Houston, Can I Talk To The MAN In Charge?

So, I’ve heard of the famous sci-fi writer James Tiptree, Jr. before, but I’d never read any of her stuff. I say her because, if you don’t know, she was actually a woman using a male pseudonym to write under so that she didn’t have to take any crap from male critics.  So someone left this book in my Little Free Library the other day and I thought, hey, this is short, I’ll try it out. OMG, it blew my mind. I can not believe she got away with this! Well, she did because she wasn’t writing as a she.

The story is told by science officer Orren Lorimer, flashing back and forth in time. In real time, he’s in some kind of spacecraft, but something seems odd because he seems high, and there are young people floating around him who seem to be in pajamas.  I won’t be spoiling much to say that the reader finds out soon enough that his spacecraft had some kind of disaster and was basically rescued by this current spacecraft.  The tag line on the cover–“The astronauts had the ‘right stuff’ to deal with. . . almost anything” is a great teaser, because that could be anything, right? Aliens? Black Holes? Time travel? (Incidentally, Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff was published in 1979 and this was published in 1976, so this must have been a reprint with a new cover to play off that title.)

Ok, I do have to do SPOILERS to talk about the rest of this. So there’s your warning. So, what is it these fine specimens of mankind have to deal with that they just can’t handle? Why, women, of course! The astronauts in the other spacecraft are females! And Dave, the commander of the manly ship, actually refuses to talk to them until it’s almost too late for them to be rescued once he finds out the voices he keeps hearing on his comm are not just any females, but female astronauts whose ship has basically replaced Houston and NASA. He just can’t fathom it.  He finally comes around but he’s still suspicious. Lorimer, on the other hand, is basically just curious. He craves the approval of his two shipmates, but he doesn’t seem as devastated as Dave or as crass as Bud, who keeps calling them “chicks.”  

The shocking part of the story is that Tiptree doesn’t hold back, but goes ahead and writes an attempted rape scene, basically playing out the worst fears of the reader, given the characters and the set-up. I can hardly express how refreshing this was, as weird as that sounds. I’ve just read so many classic science fiction novels in the last couple of years that have women characters who serve only as empty-headed sex toys, or they have no women characters at all.  Finally, I felt like this story showed all that misogyny in its true ugly glory. 

I don’t know which character is more arrogant: Bud with his sexual violence, or Dave with his God-ego. Oh, did I mention Dave’s response to an all-female crew is to try and take over their ship? See, he knows that women are incapable and so they obviously need his guidance. But does he offer his advice? No. Again with the violent approach. He threatens them with a gun and tries to lock them out of the ship’s controls. It also bothers him that they have no religion, and considers it blasphemy when they explain that they have faith in themselves. When Lorimer comments to Dave that “they seem to be doing all right,” Dave lumps Lorimer in with the women, telling him he’s not a real man. 

There’s just so much to think about here.  I haven’t revealed all the surprises in the story, either. I highly recommend reading this, especially if you grew up in the seventies or earlier and will recognize these attitudes.  If you’re younger, I’m afraid you won’t believe men could really be like that. Which is a good thing, I guess, it shows how much progress we’ve made. I don’t know, I’d be curious to hear what a younger reader could get out of this.