Exploring the work of James Tiptree Jr

Lately I’ve been listening to Eric Molinksy’s Imaginary Worlds podcast. Each episode delves deep into some aspect of sci-fi or fantasy, either examining a well-known franchise in depth, or bringing to light some obscure but often excellent piece of work. I’ve enjoyed the things I’ve learnt from Imaginary Worlds, not least my exposure to the life and work of author James Tiptree Jr in the episode The Mysterious James Tiptree.

It was widely know that James Tiptree Jr was the pen name of a reclusive and mysterious author – but most people believed that the name was used as cover by a high ranking member of the CIA. There was some debate as to the gender of the author, but again there was a prevailing belief – no woman could write such sexually charged stories, and with such a masculine voice!

Of course, those people were wrong. The true identity behind James Tiptree Jr was a woman named Alice Sheldon. Even a quick read of her Wikipedia page hints at a fascinating life, with time spent in the Air Force, the aforementioned CIA, and studying for a PhD in Experimental Psychology. I may well write more about her life once I’ve read her biography, but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus more on her writing.

So far, I’ve read two of her short story collections: Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, a collection of her best work, and Ten Thousand Light Years From Home, an early collection. Between them, they offer thirty-one distinct sci-fi short stories and novellas.

Ten Thousand Light Years from Home highlights a vibrant writing style, bursting with life and the bright ambience of 20th century pulp science fiction. Sheldon deftly weaves her words to create amazing realities, each one imaginative and wonderfully brought to life on the page. I was delighted to visit RaceWorld, a planet where life forms from across the galaxy compete under the most scrupulously fair conditions. Elsewhere, I nodded at the bureaucracy that grew up around shipping merchandise across the galaxy, when it has to be packaged and handled by tens of alien races with different cultural issues. I was only in each world for a short time, but each experience was fully immersive, and often came with a satisfying sting in the tail.

But if Ten Thousand Light Years From Home is a collection of excellent pulp fiction, then Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is simply exquisite. This book really showcases everything that made Sheldon such a stand out writer. The stories are intense, brimming with sexuality, and also with a fierce feminist voice. The two most widely cited examples are The Women Men Don’t See and Houston, Houston, Do You Read, and with good reason. In both these stories, the male narrators think of themselves as the heroes, but what they actually grow to learn is that not only can women get on perfectly well without them, they would actually rather do so than exist in an oppressive patriarchy.

So many things in all these stories resonated with me. The brilliant, imaginative worlds. The raw and charged sexuality. The fierce anger of a minority voice wanting to be heard. The clever twists and food for thought. Occasionally, when reading short story collections, one comes across a tale so engaging and thought-provoking that you have to go away and think about it before embarking on the next story in the book. With Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, I felt this way about pretty much every story. I felt a wrench at the ending of each tale, of having been party to something truly inspiring, but now having to accept that it was over. How could I possibly move onto the next tale, when it couldn’t possibly live up to what I had just read? And yet, when I finally gave into that next story, it would turn out to be just as delectable and satisfying as its predecessors.

If you like sci-fi, you should read James Tiptree Jr. If you like feminist stories, you should read James Tiptree Jr. And if you like both, well then, you’re in for a treat.

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