James Tiptree, Jr.
Completed 5/21/2020, Reviewed 5/21/2020
This is the first story I’ve read by James Tiptree, Jr, whose real name was Alice Sheldon. Like several female authors of her time, she wrote under a male pseudonym to have more opportunity to be published. As Tiptree, she was a critical success, and ironically, set as an example of how men are superior to women in the genre of science fiction. She often wrote about gender and sexual issues, and an award was named after her for excellence in books that deal with gender and sexuality. This novella is one such book. It looks at a post-apocalyptic world where only women remain, and three astronauts from the past who encounter them. The novella won both the Nebula and Hugo for that category. I really enjoyed it. It had an almost Twilight Zone quality to it. It makes one think of the nature of men and women, particularly in light of 1976 social attitudes, when the story was written.
Three male astronauts on a trip around the sun are caught in a solar storm that propels them two hundred years into the future. They don’t realize it and try to call into Houston Control. Instead they hear women on the frequency. The women figure out who they are, that they are from the past. They send a nearby spaceship to intercept them and rescue them, as the three cannot make it back to Earth. Once on board, the three struggle with the news of what happened to the Earth and their innate prejudices against women soon come to the forefront of their behaviors.
I’m always impressed when an author does excellent world-building in a short piece of fiction. The same goes for good characterization. This novella had both. The three male astronauts represent three different stereotypes of men: the religious fanatic who believes men should dominate women, the narcissist who believes that the sole purpose of women is to give him pleasure, and the intellect trying to make sense of it all. The female characters are a little less defined, as there are many of them. They tend to be a little naïve, never having seen men before. The women give the men drugs to reduce their inhibitions in order to study their behavior, leading to some terrifying consequences.
This wasn’t quite a lesbian utopia/dystopia novel, at least it’s not like the many I’ve read. It’s really about the behavior of men, reflecting the time period when the book was written. But it is revealed that the women have relationships with each other. Of course, this causes consternation in the men, particularly the narcissist and the religious fanatic.
I give this book four stars out of five. It’s gripping and immediate. The attitudes toward women, though old, are still timely in today’s society. It makes one reflect on where we were and how far we may and may not have come in attitudes and behaviors.