The James Tiptree Award Anthology 3: Subversive Stories about Sex and Gender
by Karen Joy Fowler
Review by Kat Bittner
Tachyon Publications Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 1892391414
Date: 15 January, 2007 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
The James Tiptree Award is as good as the milk and cookies used to fund it. The stories in the anthology take the familiar themes of identity and sexuality and serve them spiked with humor and wit. Whether you prefer your literary palate filled by a provincial Anna Wintour, an itinerate octo-bodied poet, or a transistorized Cinderella, this latest edition has enough substance to satisfy any gender (or mix thereof).
The anthology opens with the year's winner "Have Not Have" by Geoff Ryman originally a short that would later become the novel Air. In the last village to go online Mae is their cultural link to the outside world. She dispenses the latest trends to the farmers' wives at the same speed third world countries receive American sitcoms. The narrator guides the audience like an apprentice through the maze of merchants Mae deals with to run her fashion consulting business. For every one that helps her, two are ready to hustle and undermine her. The conflict of attitudes she has for each client is presented at times hypocritical, but entirely humane. Mae exploits their cultural naiveté, yet is both ashamed and protective of them over this (perhaps because she realizes she is no more sophisticated than they are). In an increasingly industrialized world "Have Not Have" illustrates the pride indigenous people can have of their lifestyle in the face of invading technology, and the inevitability, and persistence of change.
Eleanor Arnason's "Knapsack Poems" follows the journey of a goxhat, an 8-bodied itinerant poet who finds a baby near the riverside. What is odd about the baby is that it only has one body, meaning it is incomplete, a monster. It's a chronicle of concerns that any new parent would be familiar with whether you argue with your partner or your multiple selves. The goxhat questions the importance of gender to identity. That gender diversity is needed in order to be a "normal" complete entity. Instead of settling for one gender the goxhat's believe in a balance of female, male, and neuter. "Knapsack Poems" is a hilarious twist on the importance of genetic diversity. A non-fiction counterpart to it could be found in a New York Times article, "The Modern Kennel Conundrum" detailing the rise of hybrid vs. purebred dog breeders. The arguments for each type of bred (Genetic diversity will give the best/worst of breeds or purebreds retain the best/worst characteristics of the bred) can be echoed in this story.
For those who have not read Octavia Butler, you should refer to Dorothy Allison's "The Future of Female" a spirited academic dissection of Octavia Butler's female characters. How they both intrigue and infuriate the author. Butler's advocacy for motherhood as a humanizing element in society comes at the expense of independence and identity. It goes into detail from her early Patternist novels to her recent Xenogist series.
Among Tiptree's strongest short stories is "The Girl Who Was Plugged In". It is a modern fairytale for the celebrity consumer culture where product placement is not done by mere mortals anymore, but by gods. It tracks the transformation of ugly duckling P. Burke into the compromised swan, Delphi. Burke meets fairy god company GTX. They engineer her into a goddess to endorse products. Delphi becomes a commercial success because she is the embodiment of the perfect ad come to life. In her consumers looking into their holocams can see in big bold letters: DREAMS CAN COME TRUE. Among the most entertaining features of the story is the Mystery Science Theater 3000 commentary which invites the reader to laugh along with the author any reader expectations.
Throughout her career Tiptree "explored and expanded the role of gender" not only in her literature, but one can say in her personal life. Recently, a biography has been released, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, which documents her whirlwind life from childhood trips exploring Africa to her career as a CIA photo analyst. Besides her own work the James Tiptree Award is a legacy she would be proud of. The ex-debutante may even get a laugh wearing the tiara bestowed upon every winner of the award. Because only a real man/woman can make a tiara look good.