Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

Tiptree’s Difference

Somewhere in this neighbourhood, then

Tiptree is great: a superb writer of short stories (a very difficult form to write well), a giant of science fiction and a figure you — yes you madam, and you sir — should read. But I’ve been wondering lately whether she is, you know, right.

These thoughts have been catalysed by this very interesting post by my friend Alan Jacobs. He argues, rightly I’d say, that Tiptree was fascinated by ‘the way genuine difference, especially but not only sexual difference, simultaneously alienates and allures’, with the additional sense that she could not ‘imagine this dialectic settling into a healthy tension; almost invariably the alienation and the allurement alike take pathological forms.’

Tiptree’s stories often suggest that pathology dictates the typical patterns of relation between human men and human women. In “The Women Men Don’t See” the women of the title are not sexually desirable to the man who narrates the story and are therefore invisible to him; he only sees them at all when he’s trying to decide whether they are potential sex partners, or rather sex objects. One of the women, the mother of the other one, understands this, and says to him,

“Think of us as opossums, Don. Did you know there are opossums living all over? Even in New York City.”

I smile back with my neck prickling. I thought I was the paranoid one.

“Men and women aren’t different species, Ruth. Women do everything men do.”

“Do they?”

I think this is right: Tiptree saw men and women as not just two flavours of humankind who occasionally find themselves at loggerheads with one another, but as beings radically alien to one another. In ‘The Women Men Don’t See’, the female characters willingly board the alien spaceship the group has encountered. Don can’t believe they would give-up Earth, but he is put right: “Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us,” says one of the women. “What women do is survive. We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.” Men. Aliens. Same thing.

Alan’s post, as you’ll see when you read it, juxtaposes gender difference and racial difference:

It’s fascinating to read these stories in our present moment, in which race occupies essentially the same cultural territory that sex occupied for Alice Sheldon and other women of her time. I suspect that Sheldon would have thought and maybe even felt differently about the alienation/allurement dialectic if she had had available to her our culture’s passionate commitment to gender as a social construct that is (therefore, so the faulty logic goes) amenable to infinite performative manipulation by individuals. For us, it’s racial difference that is especially often experienced in the way that Sheldon experienced sexual difference. When Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race she was basically making the decision that the women in “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” make about men.

I think it’s because race is so widely seen to be intractably binary — Whites and Others — while gender and even sex are seen as chosen and performative that racial tension has taken hold of our public imagination in ways that the #MeToo movement, in the end, didn’t. Think for instance of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo: his behavior towards women has been despicable, but he easily survived the outrage, which proved to last only a few days. (Alice Sheldon would not have been surprised by the behavior or the tolerance of it.) If his sins had been equal in seriousness but racist in character — if he had demonstrably treated Black people around him with the same callous manipulative disregard that he treated the women who worked for him — would he have a job now? The question answers itself.

(Of course, if he had been a Republican governor, then he would have had the smoothest sailing imaginable. Openly, bluntly racist figures are perfectly welcome in today’s GOP; it’s only critics of Donald Trump who aren’t. But that’s a story for another day.)

It would be grievous indeed if #MeToo really has petered out in the way Alan suggests it might have done. His perspective is American (as was Tiptree’s of course) and perhaps doesn’t map precisely into the European state of affairs. That said, I can only agree with him that Tiptree wouldn’t be suprised by today’s continuing invulnerability of powerful men: that, to pluck one example from the range of current ghastlinesses, the system that insists Britney Spears must remain under the control of her father is the same system that frees Bill Cosby from jail.

So when I wonder whether Tiptree is right I don’t mean right about the malign shape and force of misogyny and sexism, about the prevalence of sexual violence, the way men are so often driven to abase, immiserate and even murder women. In that I’d say she manifestly was right. I mean something else.

The focus of Alan’s post is Tiptree’s fascination with difference. I think that’s right — she was, I think, genuinely engaged by difference, its allure and its horror. But was she right to see difference as, in effect, the shape of human conatus? To see difference in sexual terms but also in existential terms, as desire and drive, as constitutive of who we are?

Like William Burroughs Tiptree sees men and women as being, in a deep sense, aliens to one another. We are, she says, construed by a radical otherness that is also the ground for our desire for one another. Take, for example, one of Tiptree’s very best stories ‘And I Awoke and Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side’ (1972). This story concerns a red-haired man aboard an interplanetary space station called “Big Junction” who manifests a sexual obsession with an alien life form called the Sellice. It’s not just this guy. All the men on the station feel the same way:

They aren’t really well-built, y’know, under those cloaks. No waist to speak of and short legged. But they flow when they walk. This one flowed out into the spotlight, cloaked to the ground in violet silk. You could only see a fall of black hair and tassels over a narrow face like a vole. She was mole grey … Erogenous zones? Ah, man, with them it’s not zones … Her arms went up and those blazing, lemon-coloured curves pulsed, wavered, everted, contracted, throbbed, evolved unbelievably welcoming, inciting permutations. Come do it to me, do it, do it here and here and here and now. Every human male in the room was aching to ram himself into that incredible body. I mean it was pain.

This is a story that almost convinces us its fantastic extrapolation truly is an insight into human sexual nature. If we were to encounter aliens, Tiptree is saying, we couldn’t help ourselves: we’d have to fuck them.

We’ve hit a supernormal stimulus. Man is exogamous — all our history is one long drive to find and impregnate the stranger. Or get impregnated by him; it works for women too. Anything different-coloured, different nose, ass, anything, man has to fuck it or die trying. That’s a drive, y’know, it’s built in. Because it works fine as long as the stranger is human. For millions of years that kept the genes circulating. But now we’ve met aliens we can’t screw, and we’re about to die trying …

It’s a chill wind that blows through this tale; it’s absorbing, frightening, evocative, and thought-provoking all at once, as Tiptree at her best always is. But here’s the question I’ve been considering: what if it’s wrong?

Within the terms of the tale, as Tiptree has framed them, it’s certainly possible to imagine a man sexually excited by the Sellice alien (in the passage quoted above) with her “fall of black hair and tassels over a narrow face like a vole” and her “blazing, lemon-coloured curves.” But the premise isn’t pressed any further than this sort of quasi-humanoid, feminised figure — the character does not, for example, yearn sexually after aliens in the shape of slime-blobs, or sentient piles of concrete blocks or super-intelligent shades of the colour blue. In fact I’d suggest that it’s hard, and may be impossible, to imagine even so committed a xenophile as this character responding erotically to genuine otherness. But in a way this doesn’t matter. Tiptree’s theme is not really sex, even though her story is couched in terms of a critique of the human erotic drive. As the red-haired man says himself: “Sex? No, it’s deeper … sex is only part of it — there’s more.” He recalls

One fine-looking woman, she was servant to a Cu’ush-bar kid. A defective — his own people would have let him die. That wretch was swabbing up its vomit as if it was holy water. Man, it’s deep — some cargo-cult of the soul. We’re built to dream outwards. They laugh at us. They don’t have it.

This, then, is the question that Tiptree poses; and it’s hard to imagine a better way of framing it than the genre of SF. Are we, as humans, “built to dream outwards”?

Do you know what? I’m not sure we are. In the early 1970s perhaps it looked as though mankind as a whole couldn’t be held back from simply rushing up that vertiginous ladder into space. But, look around. It’s the 21st century, and hey — we didn’t go. Not only that, but we don’t miss it. Our gaze is focussed inward. The bitty trivia of our days fills our lives. The stuff that’s important to us is important to us because it is what we are used to.

Or put it another way: take a look at the way human sexuality actually works in the world today. Is it predicated upon an erotic investment in otherness? Is that really what we find when we plug into the e-behemoth of commercial Porn, with its hundreds-of-billions-of-dollars turnover? Or do we see a depressingly unimaginative repetition of the known and the familiar? There are, of course, fetishes on the margins of things, and some people get off on some pretty weird stuff. But the vanilla human male very precisely does not want radical novelty. He wants a woman whose pneumatic body conforms to his rigid notions of what a pneumatic woman ought to look like. I’d suggest that a better model for male sexuality, hetero or homo, is not SF, not “the encounter with the alien,” but rather the ASD heroes of Rain Man or Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Sexual praxis for most men must follow an elaborately familiar ritual, endlessly and even obsessively repeated. If Everyman is going to be unfaithful to his wife it will be with women that, largely, resemble his wife. If Everyman is going to indulge in sexual fantasy he will be much happier running his fantasy along the well-worn communal grooves: French Maid’s outfit; leather; the pre-packaged lust for the mass-marketed film star. The problem, in fact, is not that human males are ineluctably drawn by otherness; but something the reverse, the pitiful truth that human males are so thoroughly unskilled at freeing their minds from commodified communal stereotypes of what “an attractive woman” looks like. If only we were, as a species, built to dream outwards. We might then have a functioning human space programme.

But perhaps I’m misreading Tiptree, and Tiptree’s difference. Another way of reading her is to see how astute, even to the point of monotony, she is on the one-dimensionality of the male sexual response. Famously, or notoriously, when Robert Silverberg was asked to write the introduction to Tiptree’s collection Warm Worlds And Otherwise he swaggered, overconfidently, about Tipress essential maleness: “‘it has been suggested that Tiptree is female,” he said, “a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.” He identified a pared-down and unsentimental sort of writing, something “analogous to Hemingway … lean, muscular, supple, relying heavily on dialog broken by bursts of exposition.” Silverberg has taken a good deal of stick for calling this so egregiously wrong, although on the question of prose style he’s onto something, I’d say. Here’s the opening of Tiptree’s 1972 Again Dangerous Visions story “The Milk of Paradise”:

She was flowing hot and naked and she straddled his belly in the cuddle-cube and fed him her hard little tits. And he convulsed up under her.

There’s lots of writing like this in Tiptree. It’s not just this kind of thing that makes her work seem masculine. It’s that her stories reveal a recurring fascination with sex, almost to the point of stare-eyed obsession, and that this comes over as male. I appreciate I run the risk, saying so, of trespassing into gender essentialism here; but I can’t think of another way of putting it. I’m, of course, not suggesting that women aren’t, or can’t be, interested in sex. Of course they can be, and are. But I suppose I am suggesting that the more extreme myopia and single-mindedness on the subject of sex is almost always a male trait. It’s the line from Frasier, when Daphne accuses Kelsey Grammer’s character of “using sex to get what he wants.” “How can I possibly be using sex to get what I want?” Frasier retorts. “I’m a man. Sex is what I want.”

“A Momentary Taste of Being” (1975) tropes all space travel as a cosmic fuck; or more specifically, tropes all human space exploration as a phallic outthrust. The story starts with this description:

It floats there visibly engorged … [Earth] is a planet-testicle pushing a monster penis towards the stars … the parsecs-long phallus throbs, probes blindly under intolerable pressure from within; its tip is a huge cloudy glans lit by a spark.

We might read this opening gambit as a deliberate and perhaps comically-intentioned piece of hyperbole. But, no: the whole 85-page story elaborates this metaphor in massive, masculine detail. And in almost every story there is more of the same. “I had a horrifying hard-on just looking at her” [“And I Awoke and Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side”]; “Captain Estéban’s copper buttocks pumping into Althea’s creamy upturned bottom” [“The Men Women Don’t See”]; “ “Uhhh, ahh,” Bud pants distressfully, “fuck away, fuck — “ Suddenly he pushes Judy’s head into his groin … “You have a mouth bitch, get working! Take it for shit’s sake, take it! Uh, uh — “ A small oyster jets limply from him.” [“Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”]. I could go on (there are lots of similar moments in her writing) but perhaps that’s enough. My point here is not prudishness but perspective. This, I submit, is how men think of sex: the speed of reaction to erotic stimulus (the, we might say, “spung!” of it); the insertion; the money-shot. I’m not trying to imply that sexual fantasy is all hearts, flowers and soft-focus for women. But I suppose I would argue that it is, often, a less narrowly instrumental, a more rounded, and fully sensual experience than this. Tiptree, a woman, either shared or could expertly mimic this masculinist perspective.

What I have been describing here as gender-caricature (I certainly can’t call it a gender libel) might strike other readers merely as an insight into the nature of gender relations. Most men reduce women to sexual objects. Many men are violent to women. In “The Screwfly Solution,” it is only the co-ordination and increasing ubiquity of the murderous attacks by men on women that point to an SFnal twist; otherwise, Tiptree implies, men attacking women is how things have always been on the planet. It’s no different: that’s the point. In these stories, difference is the premise, not the larger logic; and the premise is only the accelerant to a driven, dominating, overwhelming sameness, an experiential and existential gauntness, a monomania. Perhaps there’s a more dialectical understanding of difference at work in Tiptree’s writing.

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Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts

Writer and academic. London-adjacent.