About Writers, inspiration, writing technique

Need To Know Basis

James Tiptree, Jr. — aka Alice Sheldon — wrote a story back in 1974 called “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.” It’s a tale about memory. Scenes from a life play out one after another: a boy on his first duck hunt, failing miserably; a young man in his first, eager sexual encounter, failing miserably; a man back from war proposing, finally, to the woman he loves, failing miserably…you get the idea. Framing this jumbled litany of humiliation and disappointment is the gradual realization that all of these memories are playing out in a sort of repeating loop, observed by — perhaps even instigated by — some unknown presence: alien researchers perhaps? Or even just alien sightseers, feeding on the memories of the long gone inhabitants of a dead world? Because the earth is dead, a burnt out cinder. All that remains are memories. 

But — and here’s the gut punch — the only memories left are unpleasant ones. Only the horrible stuff, incidents our protagonist would rather forget. Instead, he gets to live them out again and again.

A hellacious vision. Thanks, Alli.

But still, a fascinating premise. Sad memories, painful memories, seem to have a disproportional staying power. Enjoyable memories can linger as well, but they are less vivid, less intrusive. It seems like we have to go looking for those, we have to coax them to the surface. But deeply unpleasant memories find us. We have no idea when they might swim into sudden focus. It’s like they’re always lurking in the shadows, just around the next corner.

There’s a good reason, of course, why we would be predisposed, genetically, to have a better memory for the unpleasant things. After all, unpleasant things are often dangerous things, and it’s an adaptive advantage to avoid danger. If a situation feels unpleasantly familiar, you’ll tend to shy away from it and not repeat it. As for joyous memories of good times, well, it’s nice to remember them, but it’s not usually a matter of life or death. Lack of joy might kill you in the long run, but it’s only a gradual death and it won’t necessarily interfere with your ability to pass on your genetic code. 

But danger? That can kill you right now, the immediate termination of your particular configuration of base pairs. So we avoid unpleasantness. It’s baked in, a survival skill.

And to avoid it, we have to recognize it. We have to remember. If I were an alien, researching the former dominant species of an extinct planet, I might focus on exactly that: what drove their worst memories? What were they so afraid of?


So how does this concept relate to stories? Does this predisposition explain why we have such an appetite for tragedy, for conflict-driven narratives? Such a fascination with crime and horror and dystopian futures? Could be. I’d admit that there are other factors. Catharsis plays into it — and the guilty thrill we might feel at experiencing someone else’s misery while knowing it isn’t our own. But it isn’t hard to see how these pleasures might have their roots in the original preoccupation. Suffering fascinates us because it’s important to our survival. We rubberneck the freeway accident because, at some level, we know that could be us. 

And if it might kill us, we need to know about it. 


Footnote:  It feels worth mentioning that some of our most persistent personal memories are of rejection and humiliation, which might not correlate directly with situations of danger or physical threat. We don’t, as a rule, die of embarrassment. But being rejected or humiliated, at least publicly, can be correlated with social ostracism, which could be almost as bad as death. In terms of passing your genetic material on to the next generation, it could be exactly as bad as death. The process of natural selection really doesn’t put a priority on our happiness. It’s only concerned with us surviving long enough to procreate. 


Another Footnote: I would accept that being joyless might be a hindrance to finding companionship and a partner for procreation. But this seems to me a very modern view of our mating relationships. While romance isn’t very new, it’s pretty new compared to our time as a species, and there’s good reason to believe that marriage probably developed more as a practical arrangement and didn’t necessarily require having a winning personality or a great outlook on life. Fortunately, we’ve progressed beyond that point, mostly — but that’s a subject for another time.



The Women Men Don’t See, Indeed.

While enjoying GD Deckard’s latest installment of Bob vs the Aliens, I was moved to ask him if he was a Tiptree fan. Just something about the rhythm of his dialogue, and the subject matter, struck a resonant chord. He’d heard of Tiptree but no, he hadn’t read her.

For those who don’t know, James Tiptree Jr was the pseudonym of author Alice Sheldon. A noted recluse and “mystery man” during the seventies, she published numerous stories in the science fiction magazines of the time, including the story Houston, Houston, Do You Read? which won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards.

She also wrote two novels—Up the Walls of the World and Brightness Falls from the Air—but it’s really her short stories she’s known for, and for good reason. During the late sixties and seventies, she was a mainstay of the sci fi magazines, publishing nearly 70 stories, often anthologized. She had a distinctive voice, crisp and incisive—sometimes called Heminway-esque, though that label is mainly based on one story in particular, The Women Men Don’t See. That story garnered a lot of attention when it was published in 1973. Insiders considered it a shoe-in for the Hugo and the Nebula, but Tiptree withdrew it from consideration. It was one of the earliest examples of mainstream science fiction with an overtly feminist message, yet told by a male (and frankly sexist) narrator in a very masculine, hardboiled style. The narrator is not mocked and yet, by the end, it is quite obvious that he hasn’t understood anything that has actually been going on.

A lot of readers weren’t sure what to make of it.  No one knew that Tiptree was a woman at that point, though there were apparently some who speculated she might be. Robert Silverberg, in his introduction to the anthology featuring the tale, insisted that Tiptree’s writing had to be the work of a man, that there was “something ineluctably masculine” about it. To his credit, when the truth came out, he congratulated Tiptree for fooling him so successfully and said “You’ve given my head a greatly needed wrenching.”

Even today, 40 years later, the story has the power to surprise and confound, and god knows there are still plenty of heads around that could use a good wrenching. It’s a beautiful piece of writing.

But Tiptree’s work is too varied and too rich to be adequately represented by only one story, no matter how good it is. She was a deft craftsman (ahem) and a dazzling world-builder, as much at home with appalling pathos and bleak despair as with laugh-out-loud comedy and exuberant fantasy—and she had an uncanny ability to shift seamlessly between those many moods. She didn’t shy away from brutality, particularly the brutality inflicted on women by a male-centric society. She boldly courted the polymorphous and the perverse and didn’t spare her readers the messy details. She wasn’t afraid to use an unlikeable protagonist or of being misunderstood, and her work is all the stronger for the audaciousness of her choices. Describing her own stories, she said: “There’s this backward little type, and he’s doing some gray little task and believing like they tell him. And one day he starts to vomit and rushes straight up a mountain, usually to his doom.”

I own nearly all of Tiptree’s stories in four dog-eared paperbacks salvaged years ago from second-hand stores. Sadly, none of those volumes are in print any more. There is one anthology available on Amazon. It’s called Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, a hefty 500-page collection of most of 510dhU+8avL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_her best-known tales. The choices are worthy and unsurprising, and I can absolutely recommend it. But something about the choices saddens me: where is the funny stuff? Where is the lightness? Tiptree wrote some of the most delightfully whimsical and downright hilarious stories I know, and none of them are here. Out of the Everywhere, All Kinds of Yes. The Time-Sharing Angel, The Night Blooming Saurian, Mama Come Home. I really could go on and on, but since you probably can’t find any of those stories, I guess there’s not much point. It’s not that every story is perfect. There are bits that don’t work and the odd tone-deaf joke, and yes, some of the stories are lightweights. But by dismissing them in favor of the heavy stuff, we rob ourselves of much of the charm, the energy, the inventiveness that characterized Tiptree. It’s too bad. Someone should do a second anthology and I happily volunteer my services as editor.

But until that unlikely day, I’m hanging on to my paperbacks.

Tiptree was a late bloomer. She didn’t publish her first science fiction stories until she was in her fifties. Before that, she had been a graphic artist, a painter, an art critic. Later she joined the Air Force, analyzing photographs for the intelligence corp and rising to the rank of major. From 1952 to 1955, she did a stint working for the CIA. Then, at the age of forty, she returned to college, eventually earning a degree in experimental psychology.

Her use of a pseudonym was ostensibly to protect her academic reputation (science fiction writing was a punk occupation in those days), but the anonymity suited her. There was a darkness in her soul. She once said: “I dream about oblivion like other people dream of good sex.” She and her husband lived in near-seclusion, reliant on no one, until poor health finally overwhelmed first him and then her. In 1987, at the age of seventy-one, she shot her critically ill, bed-ridden husband while he slept, then turned the gun on herself.

It was, in many ways, a typical Tiptree ending.