Book Review: Star Songs of an Old Primate by James Tiptree Jr.

Star Songs of An Old PrimateStar Songs of An Old Primate by James Tiptree Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for the LGBTQ Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge, the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge, and the Collections! Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End. Two of the novellas in this collection were also counted towards similar, but not the same, reading challenges.

James Tiptree Jr. was the pseudonym of Alice Sheldon, who traveled extensively in her childhood, joined the CIA in her adulthood during the McCarthy era, and resigned in the mid-50s to study experimental psychology. This gave her what I’m sure was a unique perspective on life, and it shines through in her stories. I think I’m in love with her, partially because there’s an apocryphal story that she was nominated for a Hugo that she turned down, in part because, as Ursula K. Le Guin points out in her introduction, one of the “keenest, subtlest minds in science fiction” wrote: “It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing. I don’t think the novels of Jane Austen could have been written by a man more the stories of Ernest Hemingway by a woman.” And many, if not most, of the stories in this collection certainly challenge the nature and role of gender, along with the nature and role of what it is to be human. Men are likely to find it particularly challenging, but women will be challenged too.

This collection contains a few her most highly-acclaimed works, including Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, A Momentary Taste of Being, and Houston, Houston, Do You Read? Links are provided to two of these, which are novellas that I wrote independent reviews for.

I discovered this obscure little paperback in the wonderful bookstore that I work at, Expressions in Time, which is a great place to discover unusual and hard-to-find books. But I snatched it up right away because by this time I had heard so much about Tiptree that I fully realized what a treasure I had discovered. I was intrigued by the unique cover image also, and had pretty much accepted it was one of those weird, whimsical sorts of covers they slapped onto sci-fi books published in the late 70s, when it was finally revealed that no, the cover did indeed relate to the stories in the book and was quite relevant.

I described Tiptree’s writing on one of the Worlds Without End message boards as “lightning prose of the highest order.” I loved this collection so much that I found myself resenting one of my favourite authors, David Weber, for writing such a ridiculously long book (The Shadow of Saganami) because I’d borrowed it from the library and therefore, had to finish it first! Many, if not most of the stories, are mind-blowing. Most of them are also (which is something other reviewers don’t seem to mention with Tiptree) disturbingly creepy. I cannot emphasize enough how creepy. As a matter of fact, I am certain that Tiptree is one of the many classic sci-fi authors who influenced the writing of Stephen King. One of these stories, The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats, has direct parallels in one of the stories that appears in Night Shift; go ahead and read them both and see if you can spot which one.

That story, by the way, was the only one in the whole book that I didn’t like; first of all, because of the horrific images of animal experimentation of the part of psychology students (which, I have no doubt, was informed by Tiptree’s experience as an experimental psychology student — shudder!) — and secondly, because I don’t think I really got it. I’m not sure what exactly has happened at the end of the story, nor why the viewpoint character is doing what he

does. I have a couple of guesses but I don’t know which one it is, and I suppose that was probably Tiptree’s goal, but I find it frustrating.

Do I recommend this collection? Actually, I would call it an essential read for anyone who has any interest at all in the roots and development of science fiction, and one you’ll enjoy thoroughly if you love the genre like I do. Please do yourself a favour and read it!

View all my reviews

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