The biography of James Tiptree Jr., known as Alice Sheldon in reality, makes for interesting reading. Having had anything but a predictable life, amongst her many talents was writing science fiction. Her personal life troubled, its emotional tension leaked into her fiction, giving it a certain salience, and likewise dark undertones. One of her last novellas, The Only Neat Thing to Do may be the most autobiographical of them all.
Coati Cass is a plucky, intelligent young girl with dreams of space. She knows all the star stations, the models of ship that traverse the universe, and the rules of space flight. Saving up her money, she decides to put her knowledge to use and fulfill her dreams by renting a ship for a few weeks’ trip into the great unknown. Things go smoothly at first; she spends the last of her money on fuel and food, gets permission to lift off after chartering a course, and heads off to the starry beyond. At the first way station, however, things take a turn—as innocent as it may be. Intercepting a message from a pair of spacers thought lost, she decides to follow up on their request for help. Little does she know what else was stowed in the message container.
Opening in an adventurous mode a la Jack Vance and closing on the bleakest of notes a la Hemingway, The Only Neat Thing to Do is a true arc of story. Hugging a proper 180 degree curve, the narrative seems to parallel Tiptree Jr.’s personal life in more ways than one. From the innocence of youth to the uncertainty of responsibility in the wide world—err, universe, the struggles of a person coming to terms with themselves and the reality they are a part of are symbolized in what Coati finds inside the message, or better yet, what finds Coati inside the message. From the hopes and dreams of youth to sexuality and the psychological weight of family expectation, Tiptree Jr. covers a lot of ground in the short, heartbreaking novella.
In the end, The Only Neat Thing to Do is a poignant tale of a young girl who turns herself loose on the world only to meet a tragic end. By parallel, it is also the story of an author in turmoil, seeking escape from demons past and present. The main plot device similar to Jack Vance’s Nopalgarth or Dan Simmon’s Carrion Comfort, readers will find the underlying content all Tiptree Jr.’s. Symbolism ripe and the narrative flowing, the story haunts beyond the grave.