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!
I conclude the in Context series with what I consider my favorite James Tiptree story. Her Nebula-winning novelette, “The Screwfly Solution,” is a fantastic piece of fiction. Not only it is it a clever story, but the fact that she wrote it in less than a week shortly after her mother’s death makes it particularly notable. She wrote the story under the pen name of Raccoona Sheldon, a false identity that supposedly knew James Tiptree since childhood. There were some stories that Tiptree, as a male, simply could not write, and that is where Raccoona came in.
“The Screwfly Solution” is very characteristic of Tiptree’s work — touching on gender issues and relating it to science in a wonderful way that engages the reader on multiple levels. It consists of a series of letters exchanged between a scientist (Alan) and his wife (Anne) while he is working in Colombia to eradicate the parasite population. One technique being considered to exterminate these pests is the Screwfly Solution, which releases a large quantity of sterilized males into the population, preventing the fertile males from mating with the females. The overly-aggressive male population would thus reduce the local insect population. Other chemicals have been considered, such as one that confuses the male species into trying to reproduce with the female’s head.
Anne writes to her husband about a similar situation occurring with the human population. Men are suddenly killing the women in the population and cults have sprung up to justify these cleansings. After all, man lived in Paradise until Eve was deceived by the serpent. Alan wants to return to his wife and daughter, but comes to realize that he is suddenly filled with the lust to kill them.
I am a big fan of stories that are able to draw parallels between science/nature and the human condition and Tiptree does it beautifully in this story. There is no apparent reason for men to be killing women and as Anne seeks refuge, she finally reaches a point of understanding. Alan, despite his scientific background, remains witless on why his gender wants to exterminate their female counterparts. While he may be guilty for his actions, he is under the control of an outside influence that he does not understand. Perhaps the deeper meaning that Tiptree is conveying is that sexism is born more out of ignorance than malice. This is certainly the case for Alan. The cult leaders, on the other hand, seek not the truth of the situation, but look for self-justification. Alan does everything he can to avoid harming the women in his life while others elevate the detestable act to godliness.
I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that it is truly brilliant — the kind that leaves you breathless and makes reading the story entirely worthwhile. Tiptree writes on a different level than many of the short stories I read, with elegant prose, a clever story, and a message that transcends the page it is written on. At the time she finished this story, she had maintained her identity a secret for a decade, but upon delivering the manuscript to the post office, she found this letter from a friend in wait:
Okay, I’m going to lay all my cards on the table. You are not required to do likewise.
You’ve probably heard from people already, but word is spreading very fast that your true name is Alice Sheldon.
Understanding the secret life of James Tiptree, Jr. is half of the fun in experiencing her writing. Knowing her struggle with gender issues gives the reader a sense of empathy not just for the characters, but the author herself. In addition to her intelligent handling of poignant issues of the time, her prose is active and full of emotion. I highly recommend both her biography, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips, and her complete works that are collected in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.