this story by giving it blind to students,  hiding the author biography. Then asking them if they felt any differently about the story after learning that it was written by a women. (The fact that Tiptree had expertise in psychological warfare may have had something to do with it, too.)

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The colonialism theme. That line about balance of trade and the fall of the Polynesians. It’s not just about desire and sex and power, it is also about empire and servitude and conquering. The aliens get off on being admired, and tantalize and torture the humans, who wish for nothing more than to conquer this unconquerable population.

Nikita: There’s a whole element of addiction to it. That’s why the guy explaining it to the newsman is so bitter. A desire that leads nowhere, like sitting on a plastic egg. Like an impotent sexual addiction. There is a comparison to skag addiction earlier in the story.

P.614 “Sex? No, it’s deeper…Some cargo cult of the soul.”

Although, despite it being deeper than sex, the humans are attracted to the aliens for very physical reasons. The “smiling” animated body markings, etc., the strange bodies. Next thing you know they’re mopping up alien vomit “like it’s holy water.”

Detail of "The Thrall," By Dustin LeonMeg: During the space race, when this was published, there was a strong and public We’re-going-out-there, mentality. To the stars to the great unknown. And the aliens laugh, because they don’t have that. And they exploit that fascination in humans to make them gimpy freak slaves.

Suhail: And the way Tiptree describes it transcends technology. This kind of abusive addictive power play conquest has been played far back into time, with some humans doing it to others. An unpleasant thing to be made so vividly aware of, yet fascinating. Hmm.

David: A profound sense of sexual identity being alien, a far-out, fake, assembled, inhabited identity. None of this makes any sense biologically. Or in other words, that your sexuality is not inherent in your gender.

“Now we’ve met aliens we can’t screw, and we’re about to die trying.”

Cycle of abuse power dynamic being replayed over the Procyas by the Humans. Procyas are the little aliens who take abuse from humans, out of fascination.

p. 613 “Can’t you see, man? That’s us. That’s the way we look to them, to the real ones.”

Like the way it feels to be totally in love with someone who has contempt for you. That power posture, exploited to addiction and self destruction.

Tiptree was outed as a woman in ‘76 or ‘77.

David: I wonder what Phil Dick thought of that? It must have been a real blow to his world view. It would be interesting to see if there was a letter about it.

Meg: Remember, we are in unreliable narrator territory. This is a drugged up addict, with an inside knowledge of the addiction, speaking to a news reporter. But what is that person missing? And can we see anything through the story that he is not giving us? It’s one monologue to the newswriter.

Suhail: An idea that the Aliens represent Patriarchy doing to humans what men do to women. No, it’s a more subtle, diffuse power play even than that. Adoration and the urge to conquest thwarted, desire unfulfillable, and hence irresistible.

Suhail: and the end, it reminds me of The Story Of O (Pauline Reage, 1954).

David: Even if you know what happens, when you hear the muse’s call, you can’t help yourself.

Meg: Tiptree pulls the title from a line out of a John Keats’ poem, called “La Belle Dame sans Merci”  about a knight at arms spirited away by a fairy lover who seduces him and disappears, leaving him with nothing, haunted, on a cold hill side. But he is also relieved of his illusions.

Meg & David got into a thread about how they might teach this to undergrads: A commentary on Hook-up culture. “Collect them all,” attitude about lovers. How many different kinds of fascinating weirdos can you sleep with and how will they hurt you? The humans are attracted to the aliens for very visceral, physical, sensory reasons. Look at the markings and colors on that body.

Nikita: A critique of consumerism. Those useless baubles, (Meg: “Trade beads!”) that humans collect to try to win the fickle favor of the aliens.

Meg: This is a great Tiptree story, but my least favorite.

Meg recommends “Houston, Houston, do you read?” “The Women Men Don’t See” and  “Love Is The Plan. The Plan Is Death.”

David: Interesting pair of stories. Both have the erotic other and the consequence of unattainable, visceral desires. This would go well with the Frederick Pohl story, “Day One Million.”

Suhail: Coincidentally, Frederick Pohl is the one who encouraged Cordwainer Smith to publish his first story.

Meg’s off to Taos Toolbox in New Mexico to write! Sooper cool!

Be Advised: our next meeting is 6/22. Read “Story Of Your Life” by Ted Chiang (Yes, the story that became Arrival[Download PDF] & “Reiko’s Universe Box” by Kajio Shinji [In the book].

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

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About Suhail Rafidi

Suhail Rafidi is a novelist and educator whose works explore the destiny of human values in a technological landscape. You can find him on Twitter, too, @shelldive.
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One Response to Uncanny Valley Digest: James Tiptree, Jr.

  1. Pingback: Uncanny Valley Digest: Cordwainer Smith | My Writes

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