Sex, death and love (in that order) in James Tiptree Jr’s Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

the new SF Masterworks cover
the new SF Masterworks edition

The short stories of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever are grim and powerful reading, committing the reader to new worlds and leaving unsettling characters in the mind. They are about love, sex and death in the future, across species and time. In the original Introduction to the 1990 edition John Clute writes passionately about the youth and vigour of Tiptree’s writing, and the masculine use of language that ‘tells the world what it is, tells the world what to do’. The point of this defence (and no defence is needed, but Clute was recapping the situation from the 1970s when Tiptree was an enigmatic secret) is, of course, that the secretive and impressive sf author James Tiptree Jr was unmasked in 1977 as Alice B Sheldon, also writing as Raccoona Sheldon, a CIA operative, psychology PhD, and explorer’s daughter, aged 62. The revelation of the femaleness of this superb writer must have given huge pleasure (it still does) to those who had bristled at Robert Silverberg’s authoritative statement from a few years earlier that Tiptree could not be a woman because her writing was ‘ineluctably masculine’, implying that only men wrote great sf. That was just a bit too hegemonic for the late 1970s, even for a grand old man of literature.

Clute calls this Tiptree collection ‘one of the two or three most significant collections of short SF ever published’. The stories are soaringly futuristic, succeeding so much better than many other works of the period in stepping out of contemporary social and cultural restrictions and inventing spectacularly alien futures. Yet there is a problem, a very serious one for these feminist stories written in ‘masculine’ language. They reach for the stars, but cannot free themselves from a 1950s mindset about women. When Tiptree began to write these stories, in a burst of creative genius between 1968 and 1981, she had turned 50, and had already left several careers behind her, one of them as the US Army’s first photo-intelligence officer. Clute claims youth and vigour for her writing, but he acknowledges the weight of her years: ‘she burns out old’. Her narrative expectation is dated on what the reader would think about society and human development. This produces a straining of invention, as if a marvellous, powerful flying creature was tied to the ground by a single length of pluckable rope that it couldn’t see to cut. An example of this is in the final story in this collection, ‘And So On, and So On’, a conversation piece between a group of travellers in a space shuttle. One character is identified as female, a ‘clanwife’ and nursemaid. The others are male (or neutral gender), and hold professional posts in a future far away in time. Why was it so hard, given her own history, for Tiptree to make a professional character female?

the Tachyon Publications edition, featuring naked women tastefully clutching themselves in swirls of smoke.
the Tachyon Publications edition, featuring naked women tastefully clutching themselves in swirls of smoke.

Even where pilots, engineers or scientists in these stories are female, they are almost certain to be sexually assaulted. Most of the stories in this collection feature rape, or violent sex, as a central aspect of the plot. Reading the stories one after another, this focus on an inevitable masculine brutality becomes numbing, even if the number of words used to give the details represent a very small percentage of the story. Tiptree had a ‘concern’, as we say in the trade, to talk about women, death and rape, and how stunningly, crucially wrong this was for a civilised society intending to fly out to the stars and spread its morality and social practices elsewhere. Graham Sleight’s 2014 Introduction to this new edition of Her Smoke quotes Tiptree’s 1983 essay, in which she talks about her childhood on her parents’ explorations and trips, in which ‘she found herself interacting with adults of every size, color, shape and condition […] and above all, women: chattel-women deliberately starved, deformed, blinded and enslaved; women in nun’s habits saving the world; women in high heels saving the world’.

There is more on that theme in this long quotation: its effect is to suggest how Alice’s experiences in the 1920s and 1930s in Africa and Asia had stayed in her mind. After working in intelligence and training in psychology, she started writing terrifying and brutal stories of women’s oppression, just when the second wave of feminism was happening in the West. What disturbs and impresses me most about these stories is the suffering that Tiptree makes the women characters endure, whether they feel it as suffering or not. We have to read it: that’s her point.

the original Arkham House edition, artwork by Andrew Smith
the original Arkham House edition, artwork by Andrew Smith

In ‘The Screwfly Solution’ men begin killing women, all the women, often raping them first: the horror comes from how easily this could happen. ‘And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side’ is about man’s desire for alien sex, any sex, and any alien. The title comes from Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci (doomed love for a cold fairy) and the theme comes from ‘Tam Lin’ (human loses decades of his life in the faery hill). (Tiptree’s titles are baroque fantasies in their own right, epic and ornate.) ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In’ is a horrific fantasia on Frankenstein and reality TV that reminded me forcibly of a story by (possibly?) Ray Bradbury in which an abortion is performed live on camera in a speeding car with white leather seats to show how superb its stabilising system was. The kind of gripping story which you don’t want to continue reading but you have to, and you don’t forget it either.

‘The Women Men Don’t See’ is apparently Tiptree’s most famous story (I hadn’t heard of it), and is a little lighter because the women don’t die, but escape rather than stay on a planet with voracious male humans. In Tiptree’s narrative perspectives it seems that masculinity is the default option for ‘human’, and woman’s default option is to do what masculinity requires. ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read’ considers what would happen if there were no longer men on Earth, and then brings three of them back from the past. Naturally, rape is attempted, but by now I am getting rather depressed: why does a male-female encounter in a Tiptree story always include sex, whether she wants it or not? Is there really no other option in the future, other than this kind of power play? ‘With Delicate Mad Hands’ is a masochistic escape-from-torture novella that ends in the suffering woman’s epiphany and all the brutalising men dead. ‘A Momentary Taste of Being’ is all about sex, in the biological sense, and yes, there is a flashback of critical importance about child sex too. Oh dear. Are we there yet?

‘Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled Of Light’ is about an alternative reality where a happy woman is running freely along a long abandoned highway, a courier for the all-women society that seems to have replaced the one who built the crumbling roads and buildings, but, of course, it’s all in her head, and you can guess what happens under the freeway. ‘We Who Stole The Dream’ varies the rape narrative by making it a pan-planetary colonial nightmare, rather like Le Guin’s The Word For World Is Forest.

the SFBC ebook cover from 2005
the SFBC ebook cover from 2005

All Tiptree’s stories require attentive reading, and often re-reading. She doesn’t make anything easy, and delivers wonders, even if they’re often unpalatable. The title story, ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’, is hard work, about time travel controlled by psychic scarring. The event that causes the scarring is, predictably, sex. ‘Love Is the Plan the Plan is Death’ is my preferred story of all in this collection because Tiptree gets right away from the corruption of human (actually 1950s American) social norms, and imagines the life cycle of a devouringly powerful race of giant spiders who feel love and passion in the most erotic terms. This story allows love to dominate, rather than violent lust, and is a linguistic triumph in conveying multiple shades of affection and selfless desire that isn’t based on a male-female binary. ‘Slow Music’, a story of the last potential breeding couple on Earth, does include sex, but in its proper place, as only part of the complicated relationship that people must develop when considering impregnation to restock the Earth with people.

James Tiptree Jr (Alice Sheldon) 1915-1987
James Tiptree Jr (Alice B Sheldon) 1915-1987

The remaining stories are not about rape, thank goodness, but they are absolutely about deaths that are inevitable but slow. A schlock situation is given grandeur and pathos in ‘On the Last Afternoon’ when a herd of immense breeding lobsters crashes into the bay where the humans’ post-crash settlement is struggling to survive. ‘The Man Who Walked Home’ and ‘And I Have Come Upon This Place By Lost Ways’ are so sad, stories of the desolate loneliness of death, tempered with pleasure in new knowledge, but not by enough. One man is rushing through time in the same point in space for centuries, trying to get back home, watched with interest by generations of settlers at the desert spot where the explosion threw him out of time. The other has left home for good to get to the top of the forbidden mountain to see what’s there in his last moments. ‘She Waits for All Men Born’ is possibly the ultimate in powerful, lonely women: a mutant girl who can never be killed, and whose gaze kills everyone. What can withstand that?

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is a very dense reading experience. It took me several days, and I needed respite in between, to clear my mind of nightmares and hopelessness. Tiptree’s writing is astonishingly powerful, and reading these stories all in one go is probably not at all what she intended (this collection was assembled after her death). The magazines who bought her stories are also factors in considering why she included so many violent sex episodes in her plots: was this a requirement by the editors? Did New Dimensions 3, Phantasmicon, Nova 2, Galaxy, Stellar 4, Interfaces, Amazing Stories, to list only some of the collections or magazines that published these stories, have a high tolerance for sexual violence, or readers with an appetite for it? Was Tiptree unusual or the norm in her detailed writing about rape in space? I find it interesting that Clute doesn’t mention the stories’ obsessive attention to sexual violence in 1990, whereas Sleight does in 2014. Have Tiptree’s violent lessons in feminist thinking about women, sex and fiction finally percolated through into the cultural norm?




11 thoughts on “Sex, death and love (in that order) in James Tiptree Jr’s Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

  1. Yes.

    Tiptree spent her life circling death. It shows in her work: All the gates are closed and we’re funnelled down the chute to the flashing knives before we know what’s happening. She does it so very well.

    She was consumed by her own sense of the inevitability of the abbattoir. Perhaps Tiptree helped her step outside that inevitability, for a while, and assume the persona of the one wielding the knife. But just about every story she wrote could have been titled, “No Way Out.” It doesn’t matter what name she worked under, that part was always clear.


  2. Great review ! I’ve only recently discovered this collection and I absolutely loved it (and was depressed by it in equal measure). I stumbled upon your blog after googling ‘James Tiptree letters Ursula le Guin’. Glad I did. Also, I don’t know if you’ve read him or not but I found that James Tiptree jr.’s stories in a way reminded me of Cordwainer Smith. Something brighter minds have surely already commented upon before. If you haven’t read him, I highly recommend ‘The Rediscovery of Man’.


    1. Hi Lise! How’s the family, and the business? Thank you for your approval! I don’t think I have read any Cordwainer Smith, at least, not recently (goodness knows what I devoured as a teenager, long forgotten). I shall keep an eye out for his books.


  3. I’ve only just found this excellent, eloquent review of Tiptree’s stories – thank you for this. Also, I know this entry is a few years old now but I thought you might like to know that the story about the abortion in the speeding car is ‘Big Operation on Altair Three’ by Josephine Saxton. I first read it years ago in a great Womens’ Press SF anthology called ‘Despatches From The Frontiers Of The Female Mind’, it really stuck with me so I recognised it straight away from your description. And yes, it has a very Tiptree sensibility.


    1. Thank you! And now that you mention the title, I do recognise it, and I know I’ve read it. Heaven knows when, it could have been decades ago.


  4. I feel like you missed the depth of these stories, as well as their current relevance. Yes they contain the elements you mentioned, but not only these elements. It appears that you’ve cherry picked certain story points to prove some point you have that Alice’s stories are outdated. I certainly didn’t find them that way.

    And a woman is ‘old’ at 50?? Burning out old? Whose ideas about the feminine are outdated?

    Tiptree’s genius lay in confronting the darkness on all levels, in a way that most authors can’t. She holds our hands through that darkness I feel, rather than smothering us with it, and is often, mostly, heading towards the light. To say you were ‘depressed’ by the stories says more about your reading of them I feel than the stories themselves. There is a lot of light and love in Tiptree’s darkness, just like in life.


    1. I think you’ve misunderstood. ‘She burns out old’ was a quote from John Clute’s introduction: you should take it up with him. If you object to my phrase ‘weight of her years’, as a 55 year old I have the experience to describe being aged 50 or more like that because I’ve lived it.


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