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!
For the third story in this series, we will took a look at Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” This story came out shortly after Tiptree had been outed as a female writer and it went on to win both the Hugo and Nebula — a clear vote of confidence from fellow writers and fans.
“Houston…” is about three male astronauts who go on a voyage around the sun, but get into trouble when a solar flare damages their ship. Without proper navigation, they rely on the stars to make it home until they start to receive strange radio communications from another ship.
After thinking that the transmission from the women on the other ship is a hoax, the male crew realizes that the solar flare has sent them into the future. It is a strange future, where men no longer exist on Earth due to a giant plague damaging the X chromosome. Years later, Earth’s population consists of a few million people, all of which are clones.
“Houston…” examines the interaction between the astronaut women and the alien men. Their conversations are innocuous at first, but when the men are slipped a drug that reveals their true selves, it has devastating consequences. “Houston…” also imagines what Earth would be like if men were no longer a part of it. In many respects it is a utopia — male dominance is not expressed in the form of wars or sexual aggression, leaving the women to live in a lighter, more practical society. But due to their inability to reproduce, they also struggle. There are only eleven thousand genetic types, all of which are susceptible to various ailments and conditions. The female clones document these issues for their future sisters to be aware of and take precautions.
The concept of “Houston…” came from a vivid nightmare Alli had while her mother was suffering in the hospital. In this dream, Alli was walking with the doctor in the cafeteria when she realized she was in some sort of trap. Everyone in the cafeteria was female, but they were all dressed as vampires, insects, and whores. They tried to make a pass at her — make her one of them, but Alli recoiled. She felt she couldn’t be a woman and had to go see her mother.
This dream is another example of Tiptree’s internal struggle as a woman. She didn’t see herself at the same table as other women and imagined what a world would be like with women living completely outside of man’s shadow. Tiptree also told Ursula LeGuin that the story arose from her “own loneliness and longing for siblings — sisters especially.” To Gardner Dozois, she remarked that it was not a utopia but a “cautionary tale, an if-this-goes-on warning about what would happen if the sexes continued to war with each other.”
There are so many passages from “Houston…” that are worthy of sharing, but I will conclude with this particular one as an example.
In the story, a male doctor aboard the ship gets upset at the women and yells,
I’m a man. By god, yes, I’m angry. I have a right. We gave you all this, we made it all. We built your precious civilization and your knowledge and comfort and medicines and your dreams. All of it. We protected you, we worked our balls off keeping you and your kids. It was hard. It was a fight, a bloody fight all the way. We’re tough. We had to be, can’t you understand? Can’t you for Christ’s sake understand that?
After a moment of silence, one of the women answers,
We’re trying, Dr. Lorimer. Of course we enjoy your inventions and we do appreciate your evolutionary role. But you must see there’s a problem. As I understand it, what you protected people from was largely other males, wasn’t it? We just had an extraordinary demonstration in that. You have brought history to life for us.