Thursday, January 16, 2014

In the Future Nobody Will Be Queer! -- Except Me

I'm reading Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century (Wesleyan, 2006), edited by Justine Larbalestier, a collection of sf stories by women that support feminist readings, paired with critical essays on each one.  A nice idea: the essays provide background, though as one would expect they're uneven.  I finished the book last night, and want to single out "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" by Octavia Butler, which I think is not just one of the great science fiction stories, it's one of the great stories period.  (And wow: it's available online, but also in several other collections, including Butler's Bloodchild and Other Stories [Seven Stories Press, 2005].)

But what I want to write about is another story in the collection, James Tiptree Jr.'s "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill Side", originally published in 1972, and the accompanying paper about it by Wendy Pearson.  (The story is also, conveniently, available online.)  I don't believe I've ever read this story before, though I probably have a copy of it in one of Tiptree's collections.  It's typical of Tiptree's tough-guy mode ... but first I should probably provide some background for those who don't know.  James Tiptree Jr. emerged as a rapidly rising star in science fiction during the late 1960s.  He kept to himself, though he corresponded with fans and other sf writers, and rationed personal information that made fanboys (of various ages) swoon.  As I've written about him before:
It was known that he had worked for the US Army's photointelligence unit in World War II, had later joined the CIA, but returned to school for a doctorate in experimental psychology. Oh, Mary, how butch! It was like James Bond had begun writing science fiction. On the other hand, Tiptree wrote with sensitive attention about women, so some fans speculated that he might be female ... And of course, it soon emerged that Tiptree was a 61-year-old woman named Alice Bradley Sheldon.
Sheldon also wrote some stories under different pseudonyms, notably "Raccoona Sheldon."  But it was the Tiptree stories, with their generally macho male narrators, that won the attention and acclaim.  "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill Side" is one of these.  The viewpoint character in this case is a young Australian reporter whom an older man tries to talk out of his fascination with "aliens," extraterrestrials from other star systems who are visiting or resident on the earth.  The older man warns the reporter, who clearly isn't paying much attention, that many humans -- including the narrator himself -- find aliens erotically fascinating, with outcomes destructive to mind, body, and soul.  He tells of one young woman who'd "been making it with the two Sirians, y'know.  The males do it in pairs.  Said to be the total sexual thing for a woman, if she can stand the damage from those beaks.  I wouldn't know.  She talked to me a couple of times after they finished with her.  No use for men whatever" (165).  A couple of pages later we meet the older man's wife, who seems to be that woman, "limping slightly", "one of her shoulders was grotesquely scarred" (167).

But the older man would know about the erotic fascination of aliens:
The first Yveir I saw, I dropped everything and started walking after it like a starving hound, just breathing ... I spent half a cycle's credit sending the creature the wine they call stars' tears. ... Later I found out it was a male.  That made no difference at all [165].
He wants the reporter to sound the alarm to all Earthlings: "Our soul is leaking out.  We're bleeding to death!"
... What I'm trying to tell you, this is a trap.  We've hit the supernormal stimulus.  Man is exogamous -- all our history is one long drive to find and impregnate the stranger.  Or get impregnated by him; it works for women too.  Anything different-colored, different nose, ass, anything, man has to fuck it or die trying.  That's a drive, y'know, it's built-in.  Because it works fine as long as the stranger is human.  For millions of years that kept the genes circulating.  But now we've met aliens we can't screw, and we're about to die trying ... Do you think I can touch my wife?  [166].
But, of course, the reporter isn't interested.  He wants him some aliens too.

Pearson does a good job of situating the story in its time and cultural context, and calls on gender, queer, and post-colonial studies approaches to draw out its meanings.  She addresses, for example, the question of "men's" vs. "women's" writing.  Enough writers had passed for the other sex via pseudonyms that you (or I, anyway) would have thought no one would be surprised by Tiptree, but I guess people never learn.  And despite such lessons, many people of both sexes and various sexual politics believe that men and women write differently.  Pearson writes:
It is up to each reader to decide whether such work is a feminist subversion of the more stereotypical elements associated with masculine writing. Is it proof that male and female styles are, at most, cultural constructs that may not even exist?  Does it suggest that a masculine style of writing does actually exist because Tiptree is able, apparently, to internalize and reproduce it so well -- whether subversively mocking it at the same time, or not? [178]
It's not surprising that people try to assign gender to writing styles.  After all, we do the same to just about everything.  I suppose one can speak of masculine and feminine styles of writing, but they are (like any style of writing) cultural constructs; that seems pretty obvious to me.  (It's largely a matter of definition whether styles or any other cultural constructs "exist," for some version of "exist.")  One could ask whether genres exist, or forms -- does the sonnet actually exist because some poets are able, apparently, to internalize and reproduce the form so well?  The tricky part is whether there is a link between sexed body and gendered "style."  I would say there isn't.

And I'd ask whether every writer's style is all that gendered.  Tiptree's style could be called "masculine" because it's extreme, even a caricature.  I'd guess that most writers' styles aren't so distinctive, so readers and critics gender them by the author's name and by subject matter, which obviously relies on stereotypes that don't hold up most of the time.  But most of the time, nothing happens to upset the applecart.  What would happen, I wonder, if it turned out that all the writings of someone like Virginia Woolf -- a stereotypically feminine writer -- had actually been written by a man? 

The application of postcolonial theory to this story is more interesting to me.  Pearson invokes
the specter of the "Third World woman."  The Third World woman, in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's famous formulation, is the subaltern who cannot speak.  She can only be spoken about or for by others.  The figure of the woman silenced by gender, race, and colonization is a specter that also haunts Tiptree's story ... [178-9].
I'm afraid Pearson has this a bit mixed up.  It has been awhile since I read Spivak's "Can the Subaltern Speak?", but I don't recall that she called Third World women the subaltern who cannot speak.  She did insist on a place for women in Subaltern Studies, the study of history from below, dissecting some of Michel Foucault's writing about India and Indian women and exposing some embarrassing blind spots on his part about race and empire.  She also concluded, rather notoriously, that "The subaltern cannot speak," which upset a lot of Third World students writing from the metropole who apparently hadn't read her with any care.  Her point as I understood it was that the subaltern cannot speak by definition: once the subaltern becomes literate, attends university, and starts to publish, he or she is no longer subaltern.  I remember (and must track down) an interview in which Spivak seemed to confirm my understanding, criticizing academics from the Third World who wanted to see themselves as subaltern despite their considerable privilege.  I've run into some such people myself.

Now, one might ask who is "subaltern" in Tiptree's story.  I presume Pearson wants to nominate the older man's wife, who appears at the end of the story looking sullen as well as scarred, and who doesn't say a word.  Fair enough, though not speaking is not the same thing as not being able to speak.  It's possible to imagine a story in which the wife tells her experiences with aliens.  (Tiptree's most famous story, probably, is "The Women Men Don't See," which does let women speak, and of course feminist sf has given voice to many women, writers and their characters.)  But one could just as well nominate the aliens in "And I Awoke and Found Me Here": we hear one human male's side of the story, but not theirs.  Pearson seems not to consider the idea that the older man is what critics call an "unreliable narrator," that what he tells the reporter is not the whole truth.  Pearson seems to take his jeremiad at face value, which is like taking the word of the macho male narrator of "The Women Men Don't See" as gospel.

Pearson also does a good discussion of "sex tourism," but she's not clear on who the sexual tourists are in Tiptree's story.  Ordinarily, in postcolonial discourse, the white male is the sexual tourist who travels to poorer countries to exploit non-white sex workers for his depraved sensual pleasure -- although in fact Japanese men have long been major players in East Asian sex tourism, and I'd bet that Chinese businessmen are giving them a run for their money nowadays.  In "And I Awoke and Found Me Here," the older man sends mixed messages about the aliens, who supposedly are not at all attracted to or interested in copulating with humans, but who often do it anyway, or allow themselves to be paid by adoring, lust-crazed groupies. We don't learn anything about their motives. Is it the aliens who are the sex tourists here, or is it the humans who adore them, visit their planets, and try to capture their interest?  The older man sees the human erotic obsession with aliens as a danger to human survival, not through the aliens' doing but by biological (evolutionary?) accident.  He talks as though all human beings have succumbed to this obsession, but that seems unlikely a priori, just because human beings are not all alike and do not respond equally to the same erotic stimuli -- why would all of us want to be sex toys for the Sirians?  I suspect that like anyone who says "Everybody else is doing it", our informant is overgeneralizing wildly.

Further, there have always been men who blamed their erotic obsessions on women (or on boys): the heartless seductress who leads them on and delights in their abjection and destruction.  If they are attracted to someone, it is because she (or he) is sending out a tractor beam: they themselves have no agency, no will.  The title of Tiptree's story comes from a canonical example of this trope, Keats' ballad "La Belle Dame sans Merci": a knight is seduced by a faery lady and then dumped, after which he mopes on a hillside, "alone and palely loitering".  Given some less-than-impressed remarks about her male colleagues and critiques which Pearson quotes from Alice Sheldon, I doubt the author meant the reader to take the man's complaint totally at face value.

What conclusion Sheldon meant us to draw, however, I don't know.  I was reminded of another of Sheldon's stories, written under the "Raccoona Sheldon" name rather than Tiptree's, "The Screwfly Solution."  In that story, aliens seeking to wipe out humanity, perhaps to clear the planet for colonization by themselves, introduce a mutation that causes men to kill any and all women they encounter.  Is "And I Awoke and Found Me Here" a variation on that story?  Are the aliens responsible for the self-destructive behavior of their groupies?  They don't seem to be.  Another possibility is that Tiptree's story is simply a fable about evolution and the chance factors that can extinguish a species.  If I believe the informant's diagnosis, it's just accident that human desire for the stranger has led them to this cul-de-sac; but as I indicated, it's not plausible, since it's unlikely that all humans would succumb to the alien's charms.  Those humans who, for whatever reason, didn't want to copulate with aliens would continue the species.  It could also be a turnabout story in which the effects of trade and travel, from which Europeans have often benefited at the expense of other cultures, turn back on us.  If so, it's a rather dull one, but that may just be me.  Sheldon would have known better than to see imperialism and colonialism as purely European practices.  I had the impression that "And I Awoke and Found Me Here" is basically a gross-out tale, calculated to inflame masculine paranoia, and I wasn't grossed out.