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
And So On, and So On