Introduction to "Her Smoke Rose Up Forever" (Arkham House, 1990)

John Clute

This essay appears here with the kind permission of John Clute.

 

It may not be the truth about American writers, but it is the story. So we print the story. American writers, we will suggest, are like meteors. Flashes in the pan. Mayfly angels. Out of the nowhere, into the here they come, hurtling brazenly through their short day to give us joy, strewing largesse and seed about as though there were no tomorrow which indeed there isn't—because the air of the planet soon gets them, seizes shut the wings of song, burns them out. Afterwards, stuck together with mucilage and pulp, they may linger for a few years in the atriums of America, for hire; but it is not a warm world for sharecroppers, and after the mating flight American writers are terribly fragile, like beehives in a frost. They rust. They crumble at the touch. That is the story we are told, the legend we print; half-right but vicious. It may have shaped the lives (it has certainly poisoned our perception of the lives) of writers like Truman Capote, Dashiell Hammett, Jack Kerouac, Theodore Sturgeon. And James Tiptree Jr?

Sometimes the shoe fits. Creative burn-out is not a curse peculiar to writers, nor to Americans; but writers, notoriously vulnerable in the solitude of their craft, can find it terribly difficult in America to discover a middle ground between total obscurity and the fifteen minutes of crowded fame we're all supposed to get and catch our deaths from; and without that middle ground there is no respite. America, it might be said, is a land without a midlist, a land which affords no cushion—no community, no reciprocity, no clerisy, no network of readers—to sustain the writer in her flight. It is, therefore, all the more remarkable that, just a few generations ago, in the flat heart of this continent, a few men and women and boys and girls were able to give birth to the sf community. They did not invent sf itself (though many of them thought they had), but they did manage to invent (or to re-invent) a mutual society in the heart of a cultural maelstrom, a society of readers and writers and workers which still exists, overgrown and market-driven and hype-ridden though it may sometimes seem to have become. From 1926 or so, unlike his peers, the sf writer comes from somewhere and has somewhere to land. From outside the kraal it must seem a warm world indeed.

For the woman who became James Tiptree Jr in 1968, and who nestled within that pseudonym for a decade—like an imago beyond price hiding deep inside the kind of Russian doll we now call a babushka—the world of sf may well have seemed irresistible. Though she remained invisible until her identity was uncovered, the sf community did nourish her, did constitute a middle ground she could (if only vicariously) live inside, as she attested in correspondence. We cannot know for sure why she became James Tiptree Jr, nor why she began almost to confess her true identity through the creation in 1974 of Raccoona Sheldon as a second pseudonym; and it is almost certain that speculations about the motives of Alice B Sheldon (1915-1987), who became Tiptree, would be an impertinence against her memory. All we can know at this stage is that—during the years of secrecy—she burned like a meteor. All we know for sure is that the stories she wrote from 1970 until 1977—when her health began to fail and her secret identity finally collapsed—comprise the finest and most moving single spate of creative energy the field has ever seen. In the secrecy of the male pseudonym she inhabited during the years of her astonishing prime, and under the cover of the gregarious, life-affirming, gemutlich personality she created in letters and non-fiction for that Tiptree self, Alice B Sheldon wrote free. She wrote young. She wrote to the edge and beyond. And she wrote like a man.

(In 1975, in his introduction to Tiptree's "Warm Worlds and Otherwise," Robert Silverberg gave voice to a bio-critical speculation about the author which has since become famous. "It has been suggested that Tiptree is female," he wrote, "a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree's writing." Given human nature, it's unlikely many of Silverberg's readers could have failed to enjoy the discomfiture he must have felt in 1977 when Tiptree's identity was uncovered; and there is no denying that what he said was both inapposite in its self-assurance, and culture-bound in its assumption that an artifact of language—in this case the phallocentric assembly of themes and tropes and rhythms and rituals and syntaxes greased for power which makes up "masculine discourse"—was in itself inherently sexed, so that only a biological male could utter it. This was surely careless of Silverberg. Artifacts—like jungle jims, like pseudonyms—are in themselves inherently "learnable". They can be climbed into. At the same time, of course, Silverberg "did" have a point. To deny that Tiptree did in fact sound "like a man" is to deny one's clear sense that male hegemony utters itself in recognizable terms; it also scants the masterly uses to which Tiptree put that artifactual language which owns the world "and tells it": tells it what it is, tells it what to do. Having aerated and ennobled that language, having turned the tables on the biological presumptions it rides on, she used the sly potent enablement pheromones of "man talk" as a kind of "speed". She mainlined on the artifact, from within the babushka of Tiptree, itself snugly hidden inside the larger babushka of the sf community; and in that tongue she said some things which burned. Like ice. Like fire.)

So she wrote like a man, and a meteor, a flash in the pan, a mayfly angel. Three years after beginning to write sf, she was already nearing her astonishing peak, and by 1977 (as we've already noted) she had begun to flame out, though the evidence for this was obscured till later by variable gaps between writing and publication of stories. Before 1977. all we knew of James Tiptree Jr was that he was no longer young, because he had told us that he was middle-aged; he also claimed to be Chicago-born, often abroad in his youth, involved in intelligence work in World War Two; and postal evidence suggested that he lived somewhere near Washington, DC. All the same, many of us found it extremely hard to imagine that James Tiptree Jr was not, in fact, a person perhaps rather younger than he claimed, and certainly in the very peak of condition. I myself thought of him as a wiry sharp man whose colour was the colour of marmalade, like a tiger out of Blake. Whether or not I was ever induced to think of him as a woman I cannot remember; but I know I was not prepared to think of him as a 60-year-old woman whose health was precarious, whose first serious heart attack would quite possibly mark the end of any hope she might have to launch herself again, like a tightrope-walker across the void, like a man who walked home, burning energy like a tiger in the night, giving us the tale still taut from the young muscle of her hands, the touch of her secret breath.

But she was a 60-year-old woman. Her health was indeed precarious. One way or another, the air of the planet did get her. And the work she produced in her last decade—though it would grace the oeuvres of many writers—seemed, in comparison with the work of her prime, churchy and fey, self-pitying and exiguous. Unfortunately, because her publishing career was oddly shaped, most readers by the end of the 1980s knew nothing more of Tiptree than that late work. She had written two novels—"Up the Walls of the World" (1978) and "Darkness Falls from the Air" (1985)—but only the latter, weaker volume seemed readily available. The late short stories had been generously hardbacked with the release of "Tales of the Quintana Roo" (1986), "The Starry Rift" (1986) and "Crown of Stars" (1988); and "The Color of Neanderthal Eyes" (1990), her penultimate tale, and the best work she produced in the final spate that preceded her suicide, finally received book publication as part of a Tor Double. Two stories from her prime had also appeared in doubles—"The Girl Who was Plugged In" (1988) and "Houston, Houston, Do you Read?" (1989)—but the great mass of her best work had become difficult to trace for those who remember it. Her finest stories had appeared in four paperback volumes—"10,000 Light-Years from Home" (1973), "Warm Worlds and Otherwise" (1975), "Star Songs of an Old Primate "(1978) and "Out of the Everywhere, and Other Extraordinary Visions" (1981)—and though each one of them could claim to be among the very few permanently significant collections to appear during that period, not one of them was ever even published in hardback (except for the first, released in England by Methuen in a setting that boasted unjustified right margins and a whole new crop of proofing errors to augment the contemptible slurry of goofs that corrupted the ill-edited original version from Ace). Subsequently, Doubleday did publish, in "Byte Beautiful" (1986), complete with expurgations to fit its contents to the library market, a collection of old and new work oddly sorted and poorly argued as a conspectus of her distinguished career. James Tiptree Jr had become virtually unknowable.

The publication of "Her Smoke Rose Up Forever," as edited by James Turner, comes therefore as an important event. Because almost every story James Tiptree Jr wrote at the apogee of her passage across the heavens is here assembled, "Her Smoke Rose Up Forever" ranks as one of the two or three most significant collections of short sf ever published. Of the 18 stories in the volume, I would have myself omitted only one, "And I Have Come Upon This Place by Lost Ways" (published in 1972 but written at the end of 1968: all further citations will be of year of composition only), because the cartoon crudity of its telling conforms all too well to the melodramatic epiphanizing of its close. And of those stories Turner has had to omit, I would have argued fervently only for one, "All the Kinds of Yes" (1972), a tale which refines and darkens and speeds up and in the end utterly transforms the comic clatter of Tiptree's earliest work, so that "Yes" closes on a twist of plot (just who "isn't" an alien in the bloody thing) which is an epiphany which is a world-view which is a shrug which is a benediction, all at once. Of the 17 remaining stories, every single one is a joy, a consolation of achieved form; swift in nuance, extravagant in density, extroverted, "athletic"; but also (because James Tiptree Jr was possibly the darkest writer ever to publish sf of the first rank) every single one tells some sort of death.

Almost every story collected in "Her Smoke Rose Up Forever" ends in death, literal or metaphorical, experienced or nigh. Our touch upon the planet is death; sex is an intricacy of death; exogamy (our lust for other species and for the stars) is death; the ultimate taste of any human being (as in the 1973 title story) is of an anguish unto death. Death comes as the end; the end is Death's come. The plan is Death. But none of this makes Tiptree a dour writer, though her messages are grim. Because she is an author who talks about the world before turning in, the extroversion of her stories is genuine and exultant. They are crowded with events and folk and things to think about; folding into one breath—one telling—the world and its outcome, they almost seem to "grin". Like a shaping bone within the babushka of the world, the skull of death may ultimately stare the show shut, but the grin on the mask of James Tiptree Jr is the tender knowing omen-haunted gong-tormented grin of a wise lover with no time to spare, whose time is limited. As so many young writers in America have done, she flashes across the firmament like a meteor, but with one difference. Most American writers burn out because they have ransacked too savagely experiences too slender to grow back after the frost of exposure; James Tiptree Jr burns out from the freight and convergence of the years. The spirit is willing but the body is weak. She burns out "old". She leaves behind her a body of work no young writer could have conceived, no old writer should have had the energy to shape. And that, in the end, is the secret of her Janus face—her antic glances so deathward-bound, her deathward gaze so full of life.

The stories collected in "Her Smoke Rose Up Forever" have been sorted into several rough thematic categories, and need little further bush. The first two—"The Last Flight of Doctor Ain (1969; rewritten circa 1974) and "The Screwfly Solution" (1976)—are lessons in what might be called eschatological ecology. Both are told in skewed and variable retrospect, exceedingly complicated to describe but crystalline in the reading. Both are famous. Doctor Ain spreads a virus which will destroy the human race, because the human race has destroyed the Earth its mother (he could be spreading his death seed in anguish and rage this very day). In the second tale, aliens destabilize the fragile equipoise that keeps the two human sexes masked from one another; and men begin to kill the women of the world, because that is the plan of our nature when stripped.

Four tales that further frame our state now follow. "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side" (1971) argues that any superior alien race will have a Cargo effect on humans, binding them most utterly in the region where they are most explosively at risk—which for Tiptree is always the stress-knot of sex. (But always she is Janus-faced, because clearly she loves sex, finds sex fascinating, writes finely of sexual love.) "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" (1969), along with "And I Have Come Upon this Place by Lost Ways" (1968), shows a risky aggressiveness of diction and plotting, which the author has not yet fully controlled; the whole flippant time-travel narrative frame of "Girl," for instance, while elbowing us ostentatiously away from the sentimental tale it glosses, in truth only underlines the nurse-romance premises that govern that inner tale. (But how brilliantly she almost carries the farrago off.) And "The Man Who Walked Home" (1971) inscribes the longing for a return to Eden in great flashes across the sky, so vividly that "Man" has become a kind of paradigm of the tale of exile.

Tiptree's most famous single story heads the next three. "The Women Men Don't See" (1972) manages almost miraculously (pace some feminist readings of the tale as a univocal advocacy of radical misandry) to retain a sense of the humanity of the aging alpha male who narrates, who miscomprehends the women with whom he is cast into extremis, who watches them leave the planet altogether rather than remain chinks in his world-machine. "Your Faces, O my Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!" (1974) and "Houston, Houston, Do you Read?" (1974) both carry the analysis further—the first in terms of experience traumatized beyond salvation, the second within a science-fiction frame whose orthodoxy makes the arguments it contains about the nature of male humans all the more crushing.

We are barely halfway through. "With Delicate Mad Hands" (1980) and "We who Stole the "Dream"" (1977) both show some signs of burn-out, the first through excessive length and sentiment, the second through moral gimmickry; word-perfect over its great length, and almost unbearably dark in the detail and momentum of the revelation of its premise that humans are gametes looking to consummate an exogamous fuck they cannot survive, "A Momentary Taste of Being " (1973) may be the finest densest most driven novella yet published in the field. "Her Smoke Rose Up Forever" (1973) we have mentioned; "Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death" (1971) has a juggernaut drive, a consuming melancholy of iron, a premise the author never backed away from; "On the Last Afternoon" (1971) pits personal transcendence against the cultural/biological survival of the race in a tale of such cumulative dialectical drive that it nearly causes burn-out to "read"; "She Waits for All Men Born" (1974) casts in fable form a lesson about Death, who is the dance and the Dancer and the very flesh of Love; and "Slow Music" (1977), Tiptree's last great story, serves as a requiem for all the gay gorged gangrenous world she loved and gave us the pulse of. At the nub end of our span on earth, two last young people meet, mate, fail to breed, trek a false river to an ambivalent alien transcendence, stop and trip and slide into the beam of transcendence to become an ode by Keats, deathless but thoroughly dead. It is the end. It was very nearly the end for James Tiptree Jr.

Soon she was utterly spent. She died old. She is here.