Tiptree in Context: The Screwfly Solution (Part 5 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!


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:

Dear Tip,

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.


Tiptree in Context: Houston, Houston, Do You Read? (Part 4 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!


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.

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!


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.

Tiptree in Context: The Women Men Don’t See (Part 2 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 will feature a brief biography of the author, followed by an examination of three or four pieces of their fiction. Click here for the introduction to the first featured author, James Tiptree, Jr.


The first story I want to profile of Tiptree’s works was written midway through her career. Her writing career spanned twenty years, but her greatest works were largely written in the mid 1970’s, right before her true identity was discovered.

In the spring of 1972, Tiptree’s became dismayed with the approach many were taking to femimism. She quoted the NOW chapter newsletter as “sadly childish. My sex sems so trivialized… If one could somehow evolve a race of trained, ‘hard’ women?” Tiptree’s biographer, Julie Phillips, notes that “the more loudly women demanded their rights, the more Alli worried about empathy, thought about mothering, and tried to define feminimity as nurturance.”

During this time, Tiptree penned, “The Women Men Don’t See,” a story about feminism that men could understand. It’s not a story that helps men understand women; it’s a story that helps men understand that they can never truly understand a woman’s viewpoint. This is what the viewpoint character, Don Fenton, learns when his charter plane crashes in Mexico as he is traveling on a fishing trip. A small group of passengers survives and he and a woman named Ruth split off from the rest of the plane in search of water.

As they pace through the landscape of Mexico, Don becomes increasingly agitated when Ruth doesn’t act as he thinks a woman should. He is the man and he feels obligated to protect her. When aliens land nearby, Don realizes that Ruth has entirely different motives than he originally thought.

“The Women…” was rejected by Playboy, Cosmopolitan, and Penthouse before it sold to the first SF editor who saw it, Ed Ferman, and he ran it in the December 1973 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction. One of the things that makes this story unique is that the viewpoint character is not the protagonist at all. He’s not even a side character. He’s an obstacle trying to prevent the real protagonist, Ruth, from achieving her goal. This fact is not evident to the reader at first — one assumes that Don is the hero, saving the helpless woman from a strange creature. Don simply cannot understand that she would want anything different.

Tiptree said “the day when male writers can speak for women is speeding by. Fast.” She feared she would no longer be able to keep up her persona.” At one point she later wrote, “I’m getting fairly tired of being a man; so much one can’t say.” She was right and in 2013 I would never claim to speak with authority for a different sex or race than my own (I tend not to generalize about those sorts of things anyway).

When “The Women…” reached the Nebula Award finals, Tiptree withdrew it from the ballot, saying she wanted to give other writers a chance. But she also feared that the male byline would give the story an unfair edge. Ironically, most of her Hugo and Nebula awards would come after this story. “The Women…” remains today one of Tiptree’s most celebrated works and is a good introduction to her writing.

Tiptree in Context: Introduction (Part 1 of 5)

in Context is a new feature on this blog that examines the works of great authors in SF in relation to their life experiences. This week-long series of posts will feature a brief biography of the author, followed by an examination of three or four pieces of their fiction. For our first feature, I introduce to you the Hugo and Nebula Award winner, James Tiptree, Jr.


It is no mistake that I begin this series with James Tiptree, Jr. “Tip” kept his life a secret from his admirers for most of his life, until the passing of his mother, when rumors spread that he was none other than Alice (“Alli”) B. Sheldon. Tip wrote throughout the feminist movement as a man, not in an effort to add legitimacy to her writing, but more out of a desire to live through a male persona. Make no mistake — Alli lived her life as a woman and in total, was married to two men (one briefly, which ended in divorce and another that lasted the rest of her life). She was consumed with understanding the role of women in society and used her writing largely to express these inner struggles. But she also had thoughts of what it would mean to be a man and in letters and diaries would write of her desires. Alli, who deeply loved her second husband, Ting, also struggled with her sexuality. Her letters suggest that she never had a sexual experience with another woman, but the longing to do so was an important aspect of her psyche.

There has been a lot of effort as of late promoting the equality of women in SF and it seems apropos to begin my in Context series with a woman, who for a decade was believed to be a man. Even Ursula K. Leguin, who frequently corresponded with Tip by mail, wrote, “I don’t think I’ve ever been surprised before [. . .] And it is absolutely a delight, a joy, for some reason, to be truly absolutely flatfootedly surprised — it’s like a Christmas present!” (Phillips 329) The discovery of Tiptree’s identity hit the SF world by storm, leading people who had never written to Tip before (such as Gene Wolfe and Alfred Bester) to pen a missive, offering their support.

Tiptree doesn’t just happen to be a woman — her writings focus specifically on women’s issues and her lengthy correspondences with Ursula K. LeGuin and Joanna Russ add a dimension to her writing. The gender and sexual ambiguity also creates a complex flavor to his fiction that makes it well worth reading and reflecting on.

My knowledge of  Tip comes primarily through Julie Phillips stunning biography, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. In the biography, Phillips tells of Alli growing up in a household with a strong mother figure — Mary Bradley. Her parents were very much the socialites and her mother, a popular author in her own right, interacted with many of the famous writers of the day. They took Alli on two lengthy trips to Africa, where her mother hunted a gorilla and an elephant. Mary chronicled these experiences in a couple of adult and children’s books.

Alli later went to college and at nineteen, she eloped with a depressive, abusive, writerly type, whom she divorced shortly after. She then went on to serve in the Women’s Army Corp (in the middle of WWII), followed by a brief stint in the CIA. It was during her time in the Army that Alli met Ting, who would remain her devoted husband for the rest of his life.

Alli’s pseudonym came later in life when she and her husband were walking through a grocery store and came upon a brand of Tiptree marmalade. At first the name was a joke, but it stuck. Keeping her identity a secret, Alli submitted short stories as James Tiptree, Jr. Most writers respected his privacy; however, there were an occasion or two where people would show up at the house or Tip’s P.O. Box to try and identify him/her. Alli also wrote under the pseudonym of Raccoona Sheldon, who supposedly was a grade school classmate of Tip . In total, Alli published around 70 short stories and a couple of novels (which weren’t particularly well-received compared to her short fiction).

From 1967 until 1976, Tiptree’s identity remained unknown to the larger populace. Then, when a letter written by Tiptree reflecting on her mother’s death became public, rumors spread like wildfire that she was indeed Alice B. Sheldon. This led to a mix of emotions for Alli and even though she received a massive amount of support, she continued to struggle with depression and dwelled on those who were slow to respond or were critical of her writing. But Alli persevered and continued to write, mostly still as James Tiptree, Jr., but also as Raccoona.

For years, Alli had a pact with Ting (her idea, but he reluctantly agreed) that they would commit suicide before they were unable to take care of themselves. In 1987, when Alli was 71 and her older husband had gone blind, she shot him in his sleep, then killed herself, fulfilling the pact.

Tiptree’s fiction remains relevant today and there is an award named after him called the Tiptree awards, which recognizes works of fiction that explore gender issues.

This week we will examine the following novelettes/novellas that James Tiptree wrote:

  • The Women Men Don’t See
  • The Girl Who was Plugged In
  • Houston, Houston, Do You Read?
  • The Screwfly Solution

Stay tuned tomorrow.

Phillips, Julie. James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. St. Martin’s Press, New York. 2006.