(Preface to an Underground Translation)
Are we at a tipping point in Germany’s relation to science fiction? Inveterate gamers, Hollywood fans, and a healthy well-educated young middle class are spurring translations and sales of new and classic titles. What has already become a central quasi-literary genre elsewhere in the West is beginning a cross-over here as well. How sad then that we must report to the Germans that science fiction, US science fiction anyway, is dead. Un-dead perhaps, but dead nonetheless, as the un-dead really are. And more sadly still, that Houston’s answer to the question posed by the title of James M. Tiptree’s 1976 novella Houston, Houston, Do You Read? is now, “Houston: No. We don’t read.”
The numbers from US markets are grim. The average science fiction title sells under 2,000 copies. The very survival of the mid-list writers is in doubt. The once enormous audience of scientifically inclined male adolescents has been swallowed by the very memes science fiction itself first established. The un-dead alternate universes of the game-world and cyberspace are grave-yards of science fiction clichés. Fans are artificially grown and farmed according to lowest common denominator. The good news is that today’s science fiction conventions have more women than they’ve ever had in attendance, but this means less boys, who used to be the backbone of the market. Dragons and sorcery rule a readership dominated by radical introverts and consumer-liberated adolescent girls. The average adolescent-directed fantasy title sells 10,000 copies and once promising science fiction writers are turning desperately and often embarrassingly to pseudo-medievalism in search of big-market success.
In reaction, science fiction has sought a fashionable technological relevance by way of cyberpunk and in the process has lost much of what separated it from fantasy in the Golden Age to begin with. In particular, what British New Wave author Barrington Bailey called “the religion of science,” the imaginative, quasi-realistic, and optimistic exploration of the poetic-rational Einstein universe has fallen by the waystation.
This fate of science fiction is curiously gendered by Tiptree’s classic story Houston, Houston, Do You Read? When a team of typically male astronauts is cast away in space and time, they discover that human males will disappear entirely due to the ravages of a coming conflict. They also find that the women who will replace them are less recognizably human than the women they had known when they were under the dominance of men, and had to fight for their freedom.
James Tiptree, Jr. once compared the money made by writing science fiction to the change one put in a can and hid away in a closet. Tiptree certainly never sold 10,000 copies of a single work in her lifetime. “He” was an entity sublimely sustained by the science fiction subculture when it was still authentically pulp, before it became a step towards big money for agents, publishers, producers and sometimes writers. Why not say it outright? In many ways Tiptree represented the full flowering of the genre’s greatest days: when a vigorous under-market sustained a community of experimental, entertaining political artists, and a writer could come from nowhere and redeem the field.
Most studies of science fiction agree on a broad narrative. Early in the 19th century writers like Mary Shelley and Edgar A. Poe found what seemed to their readers a new way of exploding a certain kind of predictably entertaining text, by speculation according to scientific codes of current vogue. Bedding romanticism with empirical rationalism, they trailed genres and when they passed left them running wild, orphans in the streets. These orphans were taken into the homes of the industrial middle-class and raised up into robust performers by the next generation. Writers like Verne and Wells narrowed the scientific focus away from shock, character collapse and madness, building a wide international circuit of readers, sharing an interest in science, technology and free thinking. These readers were the first organized fans in the Western World.
They would quickly become publishers and writers themselves. The genre distilled. In the 20th century pulps and science fiction expanded into a small, intense kingdom. In what’s called “The Golden Age,” male writers like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert E. Heinlein, and Theodore Sturgeon opened up the calculable heavens for their young readership. Portraying the exploration of space as the highest human destiny, they helped direct the future to that goal. In 1969 when the first astronauts landed on the moon, they quoted from Clarke.
Already in the ’50s the genre was re-approaching its orphaned literary roots. Writers like Robert Sheckley, Philip Dick, and Alfred Bester were proving that the genre could sustain traditional literary modes like comedy, tragedy and philosophy while remaining true to its principles of mixing the scientific method with sense-of-wonder entertainment. And then, you guessed it, in the ’60s, of course, a new “generation” arose. Of course it’s on record that the generation was itself inspired by science fiction, among other things. In England, and in America too, in particular, self-consciously, young science fiction fans inspired with a historical revolutionary impulse, approached the genre afresh.
This moment is known as “The New Wave,” and was a special adornment of the great age of the pocket book. Virginia Woolf competed with Samuel Johnson, and Isaac Asimov handled Sappho on bus-station stands. Science fiction reader / writers quickly re-claimed the early rights of the genre-ators. By the 1970s science fiction was on the verge of becoming the most interesting progressive literary form in the world. In the ’70s writers like Brian Aldiss, Ursula Leguin, Johanna Russ, and Samuel Delaney staked out the dark side of American progress, speculated on new Utopianisms and brought sexuality out of the rocket-ship, inspiring mainstreamers like Thomas Pynchon to threaten backwards cross-over. Dick wrote the Valis trilogy, perhaps the most potent fictional comment on the 1970s America produced. The vision was dystopic, tragicomic, psychedelic, and relentlessly political. Though it was the most interesting “mainstream” writing around, oddly enough, the New Wave almost destroyed science fiction.
Pretensions to the scientific method too easily collapsed in the face of philosophical and literary ambition. The very distinguishing element of the genre was compromised. In reaction to the New Wave, as a self-consciously reactionary protest against its mis-use of science, “Hard Science Fiction” self-identified—its usually lifeless explorations of fantastic ideas populated by wooden characters and encyclopedia-like prosody came to sporadic life in competition.
Into this divide between the New Wave and Hard Science Fiction stepped James M. Tiptree, Jr., an anonymous, secret author with mind-blowing command of both sides of the genre’s divide. Stories had first appeared in the late ’60s. But it wasn’t till the ’70s were flowering that they took fire, and found acceptance and celebration by the deeply fractured, tight community of inter-influenced writers, editors and fans in the US science fiction scene.
Tiptree’s work showcased science and romance. It put the sexual frankness of Delaney and Harlan Ellison together with the politics of Ursula Leguin, and wrapped it all in the philosophical acumen of Dick, describing a galactic empirical universe as clearly ordered as Star Trek. But with a special intensity, Tiptree brought the boy’s locker room philosophy of the Star Academy right up into the face of the vagina, death and the metaphysical absolute.
The stories lit up the networks as if the wires themselves were bulbs on a single brain. All of the important players in science fiction were fascinated. Most developed long and intense correspondence friendships with Tiptree, never discovering his true identity. The mystery of his origin obviously heightened the effect, with Pynchonian ability to inspire bizarre theories.
We now know that having lived already a number of lives of extraordinary intensity and ambition, the writer who was Tiptree had found, on a whim, a new identity as an anonymous science fiction in late mid-age almost by accident. Drawing on a childhood love of pulp stories and an appreciation of Star Trek, Alice Sheldon read widely in the genre she penetrated for pleasure, opening up a fountain of words and visions and opinions in herself as she did so, desires and speculations that had been stopped up all her varied life. The mid-aged cosmopolitan, married housewife, ex-CIA operative, became a young male science fiction writer; and so doing, strangely, healed the genre so that Hard SF and The New Wave both were able to sparkle with masterpieces around her.
In Tiptree’s often dark and pessimistic tales, the reader nevertheless rides like Huck Finn down a river of freedoms, finally pictured as the great stream of science itself. Science fiction is full with freedoms it hadn’t even known it had, bursting the light of reason into strange and unfathomable darknesses—most powerfully and famously into the gender categorizations of the human mind.
Houston, Houston, Do You Read? won the Nebula in 1976, and science fiction’s highest honor, the Hugo, in 1978. The tale of a lost expedition of male astronauts getting rescued by an expedition of female astronauts from the future develops along a line of discoveries, each completely re-defining the past. The story offers no final single magnificent conceptual breakthrough, but only dispels more and more immanent and confusing misunderstandings. Tiptree’s astronauts have given their lives for a service they no longer understand. Their misunderstanding of their own self-hood is indistinguishable from their misunderstanding of the peculiarity of their position in space and time. But the facts of the observed world draw them closer and closer to their inability to see it. “The truth” of the story, is only revealed by irony so deep that it can, in fact, not be spoken at all.
The men and women in this future history will never understand each other, yet without their other they will never understand their own incompleteness—with astonishing originality, details of life in gender are revealed like needles recognizably sunk into the reader’s mind.
I’d just like to call attention to what you might call the backdrop of the story, its frame. The tale itself is told upon a coherent optimism about Space and the knowledge it offers. Opened on the forge of gender’s self-destruction, it is the abstracting force of the physical universe itself that makes possible, among everything else of its glory, the failure of the human to survive its engendering.
Yes, Tiptree stories almost invariably darken into seeming acceptance of inescapable human tragedies. Genocides, colonialisms, dominations and deaths abound. But each story presents itself as a single speculation, a weird experiment that is itself a thing of wonder. Any honest experiment, even a literary one, can and must have a lucid interpretation of its own failure, however heinous it might be. Only then can it reach for a community of dispassioned observers. The community of readers begins in the radical admission of total individual ignorance. Fiction’s step away from the real world articulates a new Space, a space paradoxically real, a Space beyond the verge of becoming, where invisibilities can be glimpsed in their moral integrity.
In Houston two self-contained worlds come together, two alternate histories each defined by the submission of the other. One world will destroy the other. A new third world is, however perversely, birthed by their intersection, one in which the limitations of both has been posited by their science-fictional, which is to say ever-anomalous, interpenetration.
This coming “New Space” is of course the Space the science fiction reader has long learned to desire. The very Space whose romance has drawn its astronauts ever onward toward the craved conceptual breakthrough, the death-in-life of discovery against which the best science fiction beats like the ancient waves of the Atlantic against the cliffs of the Irish west—the natural mental desire of the human.
Critics these days tend to underestimate the later Tiptree. After she’d been “outed,” revealed as who she really was, her voice changed, inevitably. The focus only expanded. The sexual volatility and gender crossing improvisation igniting a story like Houston, Houston gave way to world-making. Great expansive pictures of distances, mapped almost perversely the wide, prairie unknowns of Space. When the teen girl heroine of a lovely story in the ’80s steals her father’s ship to live her dream of being a space-pilot, the ship falters and she winds up pulled into the unshakable gravity hole of an enormous star, many light-years from the nearest human. She ends the story facing her own immolation.
She’s not alone however, in the vast galaxy. She has picked up a very young alien mind-parasite along the way, a radical other, also quite aware of its impending doom. The story’s final image allegorizes a salvation so profound our heroine can’t yet understand.
But behind all these practical thoughts, an image floats in the mind’s eye, accompanied by the sound of a light young voice humming. It’s the image in silhouette of two children, one human, the other not, advancing steadfastly, hand in hand, towards an inferno of alien solar fire.
As we head ever closer to our own infernos, can we learn again to be able to muster such dignity before what science tells us is true? Interestingly enough, science can’t answer that question. What it can do, however indecorously, is postulate reasons as to why if we no longer have interest in approaching the unutterable truth together by our very difference, we continue to read at all.