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30 Days of Reviews: Letters to Tiptree

Is there even any point in pretending I’m going to write a review every day in November? I thought that I was going to be fine on Nov 9th/10th, but immediately afterwards I just let the fear surrounding political events overtake me. I’m not fine. I’m scared. But I’ve felt guilty about not writing anything here when I promised I would, so here we go. Also, fuck the 300-word limit. Today I’ve got a lot of thoughts to deal with.

letters_to_tiptreeTitle: Letters to Tiptree
Editors: Alexandra Pierce and Alisa Krasnostein
Publisher: Twelfth Planet Press
Format: eBook
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got it: I purchased a copy from Weightless Books

Writing a letter to a pen pal can be a transformative act – just look at the plot of Pen Pal by Francesca Forrest, which I read earlier this year. It can also be a reassuring one. A few months ago, I started up a pen pal project of my own with about a dozen people. Some were friends from high school, some are fellow editors, and some are people I know only through Twitter. It helps me to feel connected.

That same impulse – connection, engagement, change – is behind Letters to Tiptree, an anthology edited by Alexandra Pierce and Alisa Krasnostein that celebrates the impact of James Tiptree Jr (aka: Alice Sheldon) on science fiction and fantasy. James Tiptree Jr. burst onto the science fiction scene in the late 60s with stories that were engaging, challenging to gender norms, overtly feminist, and (in the words of Robert Silverberg) even “ineluctably masculine”.

Since he corresponded with others in the community only through letters and never actually attended any awards ceremonies or met other writers in person, rumours swirled about the true identity of the man behind the name. The bubble popped when an enterprising (read: intrusive) member of the SF community dug through some obituaries based on an off-hand comment that Tiptree made about his life and discovered that “James Tiptree Jr.” was not only a pseudonym, but one used by a female author – Alice Sheldon, a former CIA worker with a Ph.D in psychology.

She continued writing under that pseudonym until her death in 1987, when she shot her husband in her sleep and then shot herself. Years of caring for him in his old age and dealing with her own simultaneous health problems took its toll.

Sheldon led a difficult, somewhat morbid, but well-documented life, and the extent of that was brought into further focus with the publication of a well-regarded biography by Julie Phillips. That history of correspondence with other SF writers is the central conceit behind Letters to Tiptree, as the bulk of the book contains letters from contemporary authors addressed to Tiptree/Sheldon discussing her impact on the genre and on them in particular.

Many of these letters congratulate her for having broadened the genre’s horizons. Many ask her why she chose the pseudonym that she did. Many draw parallels between her upbringing (peripatetic and somewhat isolated) and their own. Many relate to her conflicted relationship with gender identity and gender presentation. The multiplicity of themes and and counterpoints throughout the book – male vs female, domestic vs foreign, geopolitical stability vs unpredictability – combine and diverge so that the effect is like a woven scarf of ideas.

In addition to the letters written posthumously to Sheldon/Tiptree, the book contains actual correspondence between Sheldon and other female SF writers of the 1970s, like Ursula Leguin and Joanna Russ. Most of these letters are dated from after Sheldon’s identity became known.

There’s a strange, dizzying sense of intimacy in reading these letters, precisely because they were meant for a private audience. I felt like spying. But reading them also felt intensely validating because these writers were pouring out their souls in a way that people today really don’t, anymore. Or at least, such soul-pouring happens in public. The letters are long and full of vivacity and detail. I hope that in the correspondence I have with my pen pals, I can approach such levels of wit and caring!

It was a confluence of things that led me to read Letters to Tiptree this autumn. First, there was the fact that it was unfairly kept off of this year’s Hugo ballot by the Sad/Rabid Puppies. Had it actually been nominated, it would have been extremely worthy of the award. Second, Twelfth Planet Press is planning a similarly-themed anthology dedicated to Octavia Butler. Butler is an author I’ve heard a lot about, but my lack of knowledge of her work is one of the many glaring gaps in my understanding of science fiction.

Then there was Elena Ferrante.

Ferrante is an Italian author well-known for her reclusivity and use of a pseudonym. Claudio Gatti’s extensive efforts to determine her true identity have been met with hand-wringing this past October. The parallels between Ferrante and Tiptree are striking: the use of pseudonyms, the literary impacts on their respective fields, and the fact that both authors essentially had their anonymity wrested away from them.

I haven’t read any primary works by either Tiptree or Ferrante. It’s high time I start. But I know that doing so comes with its own sense of intrusiveness and rubbernecking. I don’t know if I will be able to enjoy their works on their own merits, and this feeling of the author’s life intruding on the reader’s experience was one of the primary reasons Ferrante tried so hard to stay out of the public eye.

One thing that makes me feel uneasy about the whole project, despite my enjoyment of the anthology’s many attempts to bring Tiptree’s life into context, is knowing the circumstances surrounding Tiptree/Sheldon’s death. She had long expressed thoughts of killing herself, and knew that if she did no one would be able to take care of her husband, who had lost the ability to care for himself. In a sense, it was a mercy killing. But I also can’t escape the fact that she is a murderer. Would science fiction as a whole be so kind in upholding the legacy of a male author who did a murder/suicide with his wife? I doubt it. But yet we do so for Tiptree. It’s strange how even in her death, she’s still found a way to disrupt gender norms.

30 Days of Reviews: The Handmaid’s Tale

I haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale in a long time. But it’s not a novel anymore. It’s a book of prophecies.

Sometimes life just sucks the joy out of art and stories and reading. I have a feeling that joy will be gone for a while. I’m having a hard time seeing the point right now.

Uncanny Magazine, Issue 13

30 Days of Reviews: Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies by Brooke Bolander

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). In the spirit of the month, instead of writing 50,000 words in 30 days, I’m going to write a short review every day, up to a maximum of 300 words. Think of it is NaNoReMo (National Novel Review Month). This month I’ll do short reviews of books, varieties of tea, and even individual short stories as the mood strikes. So read on!

Uncanny Magazine, Issue 13I’ve gotten very good at being polite. I tamp down my fear and my rage and pretend it doesn’t exist, because acknowledging it can be dangerous — women who aren’t polite aren’t respected.

That’s because I’m a coward.

Brooke Bolander is not a coward. Or rather, she refuses to be ladylike. Her writing plucks a visceral, angry chord, with its profanity and politics and questioning of gender norms. And her newest story Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies, published in this month’s issue of Uncanny Magazine, is an excellent example.

The narrator of Talons may not have a name we can understand, but she has a thirst for life that anyone can get behind — especially if they were murdered in cold blood by an entitled young man who only wanted attention, like she was. Luckily for her, our narrator isn’t human at all, but a cosmic being capable of reincarnation. And she wants revenge:

You may not remember my name, seeing as how I don’t have one you could pronounce or comprehend. The important thing is always the stories—which ones get told, which ones get co–opted, which ones get left in a ditch, overlooked and neglected. This is my story, not his. It belongs to me and is mine alone. I will sing it from the last withered tree on the last star–blasted planet when entropy has wound down all the worlds and all the wheres, and nothing is left but faded candy wrappers.

If you liked Bolander’s Hugo-nominated And You Shall Know Her By the Trail of Dead, read this story. If you’re angry about being minimized and neglected, and need a voice that knows that pain, read this story.

Bitch Planet, Vol 1: Beautiful Machine

bitch_planet_coverTitle: Bitch Planet, Vol 1: Beautiful Machine
Writer: Kelly Sue DeConnick
Illustrator: Valentine De Landro
Publisher: Image Comics
Format: Print
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got it: Borrowed a copy from the library

Earlier today I read an article on Jezebel about a man who shot a 3-year-old girl after her mother rejected his advances. The sad thing is that stories like this — where men get violent after women reject them — happen all the goddamn time. If you don’t read stories like that, there are others on the gender wage gap. Or on the whole idea of the second shift. Or on the entrenchment of tech-bro culture in Silicon Valley. Stories to invoke outrage are endless. The worst part is that, at this point, it’s typical for our outrage to be mingled with a sense of world-weary fatigue.

Bitch Planet is a comic book that transforms that fatigue back into a howl of rage.

In a not-so-implausible world where “non-compliant” or “NC” women (aka: those who are too fat, too ugly, too sexually unwilling, too mouthy) get shipped off to a prison planet in space, a group of such NCs are offered the chance to participate in a deadly contact sport called “megaton” (which is normally played by men only) in order to gain a scrap of respect. Of course, the religious overlords responsible for determining a woman’s level of compliance are more than happy to partner up with the corporate overlords looking for the next big ratings magnet. Global audience engagement has been flagging and the ratings that such a mixed-sex game would generate are too tempting to ignore.

Into this confluence of backstage jockeying arrives Kamau Kogo, a new arrival on Bitch Planet who’s been offered the unheard of chance to lead an all-woman megaton team. But she knows that the odds are stacked against her, so she’s got to find an unconventional strategy to win.

Well, where better to find players who can break a game’s rules than a space station full of women who’ve been exiled for breaking the rules of society?

Bitch Planet, Vol 1 is a collection of the comic’s first 5 issues. I’ve been thinking a lot about the volume’s subtitle, “Beautiful Machine.” There are a lot of ways you can interpret that phrase. The society of Bitch Planet operates on strict, unyielding logic to achieve a certain result: the entrenchment of male entitlement, consumer capitalist culture, and the hemming in of women so that only a small number of socially-acceptable roles are available to them. Is it beautiful? On the surface, maybe, but on the inside it’s rotten. It may be a pretty machine, but it’s a hateful one too.

What about our bodies? Are they machines? Legs pump like pistons, muscles require food like cars require fuel. We move, we breathe, we emit exhaust/exude exhaustion. And if there is a single person on Bitch Planet that embodies non-compliance, it’s Penelope Rolle, an extremely large, extremely strong, and extremely violent baker who’s had everything — her family, her livelihood — stripped away from her. Watching Penelope fight and steamroll her opponents on the field is its own form of beauty.

I have really mixed feelings about Bitch Planet, Vol 1. I want to read the rest of the series and see how things turn out. Will Kamau manage to subvert the system? Is there an overarching plot point behind the pulpy, fake ads at the end of each issue? However, my appreciation of the comic’s aesthetic and the points its making about society are just that: appreciation, rather than true enjoyment. This is a comic that has Things To Say. But I’m also tired, so tired, of living in the kind of world that makes comics like this necessary in the first place.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay: Learning Craft Through Personal Essays

bad_feminist_coverTitle: Bad Feminist
Author: Roxane Gay
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Format: Print
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got it: I borrowed a copy from the library

One of the things that I’m doing these days is taking a course in feature-length magazine writing. My instructor, David Hayes, is showing me and my classmates how to incorporate elements of narrative writing — scenes, settings, main characters, and story arcs — into non-fiction pieces. And one of the things that he recommends is to get comfortable with the personal essay as an artform.

Roxane Gay is supremely comfortable with this style of writing, as Bad Feminist, her recent essay collection, shows. By turns funny, candid, and painful, she brings her considerable wit to bear on a variety of topics. She eases us into things slowly by talking about subjects that are somewhat innocuous — like her days playing at competitive Scrabble tournaments and her love of the Sweet Valley series in middle and high school — but as the book progresses, she tackles weightier issues: the erasure of black lives and experiences in America, feeling isolated as an young black woman in a school full of perfect, cornfed-looking white kids, the stresses of academic life, and being gang-raped as a teenager.

She also talks about the representation of people of colour in American media, being overweight and how the realities of life with her body type are rarely treated with respect, and how she struggles to fit an outdated, damaging perception of what feminist practice should look like.

Through it all, her prose is clear, direct, and unvarnished. Yes, there are intense flashes of humour and an underlying vein of pain and empathy winding itself throughout the collection, but she chooses clarity over verbal acrobatics. I may love the wit and sarcasm of writers like David Rakoff and David Sedaris, but after a while, writing like theirs feels forced and arrogant. In contrast, Roxane Gay feels like a real person, and her authenticity (god, what a loaded word!) is relatable and comforting.

In fact, the clarity of her writing may lead readers to underestimate her, since it flows so smoothly. However, such a belief is misplaced. Easy reading is damn hard writing, as they say, and Roxane Gay’s writing is very easy reading. As a freelance editor often tasked with ensuring clarity in the work I edit, I appreciate the effort that goes into the kind of writing she does.

However, when she gets going into her cultural analysis, she really gets going. I particularly appreciated her deconstruction of race, class, and gender within Tyler Perry’s films, and her take on what his success says about the relative paucity of black filmmakers’ voices in Hollwood. Plus, I wish I could write about authors like Kate Zambreno, Junot Diaz, and Diana Spechler with her level of insight, cross-referencing with other works, and cultural understanding. If I hope to write reviews like the ones in Bad Feminist one day, I have a lot of work to do.

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