How many famous space captains are there in science fiction—the square-jawed heroic type? Captain Kirk, Commander Riker, Captain Robert E. Lee, Han Solo, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and on and on goes the list of masculine men oozing competence, strength, and wit. Working hand in hand, every captain likewise has an antagonist, an almost-as-competent man whose visions of success are skewed to the egotistical—Darth Vader, Khan, Ming the Merciless among them. This dichotomy the reason behind many a successful book and film, there remains another question: what does the larger picture look like? What does one see standing above this battle of testosterone? James Tiptree Jr’. 1976 novella Houston, Houston, Do You Read? answers the question in biting, challenging fashion.
Houston, Houston, Do You Read? is the story of Dr. Lorimer, a scientist aboard a NASA mission gone wrong. Their ship Sunbird One struck by solar radiation while amongst the inner planets, they are limping back to Earth at the story’s opening. Lorimer’s fellow crew members, the religious Captain Dave and the good ol’ engineer Bud, are relaxed despite the damage their ship has taken, and are enjoying the trip. But when a communication to NASA in Houston fails to generate a reply, things turn strange. Even stranger is when another spaceship, called the Escondita, contacts them out of the blue, telling them they are off-course. The test of pride that follows this announcement is only the beginning, however. The three men’s lives changed forever in the aftermath, whose instrumentation is telling the truth is up for the reader to find out.
A brilliant subversion of a common theme in sci-fi, Houston, Houston, Do You Read? is as bold as it is pointed. The Escondita full of more information than just a course alteration, the three men’s encounter with a ship full of women after two years in space proves an awesome testing ground. Holding no punches, their square-jawed competency is interrogated to the nth degree by Tiptree. While the climax reduces these characters to wooden actors, there is more than enough primeval humanity motivating the action to warrant a recommendation.
It will be a quick note—just as it is in the text, but something must be said for the last sentence of the novella. It’s utterly brilliant. The proverbial cherry on top, it is a slingshot that sets the mind’s wheels spinning, making the reader wonder which of the options is in fact best for the future given the evidence just offered.
In the end, Houston, Houston, Do You Read? is a daring, challenging read written in equally provocative prose. Not in the sense the text is difficult (though Tiptree does write in a sparse yet poetic language that requires that brief extra moment to glean meaning), rather in the sense that existing norms—particularly of the era in which the story was written and which continue to exist today—may in fact not be best for society. Unabashedly a feminist text, it makes for powerful reading with a powerful message.