E.L. Doctorow



I wake to the news that E.L. Doctorow has died, and I feel a sense of loss that very few writers instill in me, particularly since I never met the man. But I’ve loved his work for very nearly forty years. No, that understates the case: I’ve been obsessed with his work for most of that time. I’ve read everything I could lay my hands on, his essays, his science fiction novel (which was never republished after its initial appearance in 1966), on the critical shelves behind me as I write this are two books of interviews with and essays on the man. I don’t love everything he wrote; two of his novels, City of God and the last, Andrew’s Brain, have a contemporary setting and I think they are his weakest (perhaps because of that). But others of his books are, I think, just about perfect. Continue reading

The Blazing World

Years ago I got to review the first novel by Michael Chabon, Mysteries of Pittsburgh. I was struck, then, by references to science fiction that crept into the novel, so I was not altogether surprised, years later, when he started writing genre fiction.
By that measure, I wouldn’t be totally surprised if Siri Hustvedt wrote some science fiction in the future. Her 2014 novel, The Blazing World, is suffused with sf references. There’s not only the reference to James Tiptree Jr that I have already mentioned, but she brings in ideas from Vernor Vinge, while J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick are among the sf writers who receive a nod. Above all there is Margaret Cavendish, whose own science fiction, Discovery of a New World Called the Blazing World, gives Hustvedt her title, and who plays the role almost of a household god for the central character, Harry Burden. Cavendish was a pioneer, almost the first woman in Britain to publish work under her own name, one of the first who wrote as a professional, expecting and receiving payment for her work (once, while in exile in the Low Countries during the Interregnum, she returned to London specifically to chase up payment for one of her early books). Not only that, but she was a very learned person who was held back by her sex; virtually uneducated, she moved in the scientific circles that included Descartes, Hobbes and others, she attempted to join the Royal Society but was refused because women weren’t allowed, she was the first person to write about an atomist cosmology in Britain, she wrote scientific essays, poetry, and of course her novel, The Blazing World. It is easy to see why Mad Madge is such an inspiration to Harry (Harriet) Burden, and also, I suspect, to Hustvedt. Continue reading

Reprint: Helen O’Loy


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And this is the companion piece to yesterday’s article. Lester Del Rey’s “Helen O’Loy” is, I am sure, the story that inspired C.L. Moore’s far superior “No Woman Born”. This column appeared in Vector 279, Spring 2015. Continue reading

Hustvedt and Tiptree


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I put Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World down late last year. I was enjoying it, but I was overloaded with other things I had to do and reading for pleasure came rather low on the pecking order. This morning I picked it up again; still too much else to do, but what the hell. And practically the first thing I read is a passage about James Tiptree.

She outlines the basic story we all know: how no-one met Tiptree, how Silverberg said the work was ineluctably masculine, the appearance of Raccoona Sheldon, etc. Then we come to this bit:

What interested her was not simply substituting a man’s name for a woman’s. That was boring. No, she pointed out that Le Guin had suspected all along that Raccoona and Tiptree were two authors that came from the same source, but in a letter to Alice she wrote that she preferred Tiptree to Raccoona: ‘Raccoona, I think, has less control, thus less wit and power.’

Le Guin, Mother said, had understood something deep. ‘When you take on a male persona, something happens.’

When I asked what that was, she sat back in her chair, waved her arm, and smiled, ‘You get to be the father.’

… She told me that in 1987 Tiptree shot her husband and then killed herself. Mother said Sheldon couldn’t live without her man — not her husband, obviously, but the man inside her — and she believed that’s why she exploded into violence.

Two things struck me about this passage.

First, although this analysis of Tiptree’s suicide doesn’t conform to the story in Julie Phillips’s biography, doesn’t take into account the husband’s illness or her own, or mention that this was all a decade after her identity was revealed, yet there is something that rings true about it. Le Guin was right that there was something in Tiptree’s writing that Raccoona Sheldon’s lacked, and after Tiptree’s identity was revealed, Tiptree’s writing lacked it also. To my mind, ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’, ‘The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats’ and Raccoona Sheldon’s ‘The Screwfly Solution’, which came out around the time of the revelation, were the last really significant things she wrote. The stories that came later, and all of the novels, were distinctly minor affairs when compared to the work that appeared when Tiptree was safely behind her mask.

The Encyclopedia says that the revelation killed Tiptree. That’s not strictly true, it didn’t even stop her writing; but it stopped her being Tiptree, and that took something out of the writing. And for that, Hustvedt’s point about getting to ‘be the father’, works as well as any. It may not be that she couldn’t live without the man inside her, though she certainly went into decline without him; but it is surely the case that she couldn’t write to that high and wonderful standard without him.

The second thing is that Hustvedt’s novel tells of a woman artist who calls herself Harry, and whose work is exhibited as by a succession of male front men. All the time I was reading this far I was asking myself: does she know about Tiptree. It seems to me that there is a lot of James Tiptree in Harry.

Well, now it seems I have my answer.

Reprint: Scientists


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Another of my Cognitive Mapping columns. This one first appeared in Vector 211, May-June 2000.

Continue reading


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