Novella Review: Houston, Houston, Do You Read? by James Tiptree Jr.

Houston, Houston, Do You Read?Houston, Houston, Do You Read? by James Tiptree Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

SPOILER ALERT!

Read for the 12 Awards in 12 Months Reading Challenge, the Big Fun in a Little Package Novella Challenge, the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge, and the Apocalypse Now! Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End. I could have included it in the LGBTQ Speculative Fiction Challenge too, but I didn’t because I had already included the collection it was part of, Star Songs of An Old Primate, in that challenge.

Method of the world’s destruction: A worldwide plague causes mass sterility in humanity, and prevents the birth of male children.

I am beginning to really love James Tiptree Jr. It’s not the story, so much as the way she tells it. Tiptree was once cited as an example of why women couldn’t write science fiction. Clearly, only a man could understand it like Tiptree does. Except that, of course, it turns out that James Tiptree Jr. was the pseudonym of Alice Sheldon.

This classic story is cited now as an important piece in feminist literature, and certainly there have been countless stories inspired by this one, many of which have gone on to win awards in their own rights. In this story, three male astronauts on a loop around the sun get caught in some kind of time anomaly, and end up about 200 years in the future. It’s a very different world than the one they left, because a plague has decimated the human population and made men extinct. It takes our boys a little while to catch on to this, as they blithely repeat the stereotypes about women that were common at the time the story was written. They are eventually rescued by a team of female astronauts, who, having not seen a man in their lives, run an experiment by which they expose them to some toxin that forces them to release their inhibitions. One, who views himself as a real ladies’ man, sexually assaults and tries to rape one of the women; one, who is strongly religious, tries to subjugate the women under the rod of his beneficent rulership because women cannot manage themselves, and one, who is an intellectual and our viewpoint character, spends the story looking down upon the women as being intellectual and cultural inferiors.

Much of this story is based in an idea about gender that was popularized in Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future; which holds that men are innately violent and women are innately peaceful. The conversation about gender has changed considerably, and besides the point, being an aggressive woman, I strongly disagree with it. So the question was asked; is the purpose of men, aside from procreation, to protect us from other men?

Some women in the real world, answering yes to this question, have gone down the path of extreme radical feminism, which I believe is flawed at its base because I think this premise is mistaken. I believe that the reason why women tend to be more peaceful and men tend not to be is cultural pressure and reinforcement. Put bluntly, women who are aggressive and violent in our culture are socially censured, labelled as crazy, and often locked away. Men are only permitted in our culture to express emotion as aggression. Broadly speaking, of course. It doesn’t mean that women don’t have violent urges, nor that men lack peaceful ones.

But now I’m thinking about it, aren’t I? And so are you, whether you agree or disagree with me. Which, I’m sure, was Tiptree’s point.

One thing that is not often pointed out is that these men were under the influence of a mind-altering substance. So they were not entirely in control of their actions, and that’s hardly a fair test.

Cloning came up as an issue. Essentially (and I don’t see this one as a big spoiler,) only about 22,000 phenotypes survived the disaster, and there’s only a couple of million people left in the world. And they used the same method that eventually would be used to clone Dolly the Sheep. But a clone is just an identical twin, not another aspect of one’s self. This sounds a little weird the way it’s discussed in the story when compared to modern understanding of genetics.

Also, the viewpoint character viewed the society of future humanity as lazy and lackluster. That evolution had been stalled because man’s fierce competitive drive wasn’t driving the species to achieve greater triumphs. But all I have to say is this: the population of Earth was reduced at one point to 22,000 people, and a mere two centuries later we still have space travel? That’s not stalled evolution! That’s an amazing accomplishment that defies everything we know to be true of human history! If that’s the result of what happens in this situation, that strikes me as the ideal situation for humanity.

Okay, just kidding, of course. But seriously; any historian knows that if you pare back the population of a place like that, the technology pares back thousands of years. Our descendants, in this story, have done an amazing job of preserving our future and our culture. They even preserved the language.

I wonder if, perhaps, criticizing extreme radical feminism was her point? Was she trying to show us that any future that involves excluding one part of our species is wrong, and that if we look for a negative stereotype in one another, we’ll find it or create it? Or was she really, as many people believe, trying to show women a future without men? (I doubt it; Alice Sheldon was happily married and stayed married.)

Remembering that this story was published in 1976, ulitmately this is a top-notch, chilling tale that calls our society into question, and provokes thought, from a writer who is a master of her craft, and I highly recommend it.

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