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Customer Review

on 16 December 2008
I bought this book after listening to StarShipSofa's excellent podcast on the life and works of James Tiptree Jr. You can't help but be intrigued by Tiptree, or Alice Sheldon as her name really was, who as a child saw the world with her lawyer/naturalist father and travel-writer mother, worked as an artist, joined the US army (working in its Air Forces intelligence department), and was later asked to join the CIA -- a bisexual woman who ended her own and her husband's lives in a long-planned suicide (she at 71, he 84). But so often it's the case that authors with interesting lives are less interesting as authors, and it's the accountants and office workers who make the better writers. But Tiptree's writing, rather than being just an aspect of her colourful biography, adds another dimension to it. It is obviously the product of an intelligent, compassionate, incisive person (reading it, and not knowing, I think you'd be hard pressed to put money on whether it was written by a man or a woman), genuinely concerned with the very human issues she explores through science fiction.

Most of the material in this collection comes from the 70s, so Tiptree was writing at a time when SF had been stylistically and thematically freed by the New Wave and the generally increased literariness of the 60s. Starting with her first major success as a short story writer, "The Last Flight of Doctor Ain", the book contains some fine stories, including the ones that won her two Hugos and three Nebulas ("The Girl Who Was Plugged In", "Love Is the Plan and the Plan is Death", "The Screwfly Solution" and the double-winner "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?"). "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" is the tale of an ugly young nothing picked off the streets to become a soap star -- only, not in her own body. "Love is the Plan and the Plan is Death" has assumed its place in SF history for being the first story in which no human beings appear. It is told from the perspective of a semi-primitive alien struggling to hold onto its growing self-awareness against the instinctive animal urges that force it to stick to its peculiar life cycle. For me, among many excellent stories, the standout is "A Momentary Taste of Being", a novella dealing with a desperate mission to find a new planet for humanity to inhabit, and an encounter with an alien being that puts mankind's stellar diaspora into an entirely different perspective. Whether the effect on its characters is one of ultimate transcendence, or a descent into a very less than meaningful existence is left as an open question.

I could go on. There's so much to say about Tiptree's thought-provoking, and emotion-provoking, fiction and I haven't even mentioned "And I Awoke and Found Me Here On The Cold Hill's Side" or "Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled Of Light". (What titles!) The writing is intense, the characterisation insightful, the ideas are fresh and meaningful. But the best thing is to read the stuff yourself. And here you have, in 18 stories, a thorough and excellent introduction to the work of a very interesting writer indeed.
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