Tiptree in Context: The Girl Who Was Plugged In (Part 3 of 5)

in Context is a new feature on this blog that examines the works of great science fiction authors in relation to their life experiences. This week-long series of posts features a brief biography of the author (click here), followed by an examination of three or four pieces of their fiction. Enjoy!

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Science fiction continues to reinvent itself. After the Golden Age of the forties and fifties came the New Wave of the sixties and seventies, where SF took on a more literary and philosophical flavor. James Tiptree was very much a part of this movement, but the story “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” may have been the start of newer movement — cyberpunk.

When readers think of cyberpunk, William Gibson’s Neuromancer comes to mind. It was not the first of the subgenre, but it was a definitive example of what it represented (bleak future setting with a gritty antihero fighting against a corporate-ruled government). Writers like Philip K. Dick are considered predecessors to the movement, but it was Tiptree’s novella that William Gibson cited as an inspiration for his acclaimed novel.

After finishing her manuscript for “The Girl…,” Tiptree struggled to find a home for it. The novella was rejected so many times that she temporarily shelved it. Damon Knight had said that the ending didn’t work and Ed Ferman at Fantasy and Science Fiction responded that it didn’t jell. The story was eventually bought by Robert Silverberg for New Dimensions and then went on to win the Hugo for best novella.

The protagonist of the story is a seventeen-year-old named P. Burke. She has a hormonal disease that leads to unflattering deformations and she ends up trying to commit suicide. This lands her in the hospital, raising the attention of a corporate recruiter who wants to make her a remote. This allows her to control a laboratory-raised body like an avatar through her own movements.

Her new body is a beautiful girl named Delphi, who through strategic planning becomes a celebrity sensation over night. P. Burke loves the experience of living through this government-monitored body. She gets lots of attention and a wealthy network exec’s son soon falls in love with her. Eventually, he learns that she is a remote and then embarks on a mission to discover who has been deceiving him.

This is another brilliant story by Tiptree, which has been recognized as the antithesis to common fairy tales. It is not a story of the Beauty and the Beast or of the Frog Prince, where a beautiful prince must be rescued from the spell that imprisons him as a monster. Instead, the monster (P. Burke) is the one controlling the beautiful body (Delphi).

Tiptree had commented at one point, “I am increasingly coming to resist being my body […] although I know perfectly well that I am it and it is me, as age comes on and I feel it start to fail under me like a tiring horse I have to dissociate myself more and more of it.” In her biography of Tiptree, Julie Phillips postulates that it may reflect the author’s longtime use of Dexedrine, which is said to push the mind far ahead of the slow body with its need for food and sleep. This dissociation is what P. Burke also suffers. Alice Sheldon (Tiptree’s real persona) was a beautiful woman and her mother enjoyed an almost celebrity-level fame as a writer and explorer. Alli’s greatest fame, on the other hand, was through an alter ego that the SF community could not connect to her. She felt she was the beast inside the beauty. An imposter.

“The Girl…” is an excellent story that perhaps shows better than any other the internal struggles Alli had. The fact that it was on the precipice of a new movement in science fiction makes it even more special.

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