Friday, October 9, 2015

Review of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr.

Indulge me for a moment—just a moment.

Jane Tiptree Jr.’s 1990 His Smoke Rose Up Forever is a quality collection of short stories spanning the writer’s career. Almost but not quite a best-of, its major themes are brazen and challenging, including: alien juxtaposition, dominance in cultural relations, gender dichotomy, mortality, and the female proclivity for physical and sexual violence toward men.  The language on point throughout, nihilism regarding humanity’s overall chances of survival as a result of female misanthropy has never been so rigorously portrayed in fiction.

Now stop.  Did you blink at anytime reading that paragraph?  Yes, I confess.  I switched the gender indicators.  Reverse all the male, female, etc. and voila, you’ve got a true summary of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.  Feel better now, don’t you?  It’s ok for men to be the cause of humanity’s downfall and to have their evil deeds magnified in heavily politicized terms, but not ok for women.  Thus, in terms of the collection’s location in gender discussion, it makes for... interesting discussion.

Though there are some outliers (which I will get to), the lion’s share of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is bound up in men committing violence toward women, of male fantasies that end in rape or murder, and of masculinity that plays itself into the downfall of humanity.  “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain,” for example, features an epidemiologist (a man) who travels the world giving lectures, spreading a virus along the way. His reason: fantasies of a woman appearing in his dreams.  “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!” is the story of a woman trodding a post-apocalyptic landscape and is raped along the way.  As she lays dying, she dreams of a woman who is… raped.  “With Delicate Mad Hands” is the story of a young woman who is assigned to a space ship, and after some time aboard, is gang raped by her shipmates and captain before a more tragic fate takes hold.  And in perhaps Tiptree Jr.’s most famous story, “The Screwfly Solution,” an entomologist researches eliminating a particularly pesky insect by creating a pesticide that wipes out its females.  In his life outside the lab, the entomologist has fantasies of murdering his wife while a strange cult, the Cult of Adam, sweeps the land, killing all women.  

Aliens likewise joining the mix, they are most often portrayed as mirrors to humanity, or at least a benchmark contextualizing human behavior.  In “We Who Stole the Dream,” the relationship between humanity and two alien races is explored: one humanity tortures to death to extract a valuable substance made all the more potent by pain and suffering, and the other is enslaved for manual labor, and yes, male sexual pleasure.  “A Momentary Taste of Being” seems to portray women as an alien species carrying ova, while the male humans who arrive on planet carry the sperm.  Cultural conflict, and if the symbolism rings true, gender conflict ensues.  In “On the Last Afternoon” the descendants of a ship which crash landed on a jungle planet must deal with the large locals who appear only once over a long period of time to mate, their environment and relationship all coming into sharper focus..

When it’s not concerned with alien relations, male malevolence, or the end of all things at the hands of man, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever can most often be found wallowing in morbidity.  To describe the stories would be to spoil them, but like a Tiptree Jr. story not included in this collection “The Only Neat Thing To Do,” the protagonist often ends up dead in tragic fashion.  A fascination with death evident, even if it is not central to the story at hand, it haunts the stories’ backgrounds, often revealing itself in full bloom (my anti-metpahor) at the conclusion.

It’s precisely at this point I’m of two minds (or just p.c. level 2?) regarding Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.  Individually, the stories have true impact—far beyond the average science fiction short.  Stories like “Houston, Houston Do You Read?”, “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” and “The Women Men Don't See” slap the reader proverbially in the face, challenging assumptions regarding genre, gender, technology, and society in a manner science fiction rarely if ever has seen.  But en masse, the stories become monotonous.  “Here we go, another dark, jaded, paranoid, morbid, angry, cynical take on masculinity and humanity. What will the window dressing be this time?  Post-apocalypse?  Space travel? Proto-cyberpunk?”  At times the collection can be reduced to: what scenario can I concoct in order to depict the failings of men? 

It’s not often a collection invokes such a reaction in me.  The portrayal of men and humanity collectively out of balance, each instance, however, forces the reader to stop and think.  Tiptree’s hands mad and delicate, she layers classic genre material over several ideologically-taught sub-texts fully oriented towards gender.  So challenging, I would say it’s impossible for any reader not to find themselves questioning basic values or perspectives they may have about sex—in all its meanings.  For their extreme thought-provoking nature, individual stories in the collection are major contributions to genre fiction.

Thus, in the end, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is a polarizing collection.  On one hand overflowing with sharply written, beautifully titled stories that give several pauses to think on the fundamental nature of the genders.  On the other, the tedium of repetitive thematic material—material that seems much more personal than universal—can get a bit predictable, and as a result, stale.  While never directly stating the ideas as such, echoing throughout almost each story there seems a hopelessness to being male and human.  Often humanity is portrayed as a bug in needing of extermination for true harmony to exist, maleness/male behavior the reason.  Pysoginistic (I couldn’t find the male equivalent of ‘mysoginistic’), it’s a collection best read in sips rather than swallows, lest the melancholy choke.  I close with a question for the p.c. crowd: were women to have been on the opposite end of the collection’s gender portrayal, what would the reaction be? 

Highly recommended with a big caveat, the following are the eighteen stories collected in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever:

The Last Flight of Dr. Ain
The Screwfly Solution
And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side
The Girl Who Was Plugged In
The Man Who Walked Home
And I Have Come Upon This Place by Lost Ways
The Women Men Don't See
Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!
Houston, Houston, Do You Read?
With Delicate Mad Hands
A Momentary Taste of Being
We Who Stole the Dream
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever
Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death
On the Last Afternoon
She Waits for All Men Born
Slow Music
And So On, and So On


  1. I'm surprised you didn't use the word misandronistic. That word seems to be everywhere nowadays.

    "were women to have been on the opposite end of the collection’s gender portrayal, what would the reaction be?"

    I see what you're getting at, but it would only be a fair question if the playing ground were level, if government were truly representative, if men and women were paid the same, if women had more control over reproductive rights, blah, blah, blah, you've heard this all before, I'm sure. It's a punching up sort of thing, as tired as I am of that phrase.

    There are books like that, which blogs like sometimes cover, and they are ridiculous and alarming, and act as very helpful reminders that there are people out there who feel incredibly threatened by the idea of independent women who make the rules instead of following them. And, of course, an occasional perusal of current male outrage movements on Twitter is eye-opening for someone like me who, probably like you, lives in an insulated equality bubble most of the time.

    I'm surprised you're not also taking into consideration the era in which these stories were written. What feels stale to you was just gaining ground in the early '70s. Particularly when considering these stories are coming from an author who was probably very often dismissed as a woman in the sciences, the military, etc. (Which still happens.)

    I'm just 1/3 of the way through this collection, so I may be speaking to soon, but none of it feels stale to me. I loved "The Screwfly Solution," which I see less as a misadronistic paranoia, but a valid commentary on the underlying aggression of male sexual behavior, something she or her colleagues had observed in the lab as an experimental psychologist, an evolutionary behavior that is still uncomfortable to talk about and comprehend. "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain" was written before her gender was known, and I didn't read it as criticism toward men-- green feminism perhaps, but then again, the character doing the destroy-humanity-to-save-the-world bit was a man.

    "The Women Men Don't See" is a much better example of Sheldon's criticism of male behavior, which is still relevant today because I know that annoying dude who is so baffled by independent women. I've encountered more than few men like that in my life. Thankfully, I have the freedom to keep them out of my insulated little bubble.

    Anyway, Alice Sheldon had every right to criticize the existing patriarchy of her time, and it still feels relevant to me, even as I sit in my insulated equality bubble, where I still have to remind men at work (whom I am either equally or better educated than) that I am not their secretary or interior designer. And, the fact that I can absolutely relate to these stories and you cannot says far more about the truth of the current gender politics than I could ever articulate.

  2. Wow, where to begin. My brain’s a-whir.

    Women are still, of course, at a relative disadvantage to men in government, work, society, etc. But I relate to the examples from your own life much more than the “discrimination” described in Tiptree Jr.'s stories. By using the extremes of rape and species extinction, I think she simply ‘punches’ rather than ‘punches up’—more reactive than constructive. I don’t feel threatened by Sheldon operating as an independent woman, I am threatened by the contents of her statement: if males are indeed such terrible beasts, my perspective on life is gravely flawed, or, we’re in for a world of suffering soon. I’d like to think men have built more than they’ve destroyed…

    Certainly Sheldon stacked the deck in her favor, which is every artist’s right, but it’s the purpose behind it that is key. If we interpret the purpose as raising awareness regarding the socio-political gap between the sexes, than I fully agree the collection can be related to. Such a view was and remains relevant. If, however, we go one step closer to some of the collection’s common themes, then I have trouble relating to it. The idea that the average man is a violent malcontent trying to bring down the world doesn’t seem realistic to me, and therefore undercuts the collection’s relevancy. I find the representation of men in “The Women Men Don’t See” far more comprehensible and literary then the men of “The Screwfly Solution,” “…Dr. Ain,” and several other of the stories.

    Another way of putting this might be, does Tiptree Jr.’s representation of men move society forward or sideways? One can say forward, i.e. “the collection is a literary slap to the face that reminds people there is still a gender gap, in turn causing progressive action of some kind.” But I can also see sideways: the narrow rather than wide view stunts any resulting discussion. By switching the gender indicators in the beginning, my goal was therefore not outrage, but simply to say that such a narrow view of either sex is not advantageous to us as a whole.

    As I said in my review, I do not think the collection is stale because of the flavor; I think it’s stale for the repetition of the flavor. Regardless of era, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is like an ice cream shop with many tubs on display but only three flavors to choose from among them. Those three flavors can put Ben & Jerry to shame for originality (nothing can ever be written again like "The Girl Who Was Plugged In"), but they lose impact—become stale—after fifteen trips to the same parlor. I have the same complaint of the Dozois-GRRM retro anthologies released the past few years. The stories in Old Mars, Old Venus, etc. get old quick; each story features similar ingredients. Slap me once, you’ve got my attention. Slap me twice, I’m definitely listening. Slap me fifteen times and my cheek goes numb.

    I’m very curious what you will think once you’ve finished the collection. Perhaps I was at a disadvantage for reading straight through rather than working in pieces?

  3. Sorry, Jesse. If it's any consolation, you've awhirred my brain a couple of time with comments on my blog :-)

    Perhaps that is the problem: that you read the collection straight through. I just don't have the tolerance for short stories to do that, so I've been sampling bit by bit.

    So, I just read "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" Now that one was pretty intense and, I think, a prime example of a story very likely influenced by her own experiences with men. Those three men on the mission seem to represent three male archetypes of her world: the macho aggressor, the saintly oppressor, the passive watcher. These are the men who populate her world (and the world of many other women).

    But does it move men forward or sideways? you ask. I don't think it's about men at all; it's about moving women to level footing. When Lorimer (the passive male) says at the end "Your problem is... if you take the risk of giving us equal rights, what could we possibly contribute?" I think that signals to the reader that the intention of the story was not to illustrate any sense of what she thinks is the reality of men (#notallmen, you know), but to provoke that sense of unfairness among male readers in order to burst that same argument that has been poised at women for ages.

    And again, I think "Dr. Ain" totally could have been cast as a woman and it wouldn't have made a difference. I don't think she was doing feminist writing with that story. She was strictly "James Tiptree" at that time. And "The Screwfly Solution" was a wonderful little horror story that questions the (complicit) sexual practices of males and females, insect and human. I don't think it's too far out to suspect that Sheldon was weirded out by penetration, fellatio, and the whole mid-20th hetero sexual pursuit in general. Any little girl getting her first birds and the bees talk would probably say much worse about it.

    1. It's been a few years since I read "Houston, Houston Do You Read?", but I remember it leaving a distinct, positive impression. The ending was glorious - upending the apple cart of a generation's square-jawed heroes in space. Looking back on my review just now, I see that I captured this appreciation in the stars (4.5/5!! :) but not so much in content. My review of "The Girl Who Was Plugged In," also read several years ago, does a much better job of glowing in appreciation of Sheldon. And the majority of the rest of the stories in the collection I would also praise, just en masse...

      Actually, I asked does Tiptree Jr.'s fiction move society forward or sideways. Small but important difference. :) On my bicycle rides home from work the past week I'm thinking about this. (Told you "a-whir"!) I've come to no conclusion. I truly see both. The important thing may be, however, that I don't think her fiction moves society backward. The message is very aggressive, but like any first-time AA attendee, awareness of a problem is the first step toward progress, and her fiction certainly makes the reader aware - with giant red blinking lights.

      On a personal note, feminism (or something like that) is something I struggle with on this blog. (Obviously, you might say!) Like many other issues of post-post-post-modern cultural concern, it's an idea that has almost been critiqued to the point of existence through non-existence, the differing viewpoints 360 degrees. And in 2015 everybody is right - or at least we're supposed to come up with more delicate ways of shouting "You're fucking crazy!" into the internet void. And perhaps nowhere is this more acute than in literature. Commenting on women's issues without stepping on somebody's toes has almost become impossible. ("Women are good." is a safe bet. ;)) I'm not saying I think I stepped on you toes, rather sometimes I'm at a loss how to "correctly" approach the subject in my reviews, and end up reverting to simple paradigms like: social progress, etc., hence my critique of the common threads I saw to Her Smoke Rose Up Forever...

      Anyway, I'm sure actually being a "correct modern woman" is even more complex. Good luck! :)

    2. Ah, sorry, I did quote you incorrectly. "Society" does make a big difference, though I still think her stories contribute a lot. She was highlighting things that people were uncomfortable talking about at the time, status differences that people were unwilling to recognize and question. If some of those stories were published by an author today, I wouldn't appreciate them as much. In fact, I would probably share your opinion in some ways: why is this author so one-dimensional? why is she repeating old news with nothing new to say about it?

      Not that I think contemporary society has solved all of the sexism. Lots of women still live in Tiptree's reality, but we see it as a multidimensional problem now. Some make excuses for it, reinforce it, don't know how to escape from it. Tiptree's evil men are still around, but it's not just those men keeping the system alive... and it's not just women who are being victimized by that system. Lots of women raising "little princes" and "little warriors," lots of boys and men who feel oppressed by macho expectations. And women still getting raped. And blamed for it.

      Of course my toes aren't stepped on. I like these conversations and I hope my response didn't come off as too aggressive. It all sounds perfectly peaceful in my head, but yes, the Internet is full of shouting and it's hard to tell sometimes. And, as you know, I am not a fan of "feminism as a marketing blurb," because it diminishes the argument, to the point of non-existence, as you said, and, most importantly, it usually delivers stale fiction.

    3. I came across Andrea Dworkin today for the first time. I assume you're aware, but if not, have a look:

      I can't help but wonder if Sheldon was influenced by Dworkin or others with similar worldviews?

  4. I have heard of that kind of feminist criticism, but if I've heard her name before, it didn't stick. But I never studied feminist theory, nor has it interested me much. Going only on this book, I don't get the feeling from Tiptree's tales that she is anti-porno, sex-negative. I have wondered if Sheldon has been the recipient of some kind of sexual trauma, or her career in the military brought her in too close proximity with incredibly disrespectful men. That kind of experience would certainly color her fiction. However, I do see "The Screwfly Solution" as a sincere scientific extrapolation applied to society. I think it's very clever and horrifying. I also wonder if the success of that story compelled her to write more stories in that vein, and more explicitly so. So, is it trauma or branding that influenced her more violent stories? Maybe both?