I loved the film. I died for the costumes. I was delighted with the actors, the cinematography, the sound, the script. Janelle Monae killed it playing an engineer in NASA’s obligatory high heels, though she did not convince me as a mother or wife. Taraji P Henson was stupendous as Katherine Goble, then Johnson, and nearly convinced me as a mathematician. Octavia Spencer just glowed, especially when she stole so righteously from the library. I also liked the book that sparked the film, now posting on Vulpes Libris. You might too.
In this excellent newspaper memoir-novel from 1951, it is always Monica Dickens’ turn to make the tea. She is a posh girl, the youngest staff member on the Downingham Post, and the only woman on this very small, local daily paper. She isn’t a campaigning career journalist: she’s really a writer rather than a reporter (she is Charles Dickens’ great-grand-daughter, after all). But there are things about this novel of the tricks of the journalist’s trade, a memoir of small-town post-war life in the 1950s, that produce some hard-hitting campaigning writing about living conditions after the war. Even the work in the newspaper office is absorbing, even when it’s deadly dull, because Dickens is above all a writer about people and their lives. She drew us effortlessly into wartime nursing in One Pair of Feet in 1942, because it’s the lives of the nurses we want to hear about, not the dramas and the tragedies. In this novel, we get drawn in again by human interest, not politics or corruption or sleaze or economic crises. The business of the local paper is based on human interest, which is all about what your neighbours are up to.
On getting her job at the Downingham Post, Dickens moved in with some friends she had met on a cruise, who had foolishly said ‘oh you must come and stay with us while you’re looking for somewhere permanent’. Obviously, a few weeks in, they turned out not to be friends at all, and decide to move to Switzerland. Clock ticking, Dickens hunts, with increasing desperation, for a room which she can rent that’s big enough to sleep in, and only finds one possibility, while she’s wearily interviewing the obnoxious and proud Mrs Goff, the mother of a girl who’s just got married, for details of the wedding. The girl is about to move out of Mrs Goff’s boarding-house to live with her new husband, and Dickens snaps up her room. Only later did she discover the hideous dark stain on the carpet underneath the bed, and the news stories about the foul murder done at this very address.
Dickens’ novel is the first I’ve read to really make me feel the miserable tension caused by a triumphant and domineering landlady over her cowed, captive, and trapped tenants. Some of these people were really very nice, prisoners of Mrs Goff’s caprices together, but all were at risk. With a permanent job, Dickens was relatively popular with the landlady, but the moment she had to come back to, or leave the house at an hour that did not tally with respectable working hours for a woman, like 9 to 5, she plummeted in the popularity stakes. Money, or the ability to pay the rent was nothing to the leverage caused by respectability, or the ability to make the landlady approve of you. A single man had the advantage over a single woman if the landlady liked a spare man or two about the house, but not if she didn’t.
I’m still puzzled as to how the exotic acrobat Maimie and her Japanese husband Mr Ling were even allowed inside the door of Mrs Goff’s censorious house. There was never any justice. The one thing that would guarantee an almost instant eviction by Mrs Goff was pregnancy, which now seems bizarre and inhumane, treating a married couple as if they were runaway servant lovers in a repellently Victorian manner. Myra, a married woman who comes to lodge in the house, is quite used to pretending that she isn’t married, because she’s a ballerina in a troupe run by another middle-aged female monster, who will sack any dancer who doesn’t confide in her enough, or show the slightest lapse in concentration for her Art. Dickens clearly felt very strongly about these extraordinary attitudes. This novel, if it is actually a novel and not just pasted wholly from life, we simply can’t tell because the seams are too closely and neatly sealed, is constructed to lead us slowly up a garden path of increasingly monstrous and dictatorial behaviour from the landlady to a terrible and heart-stopping conclusion.
As a piece of campaigning pseudo-journalism, My Turn To Make The Tea is also highly effective, since the episodes of human drama stick in the memory long after all the newspaper office stories have faded away. Stories of human behaviour also last longer than mere facts. Dickens’ colleagues are also human beings, of course, so the episodes about how they work, and how she works with them, stick because of their personalities. But even here, Dickens’ method of nailing petty injustice is to show what’s being done, and by whom, but not comment. The reader is given all they need to make their own minds up: no swaying needs to be done.
Those poor journalist colleagues are beaten into third place for Most Interesting Characters in the book, because the readers of the newspaper, and what they expect from it, are astonishingly powerful. The first chapter is all about Dickens having to apologise for getting a name wrong in a court report, and the demands for compensation from an aggrieved wife who wants all the details about her misnamed husband included in the paper’s apology. The hapless Dickens covers a good news story but she’s not allowed to print it because it’s come from outside the paper’s rigid parish-boundary-defined territory. Her editor, Mr Pellet, is convinced that no-one living outside the red line on his map of the area will buy his paper, so no stories emanate from there. And because she isn’t local, hasn’t grown up in the area, Dickens is hopelessly handicapped by not knowing the local notables, and by not having read all the news stories and gossip from the area for the past thirty years. If she had, she would never have lodged at Mrs Goff’s.
Where the journalist colleagues do come into play is when Dickens writes about the now deliciously old-fashioned and evocative way of putting the paper to bed. I first read about this method in Kipling’s Stalky and Co, when Beetle was running the school newspaper in the nineteenth century, so I find it comforting that a Victorian method was still being used in the outposts of English country newspaper-making sixty years later, despite all the technology changes. Court reporting is another fascinating eye-opener: if you’re used to reading about court cases, and coroners’ hearings, only through the English detective novel of the interwar years, reading the way these are reported will reverse your opinions of the silently scribbling journalists at the inquest. What they know, and what they’re thinking, is much more interesting than the detective’s surmises.
We’re in the 19th century for the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up, in the Victorian era, when the British Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, published an epic poem called The Princess, on the subject of what to do about bizarre ideas about women’s education, independence, and silly things like that.
The submission of Victorian women was expected due to their supposed intellectual inferiority. A woman who tried to educate herself was violating Nature, because women were to be angels in the house, and to stay there, expecting nothing more from life than to serve their husbands (because they would all of course get married), and to raise their children as perfect souls. The artist and critic John Ruskin was particularly annoying on this subject, since he believed in some terrifying double standards. The Victorian woman must be incapable of error, incorruptible, infallible (though I’d like to know where she was to get this wisdom if she wasn’t allowed to leave the house), and would rule men in her own domestic domain. If the woman of the home allowed danger or harm to enter the house, it was her fault, because then the house would not be a home. He made no space for the possibility that a man might bring the danger home (his list included disease, crime, drink, and false religion). A man might also refuse to be ruled by his wife. Imagine that.
Thankfully for common sense, these ideals, though widespread, were also widely disagreed with. Many Victorian novels (including those we teach now, for their alignment with modern thinking) will show you that middle-class women in particular were disturbed by these restrictions, because the plots seem to try to winkle them out of such restricted lives and show them a different way of living, even if they all rush nervously back to the drawing-room and predictable safety.
So where does that leave us with Tennyson? He published The Princess in 1847. It consists of a Prologue, and seven Books: this marks it as an epic in form alone. It’s one of Tennyson’s earlier works, but is very well-known because of some of the individual poems within it, called the ‘intercalary poems’. It’s very easy to read, because it’s written in blank verse, a classical conversational form in unrhyming iambic pentameters.
Here’s the story: Princess Ida retreats from male society and creates a university for women where nothing male may enter. This feminine intellectual paradise is infiltrated by the Prince to whom she is betrothed, plus a couple of his friends, all disguised in frocks. He tries to persuade her to relent and marry him after all, and then his aggressive father declares war on her father, and the university is turned into a war hospital. The poem ends with Ida being persuaded by the Prince that they can co-exist harmoniously in marriage.
This poem is a ‘problem poem’, but it’s designed to be a comedy (in the Shakespearian sense), in that the women are made to see the error of their ways through the gentle persuasion of love. The Princess has to surrender, although she ends the poem in a ‘triumphant union’ with the Prince. She is sad that she can’t continue her resistance to patriarchal society (conservative, brutal, instinctive, unthinking) or continue her mission of a separate educational establishment for women (an intellectual, futuristic and abstract goal).
The Princess really is a very odd poem, because it’s self-consciously archaic, and deliberately farcical in many respects. It begins with a hissy-fit by the Prince’s father, a mighty king, who is furious when Ida’s father sends a message that the Princess has decided not to marry his son. He stomps and rages, and tears things up, and vows to send an army to crush the Princess’s pride. The Prince, who seems a resourceful sort of chap, suggests that he goes to discuss things with the Princess, but his father, still in a right old temper, forbids him, Naturally, the Prince, and his two best friends Florian and Cyril – I don’t know why I can’t find the Prince’s name: perhaps he’s an Everyman character – disobey this petulant ruling, and slip out of the palace at night to travel to Princess Ida’s realm. But remember that this is a women-only realm: no men may enter. So the three gallant gentlemen dress up as women, and here’s where the farce begins. Cross-dressing is a staple ingredient in British comedy: we really do find it funny when men wear frocks. They register at the Princess’s university as gentlewomen students, and attend classes in philosophy led by, ta da!, Florian’s own sister, Psyche, with whom Cyril immediately falls in love.
Princess Ida is treated with respect in the poem, though there is a bit of undergraduate sniggering when she first meets the three adventurers. We know that they’re men fooling the girls, and so we can enjoy the humour of the situation where Ida gravely lectures them on how unnecessary men are, and how much better a society is when it is ruled by women. Ida is a symbol of heroic will rather than a spoiled girl who won’t do what the men want. She embodies heroic comedy, rather than the domestic comedy which is what all the marriage-making is about. Marriage is a comic symbol, the ultimate in joining and making.
But is it a good poem? Is it enjoyable? It does use many different tones, which shows that, in trying to do too many things, Tennyson was never going to succeed. It’s also a right old mix of genres, using the heroic, the comic, the domestic, the epic, the lyrical, the idyllic, almost all at the same time. Good professional showmanship of technique, but is it good art? Some attempts at genre effect fail completely: the poem is framed by a Prologue and a Conclusion set in a standard mid-Victorian country-house party, and the seven Books of the poem are supposed to have been narrated by seven different speakers (to whom we were introduced in the Prologue), yet their voices are indistinguishable. They were supposed to have different personalities and points of view, yet the background society from which they come is so conventional, that in comparison with this fantasy landscape of Princes and Princesses, they are all the same.
Something I rather like about this poem is that it is particularly British. It uses Arthurian and chivalric ideas and terminology as a basis for the university experiment, and for the actions of the three young male invaders, who are knights errant on a quest in the service of love. It is totally fantastical, utterly unrealistic, a delirious exercise in sheer romantic silliness. The great Victorian satirists Gilbert and Sullivan saw its potential immediately, because this was the inspiration for their magnificent comic operetta Princess Ida. The Princess is fun to read; do try it.
I don’t usually write negative reviews of books, because (1) it’s usually not fair on a writer to pillory them in public, (2) why waste the reader’s time? But sometimes writing a reasoned critical appraisal for the record can be a public service. For those searching online to find out if anyone else hated this book as much as they did, even a negative review can be reassuring, to confirm they they’re not the only ones who gave up. Here are seven of my recent duds that you may wish to avoid.
Simon Ings, Hot Wire (1995, 2014 Gollancz edition) Cyber-punk. I wish I had taken the time to look inside before I wasted £8.99 on this. After a saccharine opening scene set on a beach, this novel moves on to a revolting and lengthy description of how two addicts open up an old man’s skull to extract his hard wiring, while he’s only mildly sedated, and then rape and mutilate his grand-daughter. I can read horror if the story justifies it, but this was gratuitous, and its intention to shock was successful. Also, misogyny seems to be a recurring theme in the novel, since all the women encountered in my half hour of reading were defined as sexualised objects, associated with violence I didn’t want in my head. The cyberpunkishness is wearying, not stimulating. The cover art is gorgeous. I should have known better to judge this book solely by that.
Catherine Carswell, Lying Awake (1950, 1997 Canongate Classics) Memoir of Scottish author known mostly for her championship of D H Lawrence’s writing. I’m not sure that this should ever have been published, since it’s an hommage to a minor literary figure by her uncritical son. It’s in three parts: the first is a patchwork memoir of growing up in Victorian Glasgow, and reads pretty much like all the others I’ve read of that genre. The second part, of scraps and gnomic phrases from Carswell’s papers, carefully assembled by her son after her death, is meaningless without context. The third section, of letters from the author to a friend during the Second World War, has mild interest for ‘women writing in wartime’ historians, but, again, unless you’re interested in Carswell, there is very little here.
Vonda McIntyre, Superluminal (1983). SF space opera. When I realised that I had never actually read Superluminal, McIntyre’s third novel, since I had been confusing its plot with that of her short story ‘Aztecs’, from which she says it was developed, I bought this with huge anticipation for summer reading. I can only think that it might have been a very early novel that she published after the successes of Dreamsnake and The Exile Waiting, which are both superb. There are some very good ideas, but I cannot believe in her star-crossed lovers, nor in her space port or flight protocols, or indeed anything technical and machine-based since this is just dated in a way that her other novels soar past effortlessly. The novel’s plot matches Anne McCaffrey’s The Crystal Singer (1982) too closely, and her intra-dolphinate human subspecies is a great idea abandoned. It is SO disappointing.
Virginia Woolf, The Waves (1931). Major literary landmark. I read this because it’s the second-last Woolf novel I haven’t read, and in my line of work one needs to have read them. I hated it. I could teach it as a text demonstrating significant literary innovation, as a modernist challenge to the realist novel, for close reading of the techniques of the stream of consciousness. But as a novel to enjoy, for pleasure? Nope.
China Miéville, Un Lun Dun (2007). YA fantasy adventure in alternate London. This is advertised as Miéville’s answer to / version of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and it certainly sticks very closely to the basic concept. Miéville’s trademark inventiveness is fully present, but I got annoyed by the derivative plot and decorative details. He reuses very famous bits from Tolkien, Chris Riddell, C S Lewis and J K Rowling, for instance, without much bothering to twist or recolour them, and for a YA readership, that’s lazy. The Marxist politics underlying the plot are blatant and enjoyable, but overall this novel feels predictable and flabby. Miéville can do YA fantastically well: Railsea was as hard and sharp as Perdido Street Station. Un Lun Dun is too long for its inevitable plot, which is worth reading only for the superlative inventions and the quest plot reworked.
J B Priestley, Jenny Villiers (1947). Novel of the theatre that would rather be a play. Priestley had become a successful playwright and a radio broadcaster speaking for the common man by the time this work came out (when he was on a bit of treadmill), and this novel is an uncomfortable mash-up. Its woodcut illustrations in this edition are too good for the pedestrian storytelling, and the plot is transparently inevitable, even though it’s a ghost story. The plot is a little too clichéd, and the mechanics of narration are told us, not shown. It reads like a novel written by a tired man with one idea and no interest in letting it develop. If you feel like reading London theatre fiction read Josephine Tey or Ngaio Marsh, or even David Copperfield, because Priestley stole all his characters from there.
Amber Reeves, A Lady and her Husband (1914, 2016 Persephone Books). Feminist Edwardian melodrama. Full credit to Persephone for reprinting this as a historical landmark, and a novel exposing exploitation in tea-shops and the slippery slope to penury for a working-girl who makes one mistake. But it’s boring. Very, very dull. Full credit also for reprinting a novel in which the lead character is an ‘older’ woman (though she’s only about 40), but why couldn’t Reeves have made her interesting? I get that she’s a fragile, dominated creature who is learning how to negotiate the frightening world outside her open cage, but for a novel, more gumption would have made her a character to root for. I just wanted to slap her. The most interesting character is her sharp secretary Miss Percival, who won’t live with her own husband and strains to pull her dim and conventional employer even only a little way towards emancipation and freedom.
I don’t know Ian Sales, but for about a year I’ve been sending him some of my posts about female-authored sf for him to repost in his sfmistressworks site. Then suddenly, out of the blue, he blurts out on Twitter that the fourth of his Apollo Quartet novels is in the 2015 Tiptree Award Honor List. (1) I had no idea he’d even published novels. (2) This review is not log-rolling, this is a ‘you WHAT?’ moment that required investigation.
All That Outer Space Allows is self-published by Whippleshield Books, Sales’ own imprint. It is beautifully designed and produced, which is greatly reassuring, because, believe me, I have seen too much dreadful self-published cover art on novels sent to me for consideration. It is not shallow to ask for a decent and relevant image on the cover, it is simply an expectation that the book will be designed with the same care that the words have been chosen. If you have complete control over your book’s production values, then rubbish cover = rubbish novel. Overall design family for linked novels = an indication of high quality writing (though never a guarantee). All That Outer Space Allows was such a good read that I ordered books 2 and 3, now waiting to be read, and reviewed in due course. Sales did tell me that the novels are intended to be standalone fictions, so I’m curious as to why they are also part of a soi-disant Quartet.
All That Outer Space Allows is set in 1960s America, where Air Force wives live for their test pilot husbands, hoping that one day their men will be selected for astronaut training and, eventually, space flight. Ginny is married to Walden, they have no children, and she is about to become a dutiful but rather distant member of the Astronaut Wives Club. She is very careful to look after Walden as he requires, rising at 5am to cook his breakfast (he’s agreed that she doesn’t need to get dressed and made-up for this, though other wives will see this as simply part of their job), making sure the house is tidy, his shirts are pressed, the drinks are in the cupboard when needed, and that his meals are delicious. She socialises with the other Air Force wives as much as she’s required to, and is careful to keep this up for her own sake as well as for community cohesion. She is generous to share her car for community errands, and does favours for the other women when she can. She’s a nice person, she wants to be part of this group, but she’s not very enthusiastic about being a new member of the Astronaut Wives Club. She has other things in her life that she’d rather be doing.
Ginny is also V G Parker, the intriguing new contributor of eleven short stories in sf magazines. Her stories are popular and usually snapped up without hesitation by her editors, and she has every intention of developing her stories, but when Walden finally makes it to astronaut training, Ginny has to put her writing on hold. She has to arrange the move, pack up the house, drive solo three thousand miles across the United States, set up home in the rented apartment, arrange the design and building of their new home, move in, unpack, set up new social networks and finally make herself look the part with new dresses and make-up. There’s no time for her typewriter to even be taken out of her cupboard.
When she does find a day with no other duties, she’s preoccupied with curiosity about space flight and Walden’s training. She reads his manuals from his desk when he’s out at work, and pushes herself to learn the technical jargon and science of his new profession. When she makes a surprise visit to Cape Canaveral, alarmed by rumours that all the astronauts are having flings there, she is satisfied that he’s delighted to see her, but he’s not so satisfied in her interest in seeing over a space capsule. She can now start writing again, to repopulate space with women.
Sales inserts the fictional Ginny into the real literary history of sf publishing in the mid-1960s. All her fellow authors that she writes to are real: ‘Ursula’, ‘Ali’ (though this is unlikely, since Alice Sheldon didn’t unmask herself until the 1970s, as we know), ‘Joanna’ and ‘Vonda’. She’s close to real-life women sf editors, and she’s friendly with real-life astronauts and their wives. This is a nearly seamless reworking of history, retelling the stories of life as a military appendage that Sales has recovered from the mini-industry of autobiographies from the Space Age. Ginny is a vehicle for Sales to explore new areas that the biographies don’t touch: what if a wife wanted to do something different? What if a wife had a parallel career? What if women were taken seriously in the air force and in the NASA programmes as contributing individuals rather than just housekeepers and bed-warmers?
Sales burrows into the psychology and sociology of the astronauts’ cadre to give an under-the-table view of life as it probably was, but could not be written about in that day and age. By contextualising the space program with sf as a literary discourse of its period, we get a strong sense of how some people were enthralled by the human drama and the history of the endeavour, and others wanted to read about the possibilities that space flight represented. These were not necessarily the same constituency, as we see in Walden, the would-be astronaut who barely knows that fiction exists. By focusing on the women’s lives, Sales is giving the female experience a stronger representation than we would normally see in this period. He doesn’t get it completely, of course. Ginny displays superhuman endurance for her social and marital trials, and is curiously passive throughout the years of her marriage, for all the private relief that her writing gives her. I would truly not have been surprised to have found that she was an android in some parallel universe version of the 1960s. Nonetheless, this is such a good novel, about women’s private lives, about life in the Astronaut Wives Club, and about writing sf in the age when it was all about to come true.
Ian Sales, All That Outer Space Allows (Whippleshield Books, 2015).
Update: On 25 September 2016 Letters to Tiptree won the British Fantasy Award for best non-fiction. Well deserved!
If you’ve not heard of James Tiptree Jr, the acclaimed author of science fiction short stories and a handful of novels, he was active from 1967 to the late 1980s. He also wrote as Raccoona Sheldon, and was the pen-name of Alice Sheldon, a former CIA operative and an academic psychologist from Chicago. Tiptree had caused a sensation with his first stories, immediately recognised as an astonishing new talent, and was magisterially described by Robert Silverberg as ‘an ineluctably masculine’ voice. Ursula Le Guin said in a review ‘there are very few writers going who have this power to force acceptance & agreement; it is the power of truthfulness’. Tiptree focused on the marginalised, the alien, invisible and ignored in his stories (mostly women), and readers were fascinated by his powerful insights about what it was like to be a woman, using sf as a way to write women as aliens and ‘other’ in an eternal violent conflict in which sex always brought death. Tiptree kept his true identity secret until he told people that his mother had died, with the place and her name included. Once it was obvious that Alice Sheldon was about to be unmasked, she wrote in trepidation to some of her most treasured professional correspondents (Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Vonda McIntyre, Frederick Pohl) to admit that he was a she, and would they still want to be her friend?
The disturbing contrast between Tiptree’s authority as an author and Alice Sheldon’s insecurity in her friendships are tackled in this excellent collection of letters and essays. They are about Tiptree and her writing, and about the Outing, the fallout, the consequences, how much Sheldon wanted to be outed and how she carried on writing. It was published last year, when Sheldon would have been 100, had she not killed herself, and her husband (by then terminally ill and blind), in 1987.
Letters to Tiptree is a remarkable introduction to Tiptree’s writing and influence, and to Sheldon’s life and careers (yes, careers) outside writing sf, especially if you haven’t, like me, got hold of her biography by Julie Phillips. The book has four sections. The first, Alice, Alice, Do You Read?, consists of thirty-eight letters to Tiptree by sf authors and academics who were invited to contribute to the project. I already knew Nicola Griffith’s essay, published by the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2015, but the others were new to me, as were their authors. Even if your interest in Tiptree is tepid, this collection is an excellent primer on women writing sf and writing about sf, because the letters in Section One – with one lone exception – were all written by women practitioners. Alex Pierce, one of the editors, admitted that she is puzzled why no men, aside from Valentin D Ivanov, wanted to contribute. ‘We invited a lot of men, but – as you can see – almost none took up the offer to write for us. Personally this worries me because I think it means Tiptree’s work is in danger of being regarded as “only” feminist SF, which is very sad on a number of levels.’
The letters veer from worshipful fan letters to tidy essays on My Favourite Tiptree and Why. Cat Rambo’s highly observant contribution notes that if you read ‘The Screwfly Solution’ before and after realising that Tiptree was a she, both readings are quite different. Some of the essays are more concerned to trumpet their own horn solos than explain why Tiptree was so good, but then, why not? This is a book about Tiptree’s influences on other writers, which were legion. Some letters are about feminist politics, some are about sexuality, and sexual identity, gender-queerness and gender-neutrality. Justina Robson calls Sheldon’s construction of her writerly identities ‘gender fu’. All the letters express anger as well as sadness and thankfulness, anger about what Tiptree had to endure, and what many sf writers still endure if they are not men.
Gwyneth Jones describes the Outing as Tiptree gaming her career, a triumphant cocking of male snoots. The revelation that the impressive male author was actually female was clearly a triumph by proxy for women fans, writers and publishers. It would seem that the not-women fans were disappointed that Tiptree was a woman, and his reputation seemed to diminish from the moment of the Outing. L Timmel Duchamp points out that Tiptree’s work would never now ‘enjoy the privilege of being judged without reference to the writer […] the revelation swamped the fiction, and the issue of your gender took front and center stage. And the only people who devoted themselves to writing criticism of your work were feminist critics.’ (Duchamp’s letter is particularly good for its detail on exactly why women turn invisible as authors.) Karen Miller takes great pleasure in the fact that, after the Outing, none of the praise previously lavished upon Tiptree could be taken away. Instead, the critics just treated her like any other woman writer, that is, as a woman first, with anything she wrote now dependent on her female identity. Oh, what a change since James Tiptree Jr’s stories were written by a not-woman and could be taken seriously. In a critical essay in Section Three, Everything But The Signature Is Me, one of the few by a male author, Michael Swanwick states that ‘the sad truth was that after she became herself, the truly first-rate stories were much slower in coming’. ‘Became herself’ is a highly contentious remark which others with a stronger grasp of gender theory can demolish instead of me. It should also be noted that Sheldon herself said that she assigned her weaker stories to Raccoona rather than to Tip, and that she did find it harder to write to Tiptree standards once the Outing had happened.
The principal legacy that the sf community have created in Sheldon’s honour is the Tiptree Award and Honor list, offered every year to the authors and works that have done most to write about gender. This is because, as Brit Mandelo says, ‘people’s understanding of what makes a man or a woman came under a bit of fire thanks to your simply being who you were and writing as you did, living the life that you did’. Pat Murphy’s letter explains how she and Karen Joy Fowler devised the award, and kickstarted its funding with a bake sale (a fine tradition that continues, along with art and craft sales at the WISCON each year). I was delighted at the idea of cookbooks published to raise funds for the prize with titles that reworked some Tiptree stories: The Bakery Men Don’t See (after ‘The Women that Men Don’t See’) and Her Smoke Rose Up From Supper. Unique story titling was something else that Tiptree (following Roger Zelazny) bequeathed to the sf community.
In Section Two, I Never Wrote You Anything But The Exact Truth, the editors have assembled letters written after the Outing, between Alice Sheldon and Ursula Le Guin and Joanna Russ. These are so SAD. Sheldon comes across bravely but desperate, worried that her pen-friends (they had not yet met in person) would not wish to continue to write after such a great deception. “Will the women who mean so much to me see it all as an evil put-on? I never felt evil.’ Thankfully she chose her friends wisely, since neither Le Guin or Russ gave two hoots, and were in fact delighted. (Le Guin: ‘it is absolutely a delight, a joy, for some reason, to be absolutely flat-footedly surprised – it’s like a Christmas present!’) Their love is strengthening, whereas Sheldon’s self-disparagement is distressing. She remarks several times that she has battled with depression, and passes off quickly her fervent voluntary work for rape crisis centres and overnight peace vigils outside the White House, worrying that she simply isn’t good enough. She was flooded with confidences from women writers and readers once it was known that Tiptree was a woman, and felt that she had to carry all their troubles on her shoulders. She had so many issues, she so needed her friends, even if their challenges to her insecurities were ‘hitting something unresolved, unsolved, painful inside me’.
Letters to Tiptree, eds Alexandra Pierce and Alisa Krasnostein (Twelfth Planet Press, 2015), ISBN 978-1-9221012-5-9, $16.99, Aus/NZ$24.95
See also my review of a large collection of Tiptree stories, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.
I’m writing about Nicola Griffith’s Hild for a conference, and realise that I haven’t read her three Aud Torvingen lesbian crime-fighter noir novels, which have only been published in the USA. (WHY, British publishers?) I happily begin reading the first one to arrive from Abebooks – Always (2007) – devouring its muscular prose as if I weren’t a vegetarian. It’s set in Seattle, where freelance investigator and former cop Aud Torvingen is investigating why her property rents are mysteriously low. There are luxe hotels, a film set under sabotage, crooked estate agents (realtors, sorry), and a brilliant stunt artist reduced to cooking for the crew. Interlaced with these episodes are the self-defence classes that Aud teaches back in Atlanta to a mixed group of women who may, or may not, have particular reasons for wanting to know how to defend themselves against attack in their home. Mmm, this is good.
Then Stay (2002) arrives (different bookdealer), and I realise, oh whoops, Always comes after this one, so I put Always down, and begin Stay. More meaty prose, which begins with a catatonically grieving Aud building herself a new cabin in the woods as therapeutic occupation. Her best friend Dornan sends her to find his flighty fiancée Tammy, who’s in the clutches of a New York psychopath. Aud tracks, hunts, and seriously damages the perpetrator, and works to bring Tammy back out of her conditioned terror. In parallel, Aud is searching for a little girl, whom the perpetrator had been grooming for his next slave, and works through the ways in which a rich single woman can protect an unexpectedly smart child, living with a rigidly Christian family who cannot survive without the fostering money. This was also very good. Both novels are powerful, deliberate, impeccably paced with narrative control you respect and rely on. No tone is out of place, no description is too long, no characterisation overdone. They take the breath away, yet I was reading them backwards. Who is, or was, the now lost Julia? Where does Dornan come into it? Why has Aud abandoned her Atlanta apartment?
The Blue Place (1998), the first in the sequence, takes three more weeks to arrive. I read it rapidly with a pretty clear recollection of the characters who will appear in Stay and Always, so I know who’s important, who’ll survive. Aud sees a house burn down, performs impromptu martial arts in a police gym, bodyguards a tiny Spanish daughter of power miserably job-hunting with US banks, and accepts the job of finding out why a faked painting was burnt along with the house. She accepts the job from Julia, who doesn’t know that the house fire was expected to have her in it. These three novels about Aud share a recurring focus on physical power and training the body. The martial arts episodes in The Blue Place and Always are balletic descriptions, delighting the mind’s eye with fluid movement, and building Aud’s character as a person who can do these marvellous physical things, finding peace, tranquillity and joy in their practice. The Blue Place gives the reason Aud left the police, because she was finding ‘the blue place’ of focused, timeless attack too beguiling.
Is Aud a psychopath herself? She’s fully capable of love and passion, so is not psychopathic in its clinical sense, but her narrative voice has an unnerving tendency to note first how she could kill the person she’s just met, rather than thinking about them as people. We learn, too, why she began to think like this. There are fascinating, genre-hopping dichotomies throughout: exploring differences between heat and cold, swamps and fiords, giving and accepting, fighting for pleasure and fighting for her life. The novels were written to be read individually, but are clearly in a linear sequence: the adventures of Aud the rich, lonely, self-sufficient, loving, thorough, lesbian hunter, operating within and without the law. Griffith’s prose carries more than its own weight, flowing smoothly and effortlessly to show the qualities of vigour and physical energy that make Aud a magnificent creature to watch at her work. She performs martial art as an art, she shapes and makes a wooden chair, she digs a garden border as a cure for bad dreams and a muscle relaxant, she plays a game of pool in the bar as a demonstration of sexual predation, and she takes her time.
I’m interested in the choice of Atlanta for Aud’s first appearance. As I write, a new film has come out featuring members of the Atlanta police as criminally flexible, so that was intriguing: not much has changed since The Blue Place came out in 1998. I remember Atalanta, the rich woman of privilege who could run faster than anyone else, but got caught when she stooped for beauty: she seems relevant to the novels, and Aud’s character. There are intriguing echoes in The Blue Place of Hild (isolated remarks about Hilda of Whitby, and Beowulf) which aren’t present in Stay or Always. It’s as if, when Griffith began writing her next novel after Slow River (1995), she was balanced on the point of choices of what she could write next. She went for Aud, but early ideas about Hild stayed in her head. The three Aud novels build up Griffith’s techniques of writing the physicality of combat, with which Hild is filled.
I cannot understand why these novels are not in print in the UK: they are superb. They also haven’t dated. They were written just as the internet became a web, but we don’t notice that the technology is, technically, historical. Aud uses a mobile phone in The Blue Place, but we don’t realise that it is a brick. She researches using computers and digitised records, but we don’t notice that there is no email or messaging. It’s a remarkable skill, to anticipate technical developments of the near future and build their assumed presence into the plot. But, of course, Griffith comes from science fiction: her ways are foresighted.