Given the review of the Tiptree biography I reprinted a few days ago, it seems appropriate to link to this column on Tiptree’s story. The column first appeared in Vector 272, Spring 2013.
It sometimes seems that if John Keats hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary for science fiction to invent him. His ballad, ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’, for instance, just 12 stanzas of four lines each, has furnished Kameron Hurley’s belle dames, the title of Christopher Priest’s ‘Palely Loitering’, and the entire plot of James Tiptree Jr’s ‘And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side’. (Tiptree acknowledged the debt: her title consists of the last two lines of stanza XI.)
I recently encountered this story again for the first time in nearly 40 years when it was included in a Nebula Awards Anthology I was reviewing (she had been awarded the Solstice Prize). It stood out, for me, as a story that was at once engaged and engaging when too many of the other stories displayed what I described as a state of exhaustion. Inevitably, when I said as much, I was accused of nostalgia, of reviewing my memories of the story rather than the story itself. And yet, I didn’t remember the story. I remembered the title, of course, it’s not an easy one to forget; but as I began to read I realised that over so many years I had completely forgotten the content of the story. So I wanted to take this opportunity to examine why a 40-year-old story came across as so fresh.
The story was first published in 1971, and was the lead story in her first collection, Ten Thousand Light Years from Home (1973). It appeared, of course, at a time when Tiptree’s true identity remained unknown, and the author was unquestioningly assumed to be male. Indeed, very much a man’s man, as Harry Harrison’s introduction to the collection implies: ‘their author enjoys observing bears in the wilds of Canada or skindiving deep in Mexico … he spent a good part of World War II in a Pentagon subbasement. These facts may clue you to the obviosity (sic) that James Tiptree, Jr. is well-traveled and well-experienced in the facts, both sordid and otherwise, of our world’ (6).
Harrison’s ‘sordid’ facts provide a clue to the fact that Tiptree’s subject was sex. Science fiction had, by then, acknowledged that sex existed, and some authors had used the relative freedoms of the counter-cultural ’60s to include more explicit sex scenes or to probe at society’s sexual mores (Theodore Sturgeon was probably the most interesting of these). But none had made sexual need and sexual desire the twin motivating factors for their characters to the extent that Tiptree did. It gave the stories an air of acute psychological insight that was absent from much of the rest of the genre. Science fiction characters tended to be driven by external factors: catastrophes to be survived, alien situations to be negotiated, mysteries to be solved; and they were never doomed by their own urges in the way that the central figure of ‘And I Awoke …’ is doomed.
In Keats’s poem, we encounter a ‘knight-at-arms / Alone and palely loitering’. The winter approaches, yet he lingers still, unable to leave because of his obsessive desire for the beautiful woman who ‘looked at me as she did love, / And made sweet moan’. But this object of desire transports him into the land of faerie (or perhaps we might say that the land of faerie becomes a metaphor for sexual bliss) where, in her ‘elfin grot’, he dreams of other pale warriors who warn him that ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci /Thee hath in thrall!’ He is not alone as a victim of this passion, a discovery that immediately wakes him from his reverie and into the cold, wintery isolation in which we first encounter him. Yet he cannot bear to leave the sexual promise of that dream, so here he lingers.
Tiptree moves the story into a space-going future and transforms the faerie lover into an alien (though we must remember that one of the persistent tropes in Tiptree’s work is that women are alien to men), but otherwise the structure and shape of the story is unchanged.
We are in a space station, Big Junction, the name alone telling us all we need to know about its function. Nor do we need to be told about the real and metaphorical cold of space all around. Our pale knight is introduced in the very first sentence, ‘standing absolutely still by a service port, staring out at the belly of the Orion docking above us’ (7). The stillness and the staring are emphasised a few lines later when ‘his gaze passed over me from a peculiar distance’ (7), and we recognise someone from whom some vital quality has been drained. He tells our newsman narrator that he is ‘“waiting … waiting for my wife. My loving wife.” He gave a short ugly laugh’ (8). Who his wife might be, and why he should be waiting for her where alien ships are arriving, is left unanswered, though perhaps we might glean something from the bitterness of that laugh, or his sudden anger when an alien Procya appears.
Then, like the pale knight, he tells his story, and it is immediately cast in terms of addiction: ‘You don’t go into Little Junction by accident, any more than you first shoot skag by accident. You go into Little Junction because you’ve been craving it, dreaming about it, feeding on every hint and clue about it’ (9).
Little Junction is a Washington bar frequented by the lower orders of alien visitors, ‘Including, my friend, the perverts. The ones who can take humans’ (10) It is a faerieland where despairing humanity might feed their craving for the glamour and mystery of the alien, the magical allure of the other. Here the pale knight finds himself talking to a real alien, about football of all things; it seems to be enough. But then a woman bumps into him. ‘She was totally sexualized. I remembered her throat pulsed. She had one hand up touching her scarf, which had slipped off her shoulder. I saw angry bruises there. That really tore it, I understood at once those bruises had some sexual meaning’ (11). This instant understanding transforms the scene, tells both us and the young knight that there is nothing innocent here, that he, like all those present, is hungry to abase himself before the sexual glamour of the elfin aliens.
The woman is then drawn away by the arrival of some Sirians, and our young knight also watches a man approach them, ‘A big man, expensively dressed, with something wrecked about his face’ (12). Our newsman narrator repeats that same description, something wrecked about the face, in contemplating the storyteller just a few paragraphs later. They are alike, all these pale knights drawn into the sexual entrapment of faerie.
The storyteller’s own particular abasement comes with an alien Sellice: ‘her whole body was smiling sexually, beckoning, winking, urging, pouting, speaking to me … Every human male in the room was aching to ram himself into that incredible body. I mean it was pain’ (13). She leaves him, of course, as soon as his money runs out, but that’s the routine, mundane, predictable part of the story. He works his way up to the space stations, where there are always more aliens to follow, to be entranced by. He hates himself for his addiction, recognises how humanity is losing out to its lust for the other, ‘Swapping raw resources for junk. Alien status symbols’ (15), but he is helpless in the face of his desire. Like the pale knight he cannot escape the wasted, wintry land he now occupies. ‘I’d trade – correction, I have traded – everything Earth offered me for just that chance. To see them. To speak to them. Once in a while to touch one. Once in a great while to find one low enough, perverted enough to want to touch me –‘ (15).
Keats saw no reason to explain the hunger of his earthly knight for the faerie temptress, that she had such allure was simply part of what we understood the elven kind to have; ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ was simply one among many ballads, folk tales and stories of the time that built towards the same picture. But Tiptree was working against type, this was not how aliens were commonly presented within the genre; they had an allure, naturally, but not one that worked so devastatingly on what made us human. Even as late as the 1970s, when this story appeared, there were traces of John W. Campbell’s strictures that men must come out ahead in any encounter with aliens rooted still in the DNA of the genre. The alien might be sexually tempting, as in C.L. Moore’s ‘Shambleau’, but any human hero would fight against that temptation.
Tiptree, however, had a far more layered and interesting take on human psychology, it was something both fragile and driven, and this story was one of a number that she wrote specifically to illustrate and explain this point. The explanation comes in a devastating passage near the end of the story:
‘What I’m trying to tell you, this is a trap. We’ve hit the supernormal stimulus. Man is exogamous – all our history is one long drive to find and impregnate the stranger. Or get impregnated by him, it works for women too. Anything different-colored, different nose, ass, anything, man has to fuck it or die trying. That’s a drive, y’know, it’s built in. Because it works fine as long as the stranger is human. For millions of years that kept the genes circulating. But now we’ve met aliens we can’t screw, and we’re about to die trying … Do you think I can touch my wife?’ (16)
Human psychology is a direct consequence of human biology, it has evolved to suit the circumstances in which humankind finds itself on this planet. But what if we encounter something outside these circumstances, will the very things that allowed us to evolve be the things that eventually kill us?
But even that isn’t the whole story. Sex is only part of it, and Tiptree goes on to sum up this rather complex argument in one sentence: ‘We’re built to dream outwards’ (17).
And dreaming outwards is precisely what science fiction does. There is an outward urge, a desire for the other, for which science fiction has been the twentieth century expression as consistently and as coherently as romantic tales of the encounter with faerie expressed it in the 18th and 19th centuries. Our literature defines our dreams as surely as those dreams shape our literature. Thus it is that ‘And I Awoke …’ critiques science fiction in the very act of using science fiction to explore human urges and desires normally avoided by the genre.
It is, I think, precisely in this conjunction of psycho-sexual insight, transgressive movement into areas not normally explored by science fiction and integral critique of the genre that the continuing freshness and relevance of the story lies.
Tiptree uses scientific notions about the evolution of human biology as a hook upon which to explore broader issues about the nature of our relationship with the other, issues which can easily be extended (as in so many of Tiptree’s stories) to cover relations between the sexes. Yet in taking standard science fictional tropes (Little Junction feels very much like a perverted version of the space bar in Star Wars, Big Junction seems to echo the way station for various space-faring races that was at the centre of Babylon 5) while turning on its head the standard thrust of sf from Campbell onwards, there is a sense that we are seeing it all anew. And while we are asked to take in something contrary to what we might have expected from a science fiction story, Tiptree keeps her writing brisk and allusive. The story is little over 10 pages long, and covers an awful lot of ground; but though Tiptree typically leaves a great deal unsaid, we are never at a loss to understand where the story is and where we are being taken.
In other words, as readers we are made to work, but we are rewarded for that work. One of the reasons that, I think, the story stood out from the more recent works that surrounded it is that what it says about the psycho-sexual nature of human desire and the way it presents the sex drive as a motivating force within the plot, is still unusual within the genre. (Much contemporary sf still follows the adventure story or mystery story structure that generally entails an external motivating factor, such that our psychological understanding of too many characters remains superficial.) And for all that it is a complex and disturbing story, it is written with great clarity. We are meant to read the strangenesses of plot and situation as metaphors that lead us into the insights of the story; we are not meant to be bedazzled by the invention that surrounds it all. Describing the Sirians – ‘That tallness, that cruel thinness. That appalling alien arrogance’ (12) – tells us as much in 9 words as we might possibly want to know; there is no need to encumber them with weird appurtenances, semi-magical abilities, it would make them no more alien. This is a story that is clearly in dialogue with science fiction, but it is not repeating what others have said, it is taking the debate forwards. And that step forward, that dreaming outwards, is what keeps the story as startling, as fresh and as vivid now as it has always been.
Quotations from ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ taken from John Keats, The Complete Poems, Penguin Classics, third edition 1988.
Quotations from ‘Introduction’ by Harry Harrison and ‘And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side’ by James Tiptree, Jr., taken from Ten Thousand Light Years From Home by James Tiptree, Jr., Ace, 1973.