Wednesday, December 19, 2007

An Alarm Bell Shattering The Night

"Incredible how the top dog always announces with such an air of discovery that the underdog is childish, stupid, emotional, irresponsible, uninterested in serious matters, incapable of learning -- but for god's sake don't teach him anything! -- and both cowardly and ferocious. ... The oppressed is also treacherous, incapable of fighting fair, full of dark magics, prone to do nasty things like fighting back when attacked, and contented with his place in life unless stirred up by outside agitators. ... Once I learned the tune I stopped believing the words -- about anybody." --letter from James Tiptree, Jr. to Vonda N. McIntyre, 1973
I've just finished Julie Phillips' biography James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. It was painful to read, not because of the writing (which is quite good), but because of the agony and anger it unveils behind the ambiguity. This was a fascinating person, with a childhood I'm jealous of, but all along there is a growing sense of dread, because you know what the horrible ending is going to be. And no, it doesn't really explain that. Only a mind-reader could have. But the book does help explain the fiction Tiptree produced, which is what matters most to the rest of us.

There had been plenty of women before who had used male pen names, like "George Sand", "George Eliot", "Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell" (later revealed as the Brontë sisters), and the under-estimated "Henry Handel Richardson". There had even been some in the science-fiction world before, like Andre Norton (who legally changed her name) and Marion Zimmer Bradley (who used male pen names early on for non-SF). "Tiptree" was different not just because she kept her identity secret (until a possibly Freudian slip by this PhD. in psychology let fans figure it out), and maintained the persona of a male writer in her correspondence (including that with some other female SF writers), but because of the radical originality of what she wrote. Stories like the brilliant "The Women Men Don't See" sparked a silly debate in fandom over her real gender. Notorious sexist ranters adamantly insisted she must be male, while others doubted such feminist sympathy could come from a man. Both sides were being foolish, falling into the same kind of mental traps she struggled with for a lifetime.

The startling thing was that no one else in SF (and very few in English-language literary fiction) expressed such emotions on such subjects (yet!). Tales like the award-winning "Love is the Plan the Plan is Death" were gigantic screams of rage at the failure of connections -- and love -- between beings, mostly male and female, but even between humans (or aliens) and nature, especially their own nature. All those gadgets and extraterrestrials were just a way to say something that hurt too much to express in straightforward prose, much like Rod Serling used SF to safely comment on current society, or in a older time Jesus told parables that only those with ears to hear could grasp. There was doom ahead in Tiptree's worlds, sometimes accepted but not, ever, even when intentional, welcomed. It was all symbolic, but to some of us felt more real than the duller, reserved pedestrian worlds that "serious" fiction writers outside SF could portray. Some like Monique Wittig found they had to turn to mythology like Virgile, non (translated as Across The Acheron) to talk about the pain.

In the end, the early story "The Last Flight of Doctor Ain" was the message Tiptree left behind. For as the Koran says, "whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind". And she knew about killing, and its effect on the killer as well, from going on her mother's big game hunts in Africa, and from her own service in the Army in World War II and as a CIA analyst later.

I finished reading this book even though I kept wanting to stop, and I'm glad I did, though it gives no resolution or inspiration. It hurt so much because I have seen and felt the same frustrating sorrows she endured over the walls between us and the artificial folders others want to file us away in. This is how great art like hers can work, expressing the deepest essential feelings we have trouble comprehending, even with subjects and stories vastly different from our own. Emotionally it acts like that old hit about the singer "telling my whole life with his words, killing me softly with his song". Just as I was so moved by Flaubert's L'Éducation sentimentale or Woody Allen's Annie Hall that I never want to read or watch them again because they cut way too close to home, I don't expect to ever re-read any of Tiptree's fictions. But they will haunt me for the rest of my life.
"There is a sort of fellow-feeling among characters in a tragedy: he who kills is as innocent as he who gets killed: it's all a matter of what part you are playing. Tragedy is restful; and the reason is that hope, that foul, deceitful thing, has no part in it. There isn't any hope. You're trapped. The whole sky has fallen on you, and all you can do about it is to shout." --Jean Anouilh, Antigone

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