The Stories That Predict Us

By Matthew Cheney

Rereading books and stories that enchanted you when you were young can be dangerous once youth has passed, because most of the time the enchantment has slipped away along with the years. For instance, I had avoided returning to the first story by James Tiptree Jr. that I ever read, "Yanqui Doodle," until recently, because the story had a powerful effect on me when I was eleven, a time when the few science fiction stories I'd read were by Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov and had been published decades before I'd been born.

Tiptree is a touchstone for me in many ways. When I read "Yanqui Doodle" in the July 1987 issue of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, a magazine borrowed from my mother's boss (who, I think, specifically told me not to read that story, as I wouldn't understand it), I did not know that Tiptree was Alice Sheldon, a woman in her seventies who had once worked for government intelligence agencies and had a Ph.D. in experimental psychology. I did not know that she was famous within the science fiction field for her dark and thoughtful stories, that she had won awards, that she was revered. I just knew that the story was illustrated with a picture of a soldier and, at eleven years old, I liked soldiers.

On May 13, 1987, shortly before I read "Yanqui Doodle," Alice Sheldon shot her ailing husband and herself. I discovered this fact later, with the arrival of the November 1987 issue of Analog, to which I had recently subscribed (mostly because it seemed to have more stories about spaceships than Asimov's, and I liked spaceships even more than I liked soldiers). I read the brief obituary in the magazine, and it filled me with more emotions than I knew what to do with—I had just read her story, how could she be dead? And how could James Tiptree Jr. be a she?

I didn't have anywhere I could look for answers. The local college library only had science fiction books from when nobody knew Tiptree was a woman. Later, I would read an interview with her, some short biographical notes, more fiction. Life went on, I continued to read Tiptree here and there in old anthologies and then in her various collections, but I never went back to "Yanqui Doodle." It was linked too inextricably with the horror of learning of her death and her identity at the same time—a literal death mixed with the death of a certain innocence of my own. I didn't know what it meant that James Tiptree Jr. was a woman, but I knew it scared me.

Looking back, however, does not have to be horrible. Sometimes we discover that though old stories are not as wondrous and life-changing as they were when we first encountered them, they still give clues to who we are, and who we have become: a personal time machine offering a glimpse back between the nostalgic veils obscuring memory.

My first thought on rereading "Yanqui Doodle" was, I must have been completely lost during most of this. The story is about a soldier in a Latin American country of the near future, one where American troops are fighting against a popular rebellion of "Guévaristas" and are given a variety of drugs by their commanders to make them into "berserkers" and then to help them sleep at night after they have committed atrocities. (At the time the story was written, events in El Salvador and Nicaragua were frequently in the news, the World Court had recently issued a judgment against the U.S. for its actions in Nicaragua, and the Iran/Contra scandal was revealing the extent of the Reagan administration's willingness to subvert the Constitution.) I remember wondering why the story was published in a science fiction magazine—it doesn't, after all, have any spaceships—and I remember finding the descriptions of the protagonist's experiences in the detox hospital compelling. The story merged in my memory with one I read somewhat later (though it was published the year before): Lucius Shepard's "R&R," a more ambitious story with a number of similarities to Tiptree's.

What I find remarkable now is how much of my later interests fit into the story. Just over ten years after first reading "Yanqui Doodle" I would travel to Nicaragua and spend a few weeks living with people in a barrio in Managua. Before that, my political views had shifted from the conservative stance my parents held when I was young to varieties of left-wing radicalism throughout college and after. Despite all the incarnations, moderations, qualms, quibbles, and cop-outs these views suffered through the years, I have remained staunchly anti-militarist. The ending of "Yanqui Doodle" (in which the protagonist escapes from the hospital, gets some drugs, and, purely by luck, encounters members of the U.S. Congressional Armed Services Committee and realizes that they are his true enemy) is marred by a preachiness of tone and situation, but I'm now a longstanding member of the choir supporting the sermon.

It's as if certain stories have the power to predict us. The kid who read the Tiptree obituary, stunned at the suicide and the woman behind the male name, would soon enough be wandering through a labyrinth of his own conflicting experiences of gender and sexual identity. The kid who read about a drug-addled soldier in an imperial war in Latin America would soon enough be marching for causes, boycotting anything at the drop of an accusation, learning basic Spanish, and hearing tales of mined harbors from people whose parents and children and siblings had been killed by bullets imported by Oliver North. The kid who wondered why a story like "Yanqui Doodle" had been published in a science fiction magazine would eventually become an advocate for stories that question and reconfigure even the broadest definitions of "science fiction."

"Yanqui Doodle" didn't make me who I am. If Alice Sheldon had never decided to write fiction, or if I had never discovered her work, I doubt that I would be a much different person. And yet because the story did exist, and because I happened to read it when I did, and because it was written well enough to etch at least a few lines of itself into my memory, it became a part of who I have been. Therein lies one of the great joys of reading. Some stories change our lives, but many others settle down in the recesses of our personalities, echoing the patterns that make us who we are. The great moments of epiphany and change are exhilarating, but it's all those other stories, the ones that tag along with us, and sometimes run ahead, that make a reader's journey through life one of substance and depth.


Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including English Journal, Locus, SF Site, Failbetter.com, and Ideomancer. He writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus. Read more of his columns in our archives.