The James Tiptree Award Anthology 3: Subversive Stories about Sex and Gender, edited by Karen Joy Fowler, Pat Murphy, Debbie Notkin, and Jeffrey D. Smith
Reviewed by Victoria Hoyle
12 February 2007
Coeditor Jeffrey D. Smith's opening essay sets the ambitious tone of this year's James Tiptree Award Anthology—"we want to change the world, one good story at a time" (xiii)—before going on to provide a lucid (and useful) introduction to the evolution of the eponymous prize itself. Smith, who was a close friend to Tiptree and became her estate's literary trustee after her death in 1987, explains how the award began as a genre prize for short fiction but rapidly broke its own rules and boundaries. It has always strayed into controversy and courted taboo, much like the fiction it rewards. He describes its constant adaptation: to encompass fiction of all lengths (". . . the gender aspects of a story are much more important than its length, and if the best story is a novel then a novel should win" [viii]), to short-list not only genre but also mainstream novels and stories ("the object, after all, is to point people towards good stories" [x]), and to giddily embrace all forms of gender-subversive material—from nonfiction to comic books, fan fiction to websites and even music. Unlike essayists in the earlier Tiptree volumes, Smith doesn't mention the judging process or attempt to provide statements of the award's intent. He steers clear of definitions of gender and SF and is much more interested in the results of what is clearly a mysterious and idiosyncratic selection process. Such a focus cleverly bypasses the angst and confusion displayed (and generated) by fellow editors Karen Joy Fowler and Pat Murphy on previous outings. Smith chooses to revel in the chaos attendant on the award rather than attempt to explicate it—a good choice. He effectively shrugs and grins before playfully admitting that the Tiptree Award does not consistently reward anything in particular. Rather, it is about being subverted by excellent writing, and liking it.
Certainly there is much to like, and even to love, in this third anthology of short-listed fiction. The lineup is startlingly impressive: stories from Margo Lanagan, Nalo Hopkinson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Vonda McIntyre, Eleanor Arnason, Ted Chiang, and Geoff Ryman; nonfiction from Pam Noles, Dorothy Allison, and L. Timmel Duchamp; and, finally, a welcome and extremely challenging story by Tiptree herself, a glaring omission in previous volumes. Every piece is worth reading and ruminating over; some of the fiction is excellent, some quite clearly exceptional.
Take Lanagan's “Wooden Bride” (from Black Juice, 2004), short-listed for the award in 2005, as an example of the quality and complexity on offer. Elegant and poetical, it focuses on a young woman's rite of passage from her childhood as an ordinary willful girl to a postpubescent life as a "Straitened" Bride, a symbolical sacrament by which she is wed to physical composure and emotional restraint. It begins with disorientation:
I'm in danger. Up ahead, limousines, white horses, flower strewers, white-and-silver gift carts block the street. Here Brides and their families crowd. Irate mothers are shouting; fathers are giggling, and some are trying to push forward; we Brides stand motionless in First Position, like fence posts in a flood. (41)
Immediately after which our protagonist, Mattild Weir, becomes strangely lost in the flow and ebb of the city of her childhood. Dressed for the ceremony and wearing delicately folded paper shoes designed to last only a day, she finds herself alone outside the city walls and without a quick route back to the ceremony. She panics and suffers a brief bout of self-doubt before embarking on a self-imposed odyssey back to the cathedral and her restricted life as a Bride.
The story places a great deal of emphasis on both Mattild's self-volition, in desiring to irrevocably repress herself, and her self-possession, in desiring the power, respect, and historical identity that come of being a Bride. She chooses to sacrifice domestic comfort and personal freedom in return for a place in the broad sweep of her culture's traditions. Lanagan stresses the double-edged sword of Mattild's socially constructed ideals, making an interesting play on the traditional dialectic of female repression. She shows quite clearly that even as the Bride tradition confines and determines individuals, especially women, it also strengthens them and provides security. When Mattild finally arrives for her ceremony and kneels on the wooden stool before the bishop, she understands:
Here I am, relaxed in the flow of the holy words, firm in the rightness of this, taking the blessing and knowing—as I haven't known for two whole years, as I didn't even know this morning, darting out of the house [. . .]; as I didn't know pacing the lanes and counting—that it's mine to take, that I deserve it, that I've earned it. I've made myself a Bride; out among the fields today, alone and without instruction, I wedded myself to the severe and lovely ways of the old dead kings and queens at their height, when all the people loved them. And now the bishop's thumb is dipping into the sacred oil and ash [. . .] and applying history to my brow. (49)
The imagery of the Bride, stiff-backed and emotionless, could easily have become one-note, a basic analogy of our own "repressive" traditions, marriage most obviously, and young women's roles within them. But Lanagan is too good to play such a straight hand.
So too is Hopkinson in her version of the Bluebeard narrative, "The Glass Bottle Trick," short-listed for the Tiptree in 2000 (from Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction, 2000). Like many stories in the anthology, it concerns itself with gender only insofar as all stories about women have undercurrents of a gendered dialectic. In this case a young woman, Beatrice Powell, is contemplating telling her husband, Samuel, about her first pregnancy when she discovers the bodies of his previous two wives in a locked room in their home. Realising that Samuel murdered them while (and because) they were pregnant with his children, Beatrice is left anticipating the worst kind of death for herself: gutted, and her baby violently aborted. Hopkinson gives us to understand that Beatrice's fault is in her body and her beauty, in her very physicality. Samuel married her for her almost-white skin and has subsequently reduced her to an object of wishful worship: he believes that by marrying and possessing her, he has, in some symbolic way, lightened his own dark skin. But he is thoroughly revolted at the prospect of her bearing his black babies into the world. Her fertility, her biological reality—dare I say "destiny"?—is at once incidental and abhorrent to him. She is the feminist's archetypal repressed woman, a status symbol and an accessory to the male ego.
The Tiptree frequently highlights such intersections of race and gender issues and, by doing so, places itself squarely at a thematic crossroads—a junction of the marginalized. This fellow feeling is best expressed by the inclusion of Noles's nonfiction article "Shame" (first published in the Infinite Matrix, 2006), about the ambivalent relationship between the categories "white" and "nonwhite" in traditional forms of SF and fantasy. The essay, a diatribe of sorts and also a manifesto, has little to do with the Tiptree (indeed, nothing at all), and yet belongs amidst all this talk of identity and fiction. Certainly it provides real-life context for Allison's critical appreciation of the late Octavia Butler's work, "The Future of Female: Octavia Butler's Mother Lode" (in Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology, 1990), which makes explicit the confluence of gender and racial themes in Butler's work. The essay is good, if a little adrift in the middle of the collection (why not have one of Butler's short stories alongside?), and illuminates the Tiptree's interesting relationship with discourses of race and ethnicity, if briefly.
However, three of this year's stories move beyond binary conceptualisations of gender and identity—female-male, feminine-masculine, black-white—foregrounding polyamory and polygamy, gestalt groups, and multiple identities instead. This is a significant and interesting change of emphasis from previous years, in which play with traditional, opposing gender roles has dominated.
Le Guin, making her third appearance in as many anthologies, offers a fuller and more satisfying exploration of the polygamous marital customs of the planet O (which first appeared in "Another Story, or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea" in A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, 1994). Ki'O, the people of O, traditionally make four-way marriages, called sedoretu, in which two women and two men engage in a cycle of four partnerships, two heterosexual and two homosexual. Bisexuality is the norm, and polyamorous sex is considered a natural part of family life, which, on the face of it, sounds rather civilized and desirously open-minded. But nothing is simple, and "Mountain Ways" (from the Tiptree Award-winning The Birthday of the World, 2002) is a cautionary tale, in Le Guin's practiced anthropological mode, that seeks to uncover the difficulties inherent in any attempt to systemize love or sexual relationships. Akal and Shahes, a lesbian couple eager to commit to one another but unable to do so without two men to make a sedoretu, perpetrate a (trans)gender fraud with potentially murderous results—clearly Ki'O society finds monogamous and committed same-sex couples as difficult to contemplate as does our own.
In "Little Faces" (first published in SciFiction, 2005), McIntyre considers a culture in which symbiotic and cross-gender relationships occur on a number of levels: the females of her alien species grow in tandem with their organic space vessels, while males nest parasitically in the females' flesh. The little faces of the title, the males literally infest their hosts, impregnating and pleasuring them sexually in situ; otherwise unable to communicate, they have the status of exotic pets or much-loved sex toys. McIntyre effectively layers these complicated, invasive relationships in a story focused on power plays between women, their lovers (both female and male), and their ships that expresses the intensity created by multiple sexual loyalties. In contrast, Arnason's "Knapsack Poems" (first published in Asimov's, 2002) posits the experiences and loyalties of an individual with multiple bodies. Her protagonist is a "goxhat," the Clanger, an itinerant poet made up of eight bodies—some neuter, some male, and some female, all possessed of various but shared emotions and inclinations. In a disconcertingly multiple first-person narrative, infused with a laconic humor, Arnason describes the confusion the Clanger feels when he-she-it stumbles on a "dismembered baby," an infant goxhat with only one body. Its various parts feel differently about the child: the females express maternal care, while the males are all for doing away with the disabled thing; the neuter parts compose dispassionate poetry. As with McIntyre and Le Guin, pluralism and multiplicity allow Arnason to symbolically express the complexities of our own gendered and sexual identities.
Chiang's "Liking What You See: A Documentary" (from Stories of Your Life and Others, 2002) and Tiptree's "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" (first published in New Dimensions 3, 1973; also in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever—see review) provide the final complementary grouping within the volume, a thematic connection specifically pointed up in the editor's introduction. Both consider the power of appearance and the link between beauty and character, weaving together the implications of advertising and the sale of the perfect image. In "Liking What You See," Chiang imagines a cheap and readily available technology, called calliagnosia, that effectively neutralizes aesthetic response to appearance, a neural blocker that disables our ability to judge beauty in the human face. Couched in a documentary format with multiple points of view, the story explores various reactions to the technology on a college campus where an equality group is campaigning for obligatory calliagnosia for all students. The themes initially seem old hat: one side argues that beauty acts as a mechanism of social control imposed on women by men and hails calliagnosia as a necessary precursor to women's emancipation; the other considers calliagnosia reductive, denying women their identity as attractive, sexual creatures. But Chiang mixes in a sinister thread about beauty for sale, making the psychological connection between our love of beauty on the one hand and our greedy, possessive natures on the other. In the final pages he gestures towards a world in which humankind's weakness for what is attractive will rob it of all volition and independence, a world in which the right pretty face could sell you everything and convince you of anything.
Tiptree herself was concerned with this use and abuse of beauty in the early 1970s, and "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" reads like a cyberpunk companion to Chiang's documentary narrative. Still fresh and visceral more than thirty years after its initial publication, it follows the suicidally ugly Philadelphia Burke after she is recruited by a multimedia concern to operate a beautiful organic dummy, the teenage Delphi. Delphi is essentially a walking, talking organ of product placement, controlled by her sponsors; P. Burke's job is to be her human sentience. Locked in an immersion tank, wired with electrodes in all sorts of unpleasant places, Burke acts out her fantasy of being the most beautiful, most popular fifteen-year-old girl in the world. Her tragedies, of course, are her absolute investment in the reality of little Delphi and her eventual inability to distinguish between herself and her avatar. She is the advert, and the advert is her; the real P. Burke disappears and dies almost unnoticed. She has been overwhelmed, murdered even, by the lie of beauty.
Stories like these are unquestionably ambitious and difficult, often disturbing in their dislocation and the ease with which they subvert our expectations. But they are exactly what one would and should expect of an anthology from the team that brings us the Tiptree Award. Happily, this volume is much more thematically coherent than previous attempts to anthologize the prize. Undoubtedly its success is in its newfound confidence to make connections between stories and its readiness to accept uncategorized multiplicity. By pairing and grouping the contents and by further highlighting links throughout, the editors have finally achieved a wonderful, relaxed flow. The anthology has left the navel-gazing attempts at self-justification behind and just is. And lo and behold, it is quite brilliant.