Young People Read Old SFF

Houston, Houston, Do You Read?

James Tiptree, Jr.

In the mid-1960s, more and more women were writing science fiction and fantasy. Not only were woman authors more common, but they were writing quality stuff. By the start of the 1970s, many, if not most, of the notable new voices in science fiction were women. The singular exception seemed to be James Tiptree, Jr.

None of Tiptree’s correspondents had ever met Tiptree in the flesh but all the evidence said Tiptree was a man. Not just a man. To quote Harlan Ellison “[Kate] Wilhelm is the woman to beat this year, but Tiptree is the man."

In 1977, misplaced candour allowed Tiptree’s fans to uncover what Tiptree had so carefully concealed for a decade: the person behind the pen name was Alice Sheldon, youthful adventurer, artist, intelligence officer, and researcher. The man was in fact a woman.

I always knew I would include a Tiptree story in this series. Which Tiptree? That was determined by my desire to cover Joanna Russ’ story “When It Changed”. Tiptree’s 1976 “Houston, Houston, Do You Read” can be read as an answer to the same question Russ posed in her story: how does one react to the reappearance of an unnecessary, unwanted social element? Tiptree was not Russ and her answer is very different.

“Houston, Houston, Do You Read” is available in the collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.

Readers interested in the author for whom the Tiptree Award was named would be well advised to read Julie Phillips’ James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon.

Discuss this post over at Dreamwidth.

This one had a long, boring warm up. It took quite a while to get to the point and if I hadn't been doing this for James I would have lost interest about four pages in. Once it got around to the interesting bits it was good, the story picked up steam and moved along at a better pace.

I can really tell with this that it is written by someone who has never actually been inside a man's head but has heard about what it's like. There are recognizable bits, but it's off in subtle ways. This must be what it is like for any women who read female characters written by men.

In the end I feel kind of bad for Lorrimer. He's kind of right, in that every man has thoughts that need repressing. That's just something that comes with the package in my experience. All men learn growing up that the initial emotional response is absolutely not to be trusted or acted on. Taking away absolutely all inhibition like they did with that drug is as bad as slipping them a rage-inducing drug, because rage just happens over the normal course of events. I actually have a hard time believing that women don't also have dangerous impulses. Tiptree probably knows better than me, if she says women never feel violent urges who am I to argue. While he's not the meathead rapist type or the paternalistic religious fundamentalist type, Lorrimer still buys into the whole masculinity setup with his talk of alphas and betas. He's pretty far down the road to Nice Guy™ territory, sounding like a moderate 4chan poster complete with a treasured story of childhood humiliation.

While it's sad that they killed the men rather than just let them live out their lives on Earth being roundly ignored, I think the civilization depicted will do just fine. It'll move slowly, but they've got time. After getting caught in a solar flare, the men should have been dead anyway. The whole episode was a bonus after-the-credits scene to their lives.


This story turned out to be pretty interesting – once I figured out what it was actually about. I thought it would be another “space is big and lonely and scary” story, and was already preparing myself to speed read through it, only half paying attention. As it turns out, this is the other type of story we seem to be reading again and again, but it's a type of story that I find much more interesting. It's the “all/most men have been wiped out” storyline, where we explore how women handle it.

Before I actually talk about the story and the “all men are wiped out” plotline, I do want to mention something that really annoyed me in this story: how long it took me to figure out how the story was being told. Houston, Houston seemed to have flashbacks within flashbacks, wrapped up in weird (made up?) technology and jargon that didn't make any sense. But I suspect that if I'm going to continue to read Science Fiction and Fantasy, I will have to do so through a fog of confusion as new, half-imagined technology is vaguely explained sort of in stories. But the poorly explained technology is not a story complaint, it's a genre complaint. Anyways.

Once I figured out what was going on, I enjoyed the story – pieces of information were revealed throughout, and the story continued twisting and turning until I finally figured out what the story was about – a future world without men. We got to hear about worlds without men in When It Changed, A Rose for Ecclesiastes, to an extent, in the dolphin story (except the women were smart dolphins). As with A Rose for Ecclesiastes, this is a man-free story written by a man. Does the author's gender change how the manless women carry on?

After finishing the story (which seemed to have a lot more contempt for men than most men would have), I googled “Does James Tiptree Hate Women?” The results of my google search provided me with the final twist I experienced in reading Houston, Houston. This twist was twisty enough that it made me laugh out loud at my computer in surprise. It turns out that James Tiptree is actually a pseudonym for Alice Bradley Sheldon – who is, in fact, female. Well of course she was.


After reading the first page or two, I wrote down that I expected one of two things to happen:

  1. They have veered dramatically off course, or
  2. Something has happened to Earth (mass death or Planet of the Apes plot twist)

As it so happened, I was pretty close. One of the troubles with reading fiction from the recent past is the plethora of clichés. Concepts and plot twists that were original at the time have sometimes been followed by an explosion of the same trope. This story suffers a bit from being an original cliché. Granted, I didn’t catch on as quickly as I could have about the clones, which had a nice subtle trail of clues leading up to that revelation.

This story continues some trends seen in the last couple stories:
The loneliness and dangers of space travel? Check.
Anxiety related to second-wave feminism? Check.

This story felt very dated to a particular time. Not necessarily a bad thing, since the story involved time travel from the … 1960s? 70s? 80s? 90s? The math is weird since Earth’s human population was 8 billion in the “past” of the story, but our current world population in 2017 is closer to 7 billion.

The main character Lorimer thinks in body types like mesomorphs. That’s a dated reference to somatotypes. I remember learning about ectomorph, endomorph and mesomorph in elementary school, but I don’t know if they still do that. Were somatotypes even taken seriously when this story was published?

Lorimer’s anxious about his lower status as a nerd instead of a jock. That was weird. That’s not the case these days, and I went to a very nerdy public school. The criteria for popular people at my high school were (in order):

  1. Get good marks
  2. Be president of a club or a member of a student council
  3. Be on a varsity sports team
  4. Other extra-curriculars

The most popular students did all of those, or all of those except for varsity sports. Of course, I’ve seen media where nerds are bullied and jocks get all the advantages. It’s just strange to me. It may be an American/Canadian divide. Canadian post-secondary institutions don’t have full-ride scholarships, and coaches don’t get paid absurd amounts of money. I also live in a very nerdy city with lots of tech companies, so my opinion is biased based on that part of my personal experience.

The exclamations of “Houston” and “Do You Read” are iconic to the Apollo missions. To me, these space missions are fairly distant. People of my parents’ generation would go on and on about the Apollo missions when I was a kid, and I would just think “Well, of course people went to the moon. How could they not?”

Now that I’m older, I understand how difficult and risky those missions were. Now, space exploration and current excitement is focused on sending humans to Mars. It doesn’t seem likely to happen soon, so that feels like a distant future to me right now. I might be old and not as excitable by the time people get to Mars, and I might never really understand that collective suspense and sense of accomplishment that comes from a big event in space.

I didn’t believe the story’s characters were realistic. Or Lorimer’s perspective is very unreliable. Or they are supposed to be bad at being astronauts.

What kind of terrible manager doesn’t give the right data to the tech people so they can make the right calculations? (cue hollow laughter)

But seriously, this is a life-or-death situation. It’s neither the time nor place to play social power politics. You are all going to die because your leader is actively against accurate math. (cue more hollow laughter)

They also waste hours panicking. I found that the most unrealistic. The longer they wait and veer off course, the more likely they are to die. They must have checklists and emergency procedures. We have loads of recordings of pilots during terrible accidents, and they always sound unnervingly calm. That’s because they’re trained on emergency procedures over and over again. When an emergency happens, the automatic reaction should be to go through procedures.

One of the few purposefully funny lines was that the future technology was “Not like science fiction”. It reminded me that the stories so far have been extremely serious. I like a bit of comedy, and these older stories in general strike a very serious tone. That’s usually the way for writing “literature”, but I would enjoy some of these stories more if there was an occasional chuckle.

---We interrupt this regularly scheduled review for a Rape Fantasy Discussion---

Is this true for men or for people who aren’t me? I don’t know how common it is for other people or for men to want to rape. A fair amount of porn scenarios have little or no consent going on, so I guess this is considered normal? It seemed jarring, but maybe the rape fantasy was meant to have that effect. It seemed almost gratuitous, but maybe it’s in the story to demonstrate to male readers the ugliness of rape. Or to demonstrate the terrible nature of males. I don’t really know.

Within the story, it seems that the future crew does this to provide a real-life reminder and current video documentation of the terrible nature of males from the past. I don’t think it’s okay to inject the past crew with disinihibitors since the power dynamic is unequal: the past crew is at the mercy of the future crew. The future crew treat the past crew as lesser and sub-human.

But perhaps that’s the point. We still treat women as lesser, subhuman and less capable in our society today. I know it’s tiring to be treated that way. Humans are individuals. We’re not all the same. But that doesn’t make discrimination and stereotypes ‘okay’: it makes assumptions annoying and dangerous.

--And now back to our Regularly Scheduled Misogyny--

Quel horreur! A future where everyone just works on what needs to be done instead of competing with each other. How terrible! (Heavy sarcasm)

The male crew from the past denounce the technology of the future. The ship is too simple. Yeah, let’s ignore the fact they’ve perfected waste recycling and are self-sustaining with on-board hydroponics. Or the fact that they rescued you all no problem. The past crew is also critical that “The marvels of the future seem so far to consist mainly of ingenious modifications.” Seriously? That’s the definition of invention. There’s a mythos that a single inventor creates things out of thin air. Of course they don’t. People needed to work on fiber-optic cables before we had today’s widespread high-speed internet access. Electricity and wires came before light bulbs. I don’t mean to say that it’s a linear progression, but invention rarely comes out of nowhere.

Lorimer is very condescending about only having one new chess opening. I only know a little about chess, but I do know that not that many moves are possible, mathematically speaking. Once past the beginner stage, chess is a complex dance of memorization within the limits of the game. Chess seems like such a dated game: it’s touted as the pinnacle of logic, but computers now have enough processing power to simply cycle through all possible moves in real-time. Even with my limited knowledge of chess, Lorimer’s attitude towards improvements in chess was very strange to me. Today’s version of the chess computer anxiety is AlphaGo, the first computer to beat a professional human player at Go. Artificial intelligence must not have been an anxiety at the time. If this story was written today, Lorimer would have played chess against a computer.

This whole story reminded me strongly of When It Changed, except this is from the perspective of the men in space. When comparing these two stories, the male and female perspectives are both antagonistic. In both cases, the main character identifies with their own gender and sees the opposing sex as extremely dangerous and out to kill their own group. Is this what most people thought in the 70s about gender issues?

Interestingly (or not so interestingly), there’s really no thought given to Andy. Lorimer just thinks of Andy as an androgynous female. Trans and intersex people weren’t commonly discussed and accepted at that point, but it’s become a more common topic of discussion these days. To today’s reader, this part of the story is one of the most interesting ideas, but it’s hardly discussed at all. Trans people are a hot button issue among some people these days – namely, people who have strong opinions about how strangers live their lives to the point of policing if people can expel their waste in a stall next to people who have the same genital shape and gender identity. I don’t know about you, but I think about the person the next stall over as little as possible when I’m in a public washroom.

Overall, this story was ... interesting. I wouldn’t rate it as one of my favourites, but it definitely engaged me. To read it now, this story is very problematic. But it definitely got me thinking. And if there’s anything science fiction is supposed to do, it’s supposed to make you think, right?