Tiptree’s Strange Bedfellows

“You know as well as I do we all go around in disguise,” Alice B. Sheldon once wrote. “The halo stuffed in the pocket, the cloven hoof awkward in the shoe, the X-ray eye blinking behind thick lenses, the two midgets dressed as one tall man, the giant stooping in the pinstripe, the pirate in the housewife’s smock, the wings shoved into sleeveholes, the wild racing, wandering, raping, burning, loving pulses of reality decorously disguised as a roomful of Human beings.” To Sheldon, it proved most interesting to depict this “roomful of human beings”, however ugly it may be. Her work dramatizes cultural pluralism, a subject abundant with conflict. Moreover, she tended to trace the specific conditions under which humanity changes. Perhaps this was the true appeal of Science Fiction to Sheldon.

Similar to Keats, she had a scientific background, with Sheldon having worked in Experimental Psychology and the CIA. It might be safe to say that, if Keats approached science from a literary perspective, she approached fiction as a scientist. It allowed for a type of experimental thought where she could retain the utmost internal validity and ignore external altogether. Her variables were always dependent variables. In essence, she could conflate the conditions of change her human (though not always, as we’ll see later) characters have to face. However, the very nature of fiction required her to continually inhabit the perspectives of her participants. This was where Sheldon’s uniquely human viewpoint began to offset her “experimental design”.

She reveled in the viewpoints of social minorities in the face of major change, often tracing how difference can be both a uniting and dividing factor. The ultimate irony to her was that divisions—be they gender, race or species—exist altogether. In this way, the effect recalls Blake’s notion of an omniscient reality existing below our senses. Further, the Romantic reverence for natural change and ambivalent feelings toward unnatural change. Nothing about life was permanent to her, least of which humanity. Not only were our differences illusory, but our existence was even contingent. Nevertheless, she took great pains in showing why minute differences matter to characters in a particular moment. The overall sense is that, in general, humanity’s emphasis on difference can serve to pervert or disfigure itself.

“And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” is such a powerful story. Tiptree’s use of colloquial dialogue, dramatic juxtaposition, and deeply sensual detail make for a story that affects slowly. It was her stark use of casual sexuality that helped distinguish her writing from her SF New Wave contemporaries. She drew a humanist portrait in her stories in which sex was both a uniting (as in this story) and dividing factor (“The Screwfly Solution” as a hyperbolic example) for cultures. It could bring out the human complexities of love as well as the animalistic drive to procreate. In many ways, her treatment of sex as a powerful, deterministic factor resembles the way Lycius becomes slowly entranced by Lamia. To Sheldon, sexuality was too powerful a force within humanity, both physically and psychologically, to be underestimated. Her emphasis on sex as a possible means of distorting humanity helped influence Feminist sci-fi authors such as Joanna Russ and Margaret Atwood.

Reading this story, I kept thinking about a track off of the Dystopian Concept Album Deltron 3030 by hip-hop artist Del Tha Funkee Homosapien:


It takes place in Oakland in 3030, and, this song in particular is called “Love Story”. It tells a very similar story to Sheldon’s, with a very similar perspective: a growing discontentment with interspecies sex, the exoticism of alien sexuality, and the eventual dehumanization in attempting to experience it. Del approaches the subject from a literal view of disconnect, wherein sexuality has become a purely virtual experience. The repeated phrase “yes, I know all the answers/ Living in my true love’s arms” evokes both Keats and Tiptree’s notion that a sort of fetishism of seeking truth and love blinds humanity to its other concerns. The album addresses major themes in science-fiction, often tongue in cheek, though with distinct vision. The sheer verbal fluency and ambience translate sci-fi’s sense of culture shock into an aural experience.

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2 Responses to Tiptree’s Strange Bedfellows

  1. “The overall sense is that, in general, humanity’s emphasis on difference can serve to pervert or disfigure itself.”

    I’m really interested in your discussion of sameness and difference. The theme presented in Tiptree’s story is obviously a continuation–a theme running throughout much of what we’ve read.

    You remarked that it is the emphasis on difference which perverts, but I feel that maybe it is rather the emphasis on sameness. Clearly, the characters of “And I Awoke…” desire to have sexual relations with–and thereby possess– the aliens due to a sense of their otherness. They are radically other and novel, and therefore they are intriguing. However, it seems to me that one would only try to have these relations with those who bear the marks of sameness. From a purely biological standpoint, sex would be impossible if the creatures involved did not have some sort of biological or anatomical correspondence of parts. The desire for sex in the story may, therefore be, a desire for assimilation or integration into the self.

    Just as the aliens of Tiptree’s story are radically “other,” Lamia of Keat’s poet is alien, as well. Similarly, mortal men wish to possess her–to integrate her into their understanding. They wish to see her, though she remains “unseen” and unseeable–ineffable.

    • I like the conversation that’s begun here, and I think among other things this idea of “the radically other” in Tiptree might help us articulate something about the gender dynamic at work in the Keats poems we’ve read. I like the idea that Lamia and the Belle Dame stand in for that “radically other” something, be it nature, or “life”/Bildingstrieb (as Gigante suggests) or “the ideal” (or any number of other things). But it’s worth asking (as Kristy0715’s post below asks) why that figure is persistently a feminine one, and what Tiptree’s reframing of the “cold hill’s side” does to destabilize that gendered model of the desired-but-inaccessible.

      Also, just to back up the idea that that Deltron 3030 album might be working intertextually with this longer history, it’s worth noting that the human/alien encounter 4dsure points us to in this post begins with a Keatsian allusion–“a thing of beauty,” referring to the alien in question, is also the famous first line of Keats’s Endymion (http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19377). Perhaps some new annotations are in order?

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