Warning: Light spoilers
Whoosh. Where do I start? I love James Tiptree Jr, who was actually Alice Sheldon. Sheldon starting writing science fiction later in life and she was absolutely brilliant, if you ask me. She chose a male pseudonym because “A male name seemed like good camouflage. I had the feeling that a man would slip by less observed. I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation.” By writing under a male name she was able to debunk the theory that male and female science fiction writers were divided. Following her death in 1987 a memorial prize, the James Tiptree Jr. Award, was created to award works that expand and build on our understanding of gender. Up the Walls of the World was her first full length novel, all her previous works being in short story format. I was fairly blown away by UTWOTW. Her ability to create unique worlds and aliens and states of being was pretty remarkable. UTWOTW is about a group of ESP “sensitives” at Norfolk Naval base undergoing testing, flying beings on wind-walled Tyree attempting to escape their dying world, and a mysterious part-being, part-machine called the Star Destroyer careening through space. Got that? The beings on Tyree find a way to push their consciousness out of their minds, and into the minds of the people at the naval base, effectively swapping their bodies just in time for Tyree to be burned up by the Destroyer. The synopsis on the paperback edition I have describes this as a “mindstorm” which pretty much sums it up.
There were some really great things going on in this book, aside from the outrageously unique concept. Number one is that one of the main characters is a Black Woman. Not a wise-walking white guy, not a tarty PKD-esque female, but an intelligent WOC scientist. Excellent. Tied in with her character is a back story involving FGM which is also something I would not have expected to come across in a science fiction story from the 70’s. Sheldon, an author who’s most common theme is feminism (whether at the time she acknowledged this or not), also discusses gender in UTWOTW; the male beings of Tyree are the bearers of children, and therefore “fathering” holds the same weight as “mothering” does in our society, fathers being held above women in general in terms of status and importance.
“That’s Avanil,” Marockee’s mantle lights with giggles. “Only she’s shortened it to Avan, like a male. She’s practicing Fathering with a young plenya. She wants to prove that females can care for children too.”
“Great winds.” Tivonel scans hard. Yes – Avanil’s small extra nucleus is not that of a real infant, but one of the semiintelligent pet animals that were becoming popular in Deep. Of course many female children mimic their brothers by “playing Father” with a baby animal until their Fathers put a stop to it. But here is a grown female openly carrying an imitation infant in her rudimentary pouch. Crazy!
The concept of females being “Fathers” is taboo on Tyree, and Avanil’s character is determined to find a world where the females are the Mothers and can have the children. I thought this was a really neat sub-plot to include. Towards the end things started to get a bit hazy, perhaps confirming that Sheldon was more comfortable in writing short stories with big punch rather than developing a story that could hold up over a long distance. Things wrapped up in a very Futurama way (of course, this novel came waaaaaay before Futurama, so perhaps this is another obscure reference made by the cartoon that only die-hard sci-fi readers would pick up on) as the characters shed their physical bodies and become part of the Destroyer.
After reading Julie Phillips’ biography of Sheldon, The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, I obsessively snatched up copies of all the Tiptree works I could get my hands on. I have read a chunk of them already, but hope to get through more before the end of the year. I have yet to be disappointed by one of her stories.