1978’s Star Songs of an Old Primate was James Tiptree, Jr’s third collection. Three years separated it from Warm Worlds and Otherwise —three years and a significant revelation.
Introduction (Star Songs of an Old Primate) • essay by Ursula K. Le Guin
Shortly before this collection was published, the world learned that James Tiptree, Jr. was a pen name for Alice Sheldon. Le Guin wrestles with the significance of this revelation.
Your Haploid Heart • (1969) • novelette
Human or merely humanoid? From a legal point of view, a trivial question since even intelligent globs of jelly can rise to the highest level of government. From a human point of view, since the iron rule of human behaviour is “if they can have kids with each other, they will have kids with each other and damn social convention,” very important. In the case of one world, the question proves very difficult to answer. Even asking it provokes a horrific humanitarian crisis.
It’s not that humans think they are better than everyone else — although they seem to feel that way — but the Earth government wants a head’s up about what new genes will be making their way into the Terrestrial gene pool.
The Big Question, and one that gets resolved in the course of the story, is whether humans were somehow spread (means unclear) to a myriad of worlds or if inter-fertile populations managed to independently evolve on a myriad of worlds. The answer turns out to be [rot13] gur frpbaq ][/rot13], which I am sure will provide an interesting topic for many graduate theses.
It’s best not to dwell on the fact that the life cycle of one group of natives means that the tragic romance recounted in this story involves an adult terrestrial and an irresistibly beautiful woman who is perhaps as old as a human grade-schooler.
“And So On, and So On” • (1971) • short story
Everything worth doing has been done! There are no new frontiers! Or so the adults tell themselves.…
“Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” • (1974) • short story
Why is this man haunted by memories of failed love affairs?
So, a thought I would not expect to have after reading Tiptree: “This reminds me of an A. E. Van Vogt story.” Yet here we are. The Van Vogt is “The Monster,” The differences between that story and “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” can be traced to authorial preoccupations; Van Vogt loves spectacle and DESTINY! And Tiptree is concerned with entirely other matters. Not telling.
A Momentary Taste of Being • (1975) • novella
The alien world may offer a new frontier for over-populated Earth’s desperate billions OR it may spell their doom. Which it is depends on the reason that only one member of the scouting party returned from the new world.
SF: the genre where metaphors are taken at face value, in this case [rot13] cynargf nf bin naq fgnefuvc perjf nf fcrez [rot13].
(No, I have not learned how to do TV Tropes-style spoiler-concealing white space.]
This was more of a short story idea. As a novella, it goes on a bit long, long enough that Tiptree can insert a bit of pre-teen sex, which seems to have been obligatory in Disco-Era SF.
Houston, Houston, Do You Read? • (1976) • novella
Cast into a distant future, it’s only reasonable that the three American astronauts expect a hero’s welcome.
Specifically, the welcome home Agamemnon got.
As I may have mentioned on Young People Read Old SFF, I think this story was written in responses to Joanna Russ’ “When It Changed”.
The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats • (1976) • novelette
Only an unmanly aversion to cruelty stands between a researcher and professional success. Empathy is a crippling condition but one for which a cure may exist.
“This Tiptree story has reaffirmed my faith in humanity,” said no reviewer, ever.
“She Waits for All Men Born” • (1976) • short story
There is no evolution without natural selection and death. Humanity’s last hurrah provides both, in spades.
In some ways, Tiptree reminds me of the old Second City sketch, Emily Bronte: Stand-up Comedian:
We were rolling in the aisles. Maybe you had to be there.
In general I am not a fan of Darrel K. Sweet’s work. This cover is not as garish as others he has inflicted on the world.
As I remember it, Tiptree was one of the Big Names in 1970s SF. The reason people invested so much effort trying to work out who was behind the name was because Tiptree mattered. Yet when I look at the ISFDB’s list of reviews for this collection, I only see this somewhat meagre list of contemporary reviews:
Review by Robert Frazier (1978) in Science Fiction Review , May 1978
Review by Philip Stephensen-Payne (1978) in Paperback Parlour , August 1978
Review by Douglas A. Mackey (1979) in Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Review , February 1979
It’s not that reviewers decided to stop reviewing Tiptree once they learned she was a woman. Warm Worlds and Otherwise, published when Tiptree was widely believed to be even more manly than Hemingway punching Rudyard Kipling in the nose, only received these reviews at the time:
Review by Martin Last (1975) in The Science Fiction Review , March 1975
Review by Mal Warwick (1975) in Locus, #176 July 20, 1975
Review by Robert Hunt (1979) in Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Review , August 1979
One has to go back to 1973’s collection Ten Thousand Light-Years From Home before one finds reviews in the major magazines (some rather belated):
Review by P. Schuyler Miller (1974) in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact , January 1974
Review by J. Michael Reaves (1974) in Locus, #157 April 6, 1974
Review by Gail C. Futoran (1974) in Luna Monthly , #55, October 1974
Review by Alan Brennert (1975) in Delap’s F & SF Review , October 1975
Review by John Brunner (1975) in Vector 69 Summer 1975
Review by Chris Morgan (1977) in Vector 80
Review by David Pringle (1977) in Foundation, #11 and 12 March 1977
Review by Philip Stephensen-Payne (1977) in Paperback Parlour , April 1977
Review by Darrell Schweitzer (1977) in Science Fiction Review , August 1977
Review by Charles N. Brown (1977) in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Winter 1977
This leaves me wondering how I, a kid on a farm in rural Ontario, would have been aware of this luminary in the SF firmament, given that, at the time, my connections to SFdom were entirely through magazines, collections, and anthologies. It’s a mystery.
Readers will appreciate the delicate balance Tiptree achieves between existential anxiety and moments of hopeless despair, general pessimism and deep-seated misanthropy. The overall effect is like being pummelled by an incredibly skilled martial artist. The process is not exactly fun but it’s so well done it seems rude to ask the attacker to stop.
For some reason, Star Songs is very much out of print. Used bookstores are your friend.