Science Fiction Studies

#19 = Volume 6, Part 3 = November 1979

Lowry Pei

Poor Singletons: Definitions of Humanity in the Stories of James Tiptree, Jr.

James Tiptree, Jr.'s 1969 story "Your Haploid Heart" concerns an interplanetary biological investigator with a mission similar to Tiptree's own: defining humanity.1 He makes a curious discovery — a race of people who possess two distinct and alternating modes of reproduction. One generation is large, long-lived, asexual, and reproduces by budding; the next generation (their offspring) is small, short-lived, and reproduces sexually (giving birth to the asexual form, and so forth). The sexually reproducing Flenni have half as many chromosomes as the asexual Esthaans; they are "living gametes" (SS, p. 27)2 in whom every genetic imperfection, not being masked by an accompanying gene, is expressed - and weeded out by the individual's death. But the incompleteness of the Flenni is not only a weakness and a selection mechanism, it is also the source of an incomparable beauty:

Handsome? No word for the intensity of life in these proud beaked faces. The brilliant eyes, the archaic arch of nostril, the fierce and passionate lips.

Total virility. And total vulnerability. I am seeing human males of a quality none have seen before. (SS, p. 21)

Only in dreams do we ever see beings who are literally all male or all female. The most virile human man, the most seductive woman is, in fact, a blend. But the Flenni are the pure expression of one sex alone — overwhelming, irresistible. (SS, p. 37)

The investigator's criterion of humanity is mutual fertility, and by this standard the Flenni are human, the Esthaans are not. Although there is a great deal more to the story, the relevant points, for the moment, are these: humanity is incompleteness, humanity is linked to sexuality, and gender identity is incompleteness as well. The purpose of this essay is to examine the effort to define humanity which shows up in many of Tiptree's short stories, working from the clues supplied by "Your Haploid Heart" toward Tiptree's fiction in general.

The theme of incompleteness is at the center of the 1975 story "A Momentary Taste of Being," in which the human race discovers that they are merely the gametes — sperm cells, so to speak — of some other, unimaginable race. An expedition from overcrowded and dying Earth, in search of a habitable planet, stumbles across one 26 trillion miles from home, and on it finds beings who are the "eggs" that the human "sperm" must combine with. Fertilization takes place — a momentary contact that forms "some kind of holy ... zygote" (SS, p. 151) which has a "ghostly life among the stars" (SS, pp. 83, 85) and that leaves the human beings drained of all purpose and gradually dying. "We're left ... empty ... What happens to a sperm's tail ... afterwards?" (SS, p. 151).

The story ends in a powerful monologue by the central character, Dr. Aaron Kaye, which is a bitter celebration of the incompleteness of the human race — an incompleteness now transformed from beauty into doom:

...We're gametes.

Nothing but gametes ... half of the germ-plasm of ... something. Not complete beings at all ... And that's all we are, the whole damn thing — the evolving, the achieving and fighting and hoping — all the pain and effort, just to get us there with the loads of jizzum in our heads.

... Oh, god, what are they like, the creatures that generated us, that we die to form? (SS, pp. 158-60)

This incompleteness, a fundamental characteristic of humanity according to Tiptree, is clearly a two-sided quality. Mankind is made more beautiful and more human by being half of something (the Flenni); yet the race is doomed, and its history reduced to pointlessness, by being half of something ("Taste of Being"). This kind of paradoxical doubleness is found throughout the themes of Tiptree's work.

To be human, in Tiptree, is to be half of something, but it is also to be divided between the sperm's head and tail, the life in the body and "the creatures that ... we die to form." Certainly humanity for Tiptree is subject to powerful biologically determined drives that cannot be contradicted. The first story in Tiptree's first published collection ("And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side") is essentially a monologue by a man who has succumbed, as all human beings apparently must, to the irresistible attraction of alien races. Man's natural exogamy, which has served to keep the gene pool well mixed on Earth, becomes the downfall of the race: "All our history is one long drive to find and impregnate the stranger.... That's a drive, y'know, it's built in.... But now we've met aliens we can't screw, and we're about to die trying.... Do you think I can touch my wife?" (10K, pp. 11- 12).

"That's a drive, y'know, it's built in": this ominous reminder echoes through much of Tiptree's work. In the 1972 story "On the Last Afternoon," a struggling human colony is wiped out when the gigantic inhabitants of their adopted world, obeying the commands of their life-cycle, come ashore to mate, lay their eggs, and die, becoming mindless engines of destruction as they do so. Forceful as this story is, the high point of Tiptree's concern with drives is undoubtedly "Love Is the Plan the Plan is Death" (1973), a monologue by an alien being, spoken as he dies in the jaws of his mate, in which he recounts his struggles with the biological determinism that rules them. It is a peculiarly poignant story of an individual intelligence trying to achieve conscious choice while living in a mind and body controlled by drives:

'Brother Frim!' I call gently, soothingly. But something is badly wrong! My voice is bellowing too! Yes, in the warm and I want only to calm him, I am full of love — but the kill-roar is rushing through me, I too am swelling, rattling, booming! Invincible! To crush — to rend

Oh, I am shamed.


Once I glimpse a black bigness far away and I am suddenly up at my full height, roaring. Attack the black! Was it another brother? ... I roar again. No — it roars me, the new power of black. (WW, p. 175)

In "Love is the Plan" the theme of the inability to master one's drives and to achieve civilization in spite of them is distanced by the fact that the characters are peculiar and somewhat horrific aliens. In "A Momentary Taste of Being," however, the characters are human and the drive (to meet the aliens and die by "fertilizing" them) is no less overwhelming: "The goal of man's desiring. No way to stop it" (SS, p. 162). Its mindless urgency is summed up in Aaron Kaye's dream that begins the story: "a monster penis toward the stars ... probes blindly under intolerable pressure from within" (SS, p. 65). The 1977 story "The Screwfly Solution" restates the theme of a humanity destroyed by its drives, in this case because aliens interfere with human sexuality in order to rid the planet of people. The working-out of this plot amounts to a confirmation of the quotation within the story, " Man's religion and metaphysics are the voice of his glands" (p. 170).

Yet man's drives also exhibit duality; they are not confined merely to "the functions of life: assimilation, excitation, reproduction," to use the summation Tiptree gives in "A Momentary Taste of Being" (SS, p. 136). The central character of "And I Awoke," after explaining the sexual trap that the drive for exogamy leads to in the presence of aliens, goes on to qualify his explanation:

'Sex? No, it's deeper.... I saw one fine-looking old woman, she was servant to a Cu'ushbar kid. A defective — his own people would have let him die. That wretch was swabbing up his vomit as if it was holy water. Man, it's deep... some cargo-cult of the soul. We're built to dream outwards. They [the aliens] laugh at us. They don't have it.' (10K, p. 12)

Again we encounter a basic incompleteness (the "cargo-cult of the soul") that is presented as the root quality of humanity, and in this case there is the further suggestion that this incompleteness, being deeper than sexuality, is what drives the drives themselves.

This "dreaming outwards" is the crucial issue in "On the Last Afternoon," where the colony's old leader, in communication with a being called the noion, is offered a kind of immortality, a "ghostly life among the stars" (to use the phrase that occurs in "Taste of Being" and that might also describe the ending of Tiptree's novel Up the Walls of the World).

It sang to him, a sweet cold song. Out — alone — free ... The other voice in the double heart of man. The deepest longing of that part of him that was most human. To be free of the tyranny of species. To be free of love....

He had groaned, feeling the sky close, feeling the live blood pumping through his animal heart. He was an animal, a human animal and his young were in danger. He could not do it. (WW, p. 207)

The dilemma of the "double heart" is this: that the "most human" drive is to be free of all drives — and yet without the driven animal one cannot be human at all. The same character tells the noion, "Man is a mammal, we build nests, we cherish our young.... Yes, I die. But my species lives!" (WW, p. 206).

Not all of Tiptree's characters are willing to accept the duality which is exemplified by the aliens of "On the Last Afternoon — the silently contemplative noion on one hand and the mating sea-monsters on the other. Aaron Kaye's sister Lory, in some ways the pivotal character of "A Momentary Taste of Being," asks him: "Why do we use the word human for the animal part of us, Arn? Aggression — that's human. Cruelty, hatred, greed — that's human. That's just what isn't human, Arn. It's so sad. To be truly human we must leave all that behind" (SS, p. 121). In support of her position, she quotes Tennyson: "Grow upward. working out the beast" (SS, p. 82). The problem with that project, as Tiptree's stories frequently show, is that we are the beast; under the circumstances, the struggle to "grow upward" is nearly identical with a struggle for annihilation. This is particularly clear in "Your Haploid Heart": the asexual Esthaans have formed a pathological notion that sex and reproduction are " revolting, unspeakable things" (SS, p. 18); and in what they see as a struggle for higher civilization, they are eliminating the Flenni on whom their very existence depends. Similarly in "The Screwfly Solution," men form pseudo-religious cults in which they believe that "man must purify himself and show God a clean world.... as long as man depends on the old filthy animal way (of reproducing) God won't help him. When man gets rid of his animal part which is woman, this is the signal God is awaiting" (p. 169). The "victory," and thus indirect suicide, of the cultists bears out a maxim spoken by the central character of "On the Last Afternoon," which concisely sums up the dilemma of the double heart: "Man is an animal whose dreams come true and kill him" (WW, p. 196).

The annihilation, when it comes, is usually linked — in another paradox central to Tiptree's work — to reproduction. That which should preserve the race is that which destroys it, in "And I Awoke," "Your Haploid Heart," and "The Screwfly Solution." In "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" (1976), the male half of the human race is eliminated by genetic defects which, because of the human reproductive mechanism, are carried by women but affect male fetuses. In "On the Last Afternoon" and "A Momentary Taste of Being," humanity is wiped out by the reproductive efforts of some other race, though in the latter story, as we have seen, mankind drives towards its reproductive suicide with overwhelming urgency. Even in the comical story "All the Kinds of Yes" (1972), an alien comes to Earth planning to give birth to 30,000 lethal offspring that will destroy all life on the planet, and only finds an alternative at the last moment. And in "Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death," the narrator is eaten by his mate at the height of their love. If we treat the title of that story as a pair of equations: Love= the Plan; The Plan= Death — then their obvious reduction is: Love = Death. This notion is confirmed by the narrator of "Taste of Being": "the fear — Sex equals death. How right you are, old man" (SS, p. 158). The consistent message is that reproduction is a disaster, a catastrophe — it can be anything from the "vulnerable link in the behavioral chain" ("Screwfly") to the insensate horror of the monstrous matings in "On the Last Afternoon" (see esp. WW, p. 210). In Tiptree there is no assumption that reproduction is a benign, desirable function; it is a highly problematic attribute of living things, and its record is not good.

Besides being both the preserver and the destroyer of the race, sexuality is also dual in being simultaneously a source of wonder and of horror, an effect which Tiptree achieves mainly by showing us sex and reproduction involving alien beings ("All the Kinds of Yes," "A Momentary Taste of Being," "On the Last Afternoon"). This is particularly true in "Love Is the Plan," where we are inside the alien body and mine, the reader experiences the alien sexuality with a combination of fascination and; repulsion similar to that felt by a pre-adolescent contemplating adult sex.

The ultimate expression of this duality (pleasure-turning-to-horror) is to be found in the linkage between sex and violence that crops up fairly often in Tiptree's stories. In the early (1968) story "Mama Come Home," Earth has its first visit from aliens, who turn out to be giant women for whom, in the enigmatic words of one character, "conception is a voluntary function" (10K, p. 65). The male narrator is raped by them, but unlike other men they have attacked sexually, is not killed; as an indirect result he finally wins the favors of the woman he loves, who was gang-raped as a girl and thereafter waged "permanent guerrilla war inside" (10K, p. 63) against all men. A paragraph near the end of this story vividly outlines one of the lurking nightmares of Tiptree's work:

There's rape and rape, you know. The brutal violation of the body, that's bad enough. But there's worse — the atrocities done to the vulnerable body in order to violate the spirit, the savage mockery of sex that joys in degrading the living victim to a broken thing .... All sweet Auschwitz. (10K, p. 83)

This story and "Love Is the Plan" are the only ones in which females — aliens in both cases — commit sexual violence. Otherwise, this tendency is exclusively found in men, most notably in "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" and "The Screwfly Solution." In the former story three male 20th-century astronauts slip forward in time to a future in which the human race consists entirely of cloned females. The story takes place on the ship which rescues them; the women drug them with a disinhibitor in order to study them better, with the result that one of the women is raped in the story's climactic scene. Even the central character, the least aggressive of the three men, responds to the drug by visualizing a "flash sequence of the three of them taking over the ship, the women tied up, helpless, shrieking, raped and used" (SS, p. 200). "The Screwfly Solution" goes much further. In the words of a scientist who provides the story's explanation, "A potential difficulty for our species has always been implicit in the close linkage between the behavioral expression of aggression/predation and sexual reproduction in the male" (p. 178). It is this linkage that the aliens exploit; as with the beings of "Love Is the Plan," the fine distinction between love and murder breaks down in human males, and they systematically exterminate women, feeling as they do so a "terrible rightness" (p. 181).

Shortly before her suicide, the main female character of "The Screwfly Solution" muses: "Isn't it strange how we do nothing? Just get killed by ones and twos.... We're a toothless race. — Do you know I never said 'we' meaning women before? ... Being killed selectively encourages group identification" (p. 181). Men and women are frequently seen as separate groups, even separate races, in Tiptree's work. In "Mama Come Home," Earth-normal women are simply immature versions of the giant aliens from Capella who are, in fact, our ancestors. The male dominance of our world, which is pointed up by the rape that distorts the life of one of the characters, is mirrored by a still more extreme female dominance in theirs, where a tall man comes up to a woman's belt buckle. In "Love Is the Plan" the males and females lead separate lives in separate niches, fulfilling different parts of the life-cycle and communicating little. But the obvious example is one of Tiptree's most celebrated stories, "The Women Men Don't See," in which women seem actually to be an alien race, stranded on this planet and anxious to get away. Ruth Parsons, the principal female character of that story, also describes women as "toothless" — not guerrillas (unlike Tillie of "Mama Come Home") but opossums.

'What women do is survive,' [she tells the narrator.] 'We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.'

... 'Men and women aren't different species, Ruth. Women do everything men do.'

'Do they?'... She mutters something that could be 'My Lai' and looks away. 'All the endless wars ... All the huge authoritarian organizations for doing unreal things. Men live to struggle against each other; we're just part of the battlefields.... I dream sometimes of — of going away — ' (WW, p. 154)

She does of course manage to go away with some aliens (other aliens) who show up opportunely, taking her daughter with her and leaving behind a cable to a friend: "Althea and I taking extraordinary opportunity for travel" (WW, p. 163).

In "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" it is men who have gone away, by dying off in an epidemic. Ruth Parsons, "in a gray tone of total conviction," states that "Women have no rights ... except what men allow us. Men are more aggressive and powerful, and they run the world" (WW, p. 153). In "Houston" we get a glimpse of what happens when that is no longer true, as three men (who are now the aliens) make contact with a world peopled entirely by women. The men have a rigid authority code based on dominance and submission; the women, now free of the male style of governance, live in a cooperative world which sounds somewhat like Anarres, the anarchist utopia of Le Guin's The Dispossessed. The men have "a personal god, a father-model, man needs that"; women need nothing beyond "faith in ourselves" (SS, p. 184). Men, it appears, were the true discoverers among the race, the explorers and inventors; since their time, the women have consolidated the technology, making it simple and reliable, adding improvements of great ingenuity but no breakthrough inventions. In three centuries they have come up with one new opening in chess (SS, p. 202). The men are reserved, held in; the women are constant, indefatigable communicators. The men are associated with rape, fanaticism, physical anger and violence, a drive for power and domination; to the women all these things are foreign. But even after a rape and an attempt to bring salvation at gunpoint (the responses of the other two astronauts to the disinhibitor drug), Lorimer, the central character, is able to pronounce an angry elegy for the males which does not ring entirely hollow: "We gave you all this, we made it all. We built your precious civilization and your knowledge and comfort and medicines and your dreams. We protected you, we worked our balls off keeping you and your kids.... It was ... a bloody fight all the way. We're tough. We had to be, can't you understand?"

But the reply of the eldest woman, Lady Blue, makes the same devastating point made by Ruth Parsons in "The Women Men Don't See": "Of course we enjoy your inventions and we do appreciate your evolutionary role. But ... what you protected people from was largely other males, wasn't it?" (SS, p. 224).

The story ends with Lorimer asking Lady Blue what the women call their world: "'Why, we call ourselves human beings.' Her eyes twinkle absently at him, go back to the bullet marks. 'Humanity, mankind.' She shrugs. 'The human race.'" (SS, p. 226). It is tempting, for a moment, to regard this as the answer to that problem of defining humanity posed in "Your Haploid Heart" and taken up in so many other Tiptree stories: humanity is cooperative, peaceful, ingenious at a certain plateau — and female. But one can only sustain this thought for a moment; Lady Blue's words are clearly ironic, as we learn from the succeeding sentences, which end the story. Lorimer is taking the antidote to the drug: "The drink tastes cool going down, something like peace and freedom, he thinks. Or death." Once again, civilization is achieved by annihilating part of our humanity — in this case the part labeled male — and though the survivors have peace and freedom, they also have, without even knowing it, that enduring human quality of incompleteness. We end by seeing the women's world as a declining one — not because they have lost the qualities and abilities represented by the men (ambivalent gifts at best), but because they are unaware of their human incompleteness, living in a bland and antiseptic world where Shakespeare and Dickens can be dismissed as "not very realistic" (SS, p. 205).

Earlier in the story, one of the women exclaims to Lorimer about his pitiable predicament in not being a clone, with no other versions of himself surrounding him:

"How do you know who you are? Or who anybody is? All alone, no sisters to share with! You don't know what you can do, or what would be interesting to try. All you poor singletons, you — why, you just have to blunder along and die, all for nothing!" (SS, p. 208)

Bud Geirr, one of the male astronauts, essentially agrees with her later when he insists that there have to be some men left on earth "because, dummy, otherwise nothing counts, that's why" (SS, p.218). For both of them, a meaning in life can only arise in community. The point worth noticing, however, is that everyone in the story would agree that men and women cannot help to form community for each other. The cloned women have their sisters; the men need other men; no true support, no help in the fundamental tasks of constructing a purpose and an identity can cross the barrier of gender. Men and women remain separate races, existing side by side but not truly connected.

Looking at this story, at the massacre of women in "The Screwfly Solution," at the Flenni in "Your Haploid Heart" who die as soon as they have mated, at the rapes in "Mama Come Home," at "The Women Men Don't See," one wonders, finally, if men and women can or should (according to Tiptree) inhabit the planet together — if the human race, harboring its "cargo-cult of the soul" and divided into two incomplete sub-races, with its reproductive and sexual peculiarities and its double heart, can survive. The stories add up to an alarm, a warning.

Then the picture reverses; the image and the ground trade places. The title "The Screwfly Solution" implies finding the answer to a problem. Could it not be said, with equal plausibility, that this problem is the project of the stories: to eliminate people, to get rid of the human race? In "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain" (1969), for example, a biologist saves the world from the ravages of man by engineering and distributing a disease guaranteed to kill off all the higher primates. From the point of view of cleaning up the planet, which is the goal in both cases, the action of that story differs little from "The Screwfly Solution," except that in the latter case the disease is spread by aliens. "Why?" asks one of the last women. "Well, it's a nice place, if it wasn't for people" (p. 183). The race is nearly wiped out by an outside force in "On the Last Afternoon"; "All the Kinds of Yes" is a narrow escape from that fate, as is "Mama Come Home." More often there is some kind of race suicide: in "Faithful to Thee, Terra, In Our Fashion" (1968) mankind destroys the Earth by war; in "Your Haploid Hearth" the Esthaans "are not committing genocide.... It's parricide, filicide ... perhaps suicide" (SS, pp. 24-5). In "And I Awoke," the drive for exogamy becomes self-destruction; and in "A Momentary Taste of Being," the success of man's search for a new world leads the race to emigrate to its own extinction.

"It's a nice place, if it wasn't for people" — but nice to whom? It is possible to make that statement without irony only if one has forgotten that one is a person, or if one is suicidal. The action suggested by the statement is murder. These implications are all congruent with the mind of a fanatic, and fanatical people are in fact scattered through these stories: Dr. Ain, the mad cultists in "Screwfly," the Esthaans, Dave the would-be messiah of "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?", Lory Kaye in "a Momentary Taste of Being." Her brother Aaron Kaye says that she has "a fanatic heart. A too-clear vision of good, a too-sure hatred of evil ... Not much use for living people" (SS, pp.82-3). To her the coming extinction, which she has helped to cause by bringing the alien back to the ship, looks like utopia: "We'll be truly human at last" (SS, p. 149). So, too, say the cultists of "Screwfly": "The time of transition to full humanity is at hand" (p. 174). In these stories, as at the end of "Houston," we learn to beware of people who throw the word "humanity" around too much, promising salvation that is actually death. As Aaron says, "You'd liquidate 90% of the human race to achieve your utopia" (SS, p. 123).

Recent history tells us that there are powerful people who are probably willing to do just that — righteous and idealistic killers who want to make people "more human" by doing them in. Tiptree's stories often show such minds at work; the question is, are the stories themselves less fanatical? Are these cautionary tales, or is their goal to show that the human race is irremediably split by the barrier between male and female? Are these stories simply the extreme statement of what we should avoid, or is their purpose to prove that mankind is ruled by drives, that reproduction and sexuality are a scourge, a fatal affliction that few if any escape, that sexuality and violence are inextricably linked, that civilization and annihilation are next-door neighbors and on the whole the world would be better off if we weren't here?

In a 1971 interview James Tiptree, Jr., said:

I'm one of those for whom the birth and horrendous growth of Nazism was the central generation event. From it I learned most of what I know about politics, about human life, about good and evil, courage, free will, fear, responsibility, and What to Say Goodbye To .... And, say it again, about Evil. And Guilt. If one of the important things to know about a person is the face in his nightmares, for me that face looks much like my own.3

To be the face in one's own nightmares is to dream "all sweet Auschwitz" from the point of view of both the SS and the Jew. So Tiptree has done in these stories: they cry out against fanaticism, sexism, death, yet at the same time they resolve conflict by means of final solutions which are themselves the stuff of nightmare: sending a character off the planet with a group of terrifying aliens, getting rid of men or women en masse, doing away with the human race. There is something in Tiptree of Dr. Ain, willing to liquidate not 90 but 100 per cent of humanity to achieve utopia; yet there is also much of Aaron Kaye, who resists the pull of beautiful annihilation in order to remain stubbornly human to the end, caring for the dying even though they do not notice. Finally Tiptree's fiction is as dual as the view of humanity it represents.

It may be that the intended effect of some of these stories is tragic, but in the univers concentrationnaire the tragic slips off into the nightmarish with the greatest of ease. The ultimate horror of 20th-century totalitarianism may be its ability to reduce everyone it touches to the status of victim either in reality or in imagination — to oppress not only those it kills, but everyone for whom it is the "central generation event." Perhaps man-as-victim cannot be the subject of tragedy in its classical, ennobling sense, but he can be the subject of the bad dreams and cries of outrage so typical of contemporary literature as it presses against the walls of our times. Tiptree's work, like most current writing, has not found a way to exempt itself from those limitations.

It may be possible, however, to glimpse a next step in the development of Tiptree's fiction. "The Screwfly Solution" is on the order of a "final solution — hypothesis, I mean" (SS, p. 158) — it puts the ideas I have been discussing into fictional form about as starkly and forcefully as one could wish. The only work of Tiptree's to appear since is Up the Walls of the World, which takes humanity (or a few of its representatives) out of its bodies and off the planet to a "ghostly life among the stars," an existence as pure mind, with a memory of bodily life but no present physical experience other than self-generated illusion. An alternative solution, in short, in which man's dream of "working out the beast" comes true and does not kill him — though the starry life we see here may not be what we would call human.

Another possibility can be seen, faintly, at the end of "The Screwfly Solution" itself, which differs in a basic way from the earlier, thematically similar story "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain." In "Dr. Ain" humanity is wiped out for the good of the Earth itself (personified as a goddess in the mind of Dr. Ain), and no one is waiting to take our place, unless the bears should evolve to intelligence in some millions of years. In "Screwfly," however, someone is coming to the Earth — aliens who are seen as "angels," "like a Christmas tree without the tree" (p. 183). Strangely benevolent images for the race that kills us off.

Something similar is very faintly suggested at the end of the story which is perhaps the ultimate expression of the project of annihilation, "She Waits For All Men Born. " It concerns an immortal woman whose gaze is instantly fatal:

Her slight figure is tender with the promise of love, her face lifted to the morning breeze is sweet with life. In her heart is loneliness; she is of mankind and she goes in search of human companionship. ... She will find and lose, and seek and find and lose again, and again seek. ... She will wander forever, until she is the last human, is indeed Humanity itself. In her flesh the eternal promise, in her gaze the eternal doom, she will absorb all. In the end she will wander and wait alone ... for whatever may come from the skies. (SS, pp. 269-70)

"Humanity itself" — a "poor singleton" indeed, an eternally divided, paradoxical double, seeking community and love and killing it in the moment it is found. This definition seems conclusive, inescapable, the bleak finality, and yet, here also, something is coming, from beyond human compulsions and the disastrous human fate. Tiptree suggests that the function of this intervention will be to end the loneliness of the "last human" by killing her. But this is fiction, after all, and even that most final of deaths need not put an end to the making of stories, or to the imagining of other finalities. We have yet to discover whether Tiptree's work will finally abandon the Earth and the bodily life upon it, or whether, from the sky of Tiptree's fiction, something will come to redefine this life. Perhaps these stories, like the real-life believers in the cargo cults, are carving airstrips in the jungle for planes that will never come.


1. Although it is now known that "James Tiptree, Jr." is a pseudonym of Alice Sheldon, and though I discuss one story ("The Screwfly Solution") published under the pseudonym of "Raccoona Sheldon," I refer to the author of these stories as "Tiptree" because that is the name readers associate with all but one of them.

2. In this article I refer to stories from four volumes, abbreviated as follows: 10K: Ten Thousand Light-Years From Home, by James Tiptree Jr., NY: Ace, 1973. WW: Warm Worlds and Otherwise, by James Tiptree, Jr., NY: Ballantine, 1975. SS: Star Songs of an Old Primate, James Tiptree, Jr., NY: Ballantine, 1978. "The Screwfly Solution," by Raccoona Sheldon, appeared in The 1978 Annual World's Best SF, ed. Donald A. Wollheim, JY: DAW, 1978. References to this story are given as page numbers only.

3. James Tiptree, Jr., in Phantasmicom 6 (June, 1971), quoted by Robert Silverberg in the Introduction to Warm Worlds and Otherwise, p. xiii.


The purpose of this essay is to examine the effort to define humanity which shows up in many of Tiptree's short stories, and especially in her "Your Haploid Heart" (1969), "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" (1976), and "The Screwfly Solution" (1977). For Tiptree, humanity is duality, sexuality, and incompleteness--eternally divided, paradoxically double, seeking community and love and killing it in the moment it is found. Are these cautionary tales, or is their goal to show that the human race is irremediably split by the barrier between male and female? Are these stories simply the extreme statement of what we should avoid, or is their purpose to prove that mankind is ruled by drives, that reproduction and sexuality are a scourge, a fatal affliction that few if any escape, that sexuality and violence are inextricably linked, that civilization and annihilation are next-door neighbors and the whole world would be better off if we weren't there? In the end, Tiptree's fiction is as dual as the view of humanity it represents. There is something in Tiptree of Dr. Ain who, in "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain" (1969), saves the world from the ravages of man by engineering a disease guaranteed to kill off the human race. Yet there is also much in her of Aaron Kaye who, in "A Momentary Taste of Being" (1975), resists the pull of beautiful annihilation in order to remain stubbornly human to the end, caring for the dying even though they do not notice. We have yet to discover whether Tiptree's work will finally abandon the Earth and the bodily life upon it, or whether, from the sky of Tiptree's fiction, something will come to redefine this life. Perhaps these stories, like the real-life believers in the cargo cults, are carving airstrips in the jungle for planes that will never come.

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