HER SMOKE ROSE UP FOREVER
The Great Years of
James Tiptree, Jr.
By James Tiptree, Jr.
Illustrated by Andrew Smith
Arkham House. 520 pp. $25.95
ALICE SHELDON (1915-1987), who wrote under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr., made no claims for her art. Self-effacing unto anonymity, she published science fiction stories for 20 years, writing exclusively for genre markets even after upscale magazines began publishing selected examples of sf around the mid-'70s. Apologists were by then speaking of "speculative fiction" and "magic realism," but Tiptree's stories were, inescapably and almost embarrassingly, sci-fi. Tiptree embraced whole-heartedly the apparatus of science fiction: Her stories were of alien landings, galactic empires, time travel and strange worlds. These settings were not intended ironically, or "only" as metaphor; Tiptree loved the forward momentum of narrative, and meant what she wrote. You could not liken her to Italo Calvino or Carlos Fuentes.
That Tiptree nevertheless developed an extravagant reputation as an uneven but remarkable writer was a triumph of art over artfulness. Tiptree's stories were dense flamboyant constructs, crammed to bursting with incident, humor, structural innovation, throwaway ideas and an intensity of feeling that could erupt into mawkishness when she did not have it under control. Unsuccessful Tiptree stories were like fireworks that went off on the ground. Successful ones were ramshackle flying machines that nevertheless took off and did loops.
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever collects 18 stories and novellas published during what the subtitle calls "The Great Years of James Tiptree, Jr.," which John Clute identifies in his introduction as 1970-77. After that, failing health, the breaching of the pseudonym that served as a psychological bulwark for Tiptree and a darkening pessimism that informs even her funniest work converged to hobble her fiction. Although much of Tiptree's second-best is more than respectable, none of her fiction published in the '80s stands up to the finest in this volume, and the latest of the stories reprinted here, "With Delicate Mad Hands," is the weakest.
The essence of a Tiptree story is, at least technically, its ferocious concentration. One of her funniest, a novelette originally called "Filomena & Greg & Rikki-Tikki & Barlow & the Alien" (eventually retitled, less breathlessly, "All the Kinds of Yes") begins typically:
"The first alien to land on Earth stayed seventy-two seconds: he was a televolpt. He did three back-volpts and collected himself from the region of Lyra. 'Good grief,' he said later. 'What a mess. Everybody sending, nobody receiving. I shall insist that a warning be placed in the Ephemeris.' "
And the story is off, with its pioneering alien never to be mentioned again. The reader who hopes to find out what a volpt is, or where the Ephemeris is, will quickly learn that such is not the point; Tiptree is telling a highly kinetic story whose jackhammer pacing and drawing-room farce plot (something about an absentminded alien about to give birth to a brood of 30,000) decorate but do not obscure its ultimately melancholy vision of a transcendent communality glimpsed and never to be repeated.
Virtually all of Tiptree's stories combine two themes: the transient nature of some numinous experience (one of her finest novellas is entitled "A Momentary Taste of Being") and a recurrent foreboding of death. Unsurprisingly, many of the stories deal with sex. "Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death," Tiptree's first award-winner, offers a single image -- an intelligent species whose biological imperatives compel females to devour their mates -- which is dramatized with the directness of an arrow striking a bullseye.
"The Women Men Don't See" is Tiptree's most famous story, a precise, beautifully observed tale of a charter plane that crashes with three tourists on the Yucatan tidal flats, which resolves into the decision of a middle-aged woman and her daughter to leave Earth forever rather than remain in a world where women "live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine." "Think of us as opossums," she tells the narrator, a well-meaning male who unwittingly embodies many of the women's grievances. The stark bleakness of its vision ("Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us. Men are more aggressive and powerful, and they run the world. When the next real crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish like . . . smoke") is subtly qualified by the bemused narrator's reflections at story's end, which culminate in the touching and funny line: "Two of our opossums are missing."
The story is, technically, something of a marvel: the deus ex machina of its aliens-on-a-field-trip does not mar its perfect naturalism, and the story retains its sense of unity and inevitability despite its late shift into fantasy. Tiptree withdrew it from contention for the Nebula Award, evidently out of a conviction that she was being credited with extraordinary insight for a "male" writer. Soon she had a second pseudonym, Raccoona Sheldon, which she used for a series of mostly unsuccessful stories and one masterpiece, "The Screwfly Solution." This semi-transparent mask held only briefly, and within a year it was known that Tiptree was Alice Sheldon, a retired psychologist who had worked in the intelligence industry and lived in McLean, Va.
This omnibus volume includes most of Tiptree's finest stories, as well as several of the failed ones. John Clute, not one of science fiction's uncritical partisans, does not hesitate to call her a great writer. Still unknown to those whose familiarity with American short fiction derives from the received wisdom of the "O. Henry" anthologies, Tiptree promises to be better known in the next century than in the present one.
Gregory Feeley, who writes frequently about science fiction and fantasy, is the author of a recently published novel, "The Oxygen Barons."