What this is: For those readers who aren’t familiar with it, the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, established in 1991, is an annual literary prize given to a work of science fiction or fantasy that “expands or explores our understanding of gender.” Each year the Tiptree “motherboard” appoints five judges, who decide for themselves what works qualify and what the phrase “expands or explores…” means. In addition to picking a winner (sometimes two, if they can’t agree), the judges have the option to create a short list and/or a long list of other recommended works.
My novel Set This House in Order won the Tiptree for 2003. In 2005 I was invited to be a judge, along with Liz Henry, Nike Bourke, Hiromi Goto (who eventually dropped out due to a family emergency), and Georgie Schnobrich.
What the short and long lists are about: With most literary awards, the stories on the short list are the runners-up for the main prize, while those on the long list are the also-rans. Not so with the Tiptree. Here as elsewhere, the judges have complete freedom to make their own rules. That turned out to be a lucky thing in our case, as there really were no runners-up this year: Air stood out as the only award nominee that (a) everybody loved and (b) everybody agreed was “Tiptroid.”* The short list became a showcase for works that, while they might not be quite tiara-worthy, were nevertheless strongly deserving of wider attention. As for the long list, we used that as the misfit/compromise category: a place for stories that were well-liked but that didn’t meet the basic award criteria, and works on which the judge’s opinions were decidedly mixed.
*Tiptroid, Tip-worthy, Tiptreeish: these were some of the adjectives we came up with to describe works that met the basic award criteria.
How the judging process worked: My personal approach to the award nominees was to rate them first as generic works of fiction. With each one, I asked myself, “Is this a story I like enough to recommend to other people?” If the answer was no, I tossed it aside and reached for the next one on the pile. If the answer was yes, and it wasn’t already obvious that it was Tip-worthy, I started looking for reasons why it might be. My willingness to stretch the boundaries of Tiptreeity was directly proportional to how much I’d enjoyed what I’d read.
I believe this is a reasonable way of doing things—a literary award should emphasize literary quality—but it meant that I was sometimes too quick to dismiss works that I thought let gender theory and politics get ahead of good storytelling. Fortunately, Tiptree panel chair and fellow judge Liz Henry was only too happy to go to bat for these “theory books,” and to challenge my notions of what constituted literary merit. Liz tested my love of argument at times, and we still strongly disagree over a number of the picks (I do not like green eggs and venom), but there are other works that, in hindsight, I’m glad she fought for.
If Liz and I were the Big Debating Heads of the panel, Nike Bourke and Georgie Schnobrich served as the voices of moderation and wisdom. Nike kept Liz and I from spontaneously combusting, while Georgie was pivotal in brokering the final short and long lists. Watching from the wings was our advisor Karen Joy Fowler. It was Karen who told us that there was this novel called Air, left over from the previous year’s deliberations, that we might want to take a look at. (She turned us on to Aimee Bender and Margo Lanagan, too.)
About the reviews: The judges’ final responsibility was to write annotations for the stories they’d chosen, to be posted on the official Tiptree website. In drafting my official comments, I limited myself to those picks I was truly enthusiastic about. All of our emotions were still pretty raw from the final round of deliberations, and I didn’t trust myself to write objectively about the short and long list selections that I hadn’t supported. Also, I assumed that the Tiptree site was where most of the authors would first learn that they’d been listed, and I didn’t want to spoil anybody’s moment of triumph with a bad review. (So much for that plan.)
Here on my own website, I feel freer to speak candidly about the selections I wasn’t so thrilled with. Part of the function of the Tiptree lists is to serve as a reading guide, and it’s my hope that by talking about what didn’t work for me, as well as about what did, you’ll get a better sense of whether my tastes match yours. Just because I didn’t like something doesn’t mean you won’t. And to the authors in question: Even if I didn’t love your work, somebody on the judges’ panel certainly did, or you would never have been selected.
Air: Or, Have Not Have by Geoff Ryman*
Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender*
“Wooden Bride” from Black Juice by Margo Lanagan*
“Little Faces” by Vonda N. McIntyre
A Brother’s Price by Wen Spencer
Misfortune by Wesley Stace*
Remains by Mark W. Tiedemann
“Arcana” by Emily Brunson
Touched by Venom by Janine Cross
The Mercy of Thin Air by Ronlyn Domingue*
Alanya to Alanya by L. Timmel Duchamp
The Red Rose Rages (Bleeding) by L. Timmel Duchamp
Mister Boots by Carol Emshwiller
The King in the Window by Adam Gopnik
Tesseracts Nine edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Geoff Ryman
“In the Shadow of the Stones” from The Traveling Tide by Rosaleen Love
“Close to You” by Meghan McCarron
“Planet of the Amazon Women” by David Moles*
Melusine by Sarah Monette
The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi
Luna by Julie Anne Peters*
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Margarettown by Gabrielle Zevin*
*Stories marked with an asterisk are my personal favorites.
Air: Or, Have Not Have by Geoff Ryman — The village of Kizuldah, in Karzistan, bears the dubious distinction of being the last place on Earth to get Internet access. Shortly after Kizuldah gets its Web hook-up, the United Nations rolls out Air, a 2.0 version of the ‘Net that beams information directly into people’s brains. The initial test of this technology ends in disaster as the unprepared villagers are hit with an onslaught of mental images. There’s widespread panic and a number of deaths.
Among the shaken survivors is Chung Mae, Kizuldah’s “fashion expert.” Chung Mae used to travel to the big city to gather information about the latest styles for her neighbors. The Web threatened her with obsolescence, but now the coming of Air offers her a new opportunity. During the course of the disastrous test, Mae accidently sets up an Airmail address for herself; this gives her a link to the Air network that persists even after the test ends. Mae uses this to begin preparing both herself and the village for the day when the Air broadcast resumes. She also embarks on an affair, goes to war with the village strongman, and wrestles with the ghost of a dead woman whose memories she has inherited.
What’s amazing about Air is not just what it accomplishes but what it avoids. There are so many ways this novel could have gone wrong, and as I read it for the first time, I was torn between excitement at having discovered something truly special and fear of the inevitable false step that would ruin it. But Geoff Ryman never stumbled.
Air is a smart, moving story about men and women—especially women—striving to adapt to a new technology and the threat and promise of cultural change it brings with it. Though the issues it dramatizes are all too real, Air is never preachy. Its characters are not props in service of a polemic, but three-dimensional human beings you can believe in and care about. And while Kizuldah is a fictional village in an imaginary country, it feels more genuine than many a third-world literary setting I could name.
In short, Air is fantastic. Read it.
Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender — For me, the signature tale in this short-story collection is “Dearth,” about a woman who wakes up one morning to find a mysterious clutch of potatoes in a pot on her stove. She throws the potatoes away, but the next morning they are back, and the next morning, and the next. The potatoes begin to grow and develop human features: little fingers and toes. By the time the woman figures out how to dispose of them permanently, she’s grown attached to them, so she lets most of them survive. At the end of nine months, they tumble out of the pot and begin toddling around the house. At this point, as the woman falls into a post potatum depression, you begin to suspect that “Dearth” is a parable about those mothers who drown their kids in the tub. But the ending, which I won’t spoil for you, is both surprising and exactly right.
Other stories of note include “End of the Line,” about a big man who buys a little man in a pet store, gets bored, and starts torturing him; “Debbieland,” which offers a more feminine take on cruelty; “Off,” about a woman at a party who resolves “to kiss three men: one with black hair, one with red hair, the third blond”; and “Ironhead,” about a pumpkinhead couple who give birth to an ironhead baby. Like “Dearth,” all of these stories take you to an unexpected place that feels inevitable once you get there.
“Wooden Bride” from Black Juice by Margo Lanagan — I love a writer with range. The stories in Black Juice are so varied in both subject matter and voice that it reads like the product of multiple authors, all of them talented. And while only “Wooden Bride,” about a woman who is late to a mass-wedding ceremony, was sufficiently Tiptroid to get an official nod from the judges, you’d be cheating yourself if you didn’t buy and read the entire collection. Other standout tales include “Singing My Sister Down,” about an unusual execution, “Red Nose Day,” about a pair of amateur snipers using clowns for target practice, and “Sweet Pippit,” in which elephants stage a prison break.
“Little Faces” by Vonda N. McIntyre — A short story about a species of hermaphrodite/symbiotes who fly around the galaxy in living ships. This one didn’t quite do it for me. It’s creative and it’s Tiptroid, but the exploration of alien biology and social mores seemed to come at the expense of character development, so I was left unmoved by the protagonist’s plight. Your mileage may vary.
A Brother’s Price by Wen Spencer — A gender role-reversal novel about a world in which male children are extremely scarce. Women run society, while men live sheltered lives with their sisters until they can be sold off into polygamous marriages. Because of the fear of STDs (antibiotics have yet to be discovered), there is an obsession with male purity, and a brother who loses his virginity before marriage may also lose much of his value. Naturally, the women are all horny chauvinists who like nothing better than to score with a virgin.
Although I loved the basic set-up, I disagreed with almost every choice the author made in developing it, so initially I gave A Brother’s Price a thumbs down. To give an example of the kind of thing that bugged me: It seemed obvious to me that in a world where men were this valuable as breeders, they’d be pampered like prize livestock. But Jared, the brother of the title, is treated more like a domestic servant. His sisters have him cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry for a huge household. This struck me as the equivalent of using a champion racehorse to plow the back forty. It felt like Spencer was warping her plot logic in order to make a point about “women’s work.”
I was also bothered by the anachronistic nature of the chauvinism. One of the functions of role-reversal is to illuminate hidden assumptions and stereotypes, but the sexist attitudes on display in A Brother’s Price are the crude, in-your-face variety that modern feminism has long since dragged into the light of day. For instance, almost every woman Jared meets makes a patronizing comment about his intelligence. As I wrote in one of my notes to the other judges: “[W]hose hidden bias is being exposed [here]? In 2006, is there really a troglodyte so unreconstructed, and so sheltered from mainstream culture, that he’d be surprised to meet a smart woman?”
What ultimately convinced me that A Brother’s Price really did belong on the short list was the sheer length (and depth) of the discussions it provoked. No, it didn’t work for me as a story, but it did get me talking, and I’m sure it’ll get other people talking too. Match point to Liz Henry on this one.
Misfortune by Wesley Stace — If the Tiptree panel had given out a silver medal this year, my vote would have gone to Misfortune, which reads like a 19th-century English novel that no 19th-century English novelist could have gotten away with writing.
Misfortune tells the story of Rose Old, an orphan abandoned shortly after birth on a garbage heap at the edge of London. The infant is rescued from death by a passing British lord, Sir Geoffroy Loveall. Sir Geoffroy desperately wants a daughter to replace the beloved sister he lost in childhood; he is so certain that this baby is the answer to his prayers that he neglects to check for a penis, and rebuffs all subsequent attempts to enlighten him as to the baby’s true sex.
Rose is raised as a girl. To provide her with legitimacy, Sir Geoffroy marries Anonyma Wood, his estate librarian, who agrees to play along with this scheme in part because she thinks it will be an interesting scientific experiment into the nature of gender. (Anonyma is a devotee of the late poet-philosopher Mary Day, who wrote that all human beings are essentially adrogynous, and who, in a nicely Tiptree-esque touch, was once accused by a critic of being a male poet hiding behind a female pseudonym.)
The tale that follows is rich and incredibly moving. In addition to the obvious challenges she faces, Rose must cope with a cabal of evil relatives—the Osberns and the Rakeleighs—who want to rob her of her inheritance. Although hints dropped early on promise a happy ending, there’s still plenty of tension as the Os and Rs move in for the kill, and Rose’s ultimate triumph left me weepy with joy and relief. I can’t ask for more than that.
Remains by Mark W. Tiedemann — A science-fiction murder mystery set in the early 22nd century, an era in which Earth has severed all contact with the rest of the solar system, leaving the residents of “Signatory space”—the Moon and Mars colonies, the asteroid belt, and various orbitals—to fend for and squabble amongst themselves. After security officer Mace Preston loses his wife to an act of sabotage on Mars, he spends years trying to find out who’s responsible, until he meets a woman named Nemily who may have the answers he’s looking for.
Although I enjoyed Remains, the mystery driving the plot was actually the least interesting part of it for me. This is the kind of novel you read for the characters (which are great) and the worldbuilding (which I wanted more of). My one issue with putting it on the Tiptree short list is that I didn’t think it said anything about gender. On the other hand, hardcore SF fans who feel shortchanged by this year’s list should be grateful for its inclusion.
“Arcana” by Emily Brunson — A work of fan fiction in which Harry Potter‘s Severus Snape impregnates Nick Stokes from CSI: Crime Scene Investigators. Not my thing.
(N.B. The above would be the extent of my comments, but the news that “Arcana” had made the Tiptree long list set off an online debate that as of this writing is still in progress. My own response to the controversy is here. The redoubtable Liz Henry has her say here. Meanwhile author Emily Brunson, unhappy with the fuss, has pulled “Arcana” off the web, so just as with Aristotle’s second book of poetics, the curious will have to reconstruct its contents from other sources.)
Touched by Venom by Janine Cross — Touched by Venom earned initial notoriety after an excerpt from the book was distributed at the 2005 World Fantasy Convention. The excerpt in question included a scene in which a group of half-naked dragonmaster apprentices are paraded along a public street, on their way to be ritually flogged with poisoned whips. Nervous anticipation causes their penises to stiffen, and Zarq Darquel, TbV‘s 13-year-old female narrator/protagonist, notes that these involuntary erections are referred to as “venom cocks.” “[W]omen do not revere the venom cock the way men do,” Zarq confides. But women are careful not to laugh at venom cocks, either: “Unwise while in the presence of so much masculinity to mock the phallus.”
These lines and others like them brought snickers from the convention crowd, and earned TbV the sobriquet “the venom cock book.” This led in turn to an “Arcana”-style Internet controversy about whether Janine Cross was being treated unfairly by woman-hating book critics. It is perhaps because of this controversy that Touched by Venom ended up being nominated for the Tiptree Award.
Believe it or not, I really wanted to like this book. I’m a contrarian by nature, and nothing pleases me more than a justified minority opinion. Alas, the people who snickered about venom cock at the WFC were being, if anything, too kind. I could easily fill an entire review with nothing but cheap jokes about the writing. But it’s probably more constructive for me to focus on why I don’t think this is a Tiptree novel.
In an Autumn 2005 interview with SF Canada, Janine Cross stated that one of her goals with Touched by Venom was to make a statement about “gender oppression that is going on in Iran and Iraq right now.” I believe she is sincere about this, and that TbV represents an honest attempt to say something meaningful about the sexual subjugation of women. At the same time, the book is an often graphic work of sexual and emotional pornography. These things do not go together well. Unless you are exceptionally talented, when you write about sexual violence, you really need to decide whether you’re playing for titillation or moral outrage. It’s very, very difficult to do both at once, and Cross, at least at this point in her career, doesn’t have the chops to pull it off.
An example of what I’m talking about: during the course of the story, Zarq’s sister Waivia is sold into sexual slavery, and Zarq’s mother becomes desperate to find a means to buy Waivia back. Then one day during an outdoor bathroom break, Zarq makes a curious discovery: if you pee on the stems of a skop plant, the stems curl into interesting shapes. So she pees on a bunch of them, and weaves them into a collection of wee-wee charm bracelets and necklaces. When Zarq offers one to her mother in hopes of cheering her up, Mom gets excited; she takes the bracelet back to the pottery shed, dips it in glaze, and fires it. The resulting piece of “skop jewelry” is quite beautiful, and potentially marketable. But to earn enough money to purchase Waivia’s freedom, they’re going to need to mass-produce these things… Fans of Annie Sprinkle can guess the punchline: Zarq ends up perched on an urn, begging for mercy as her mother forces quart after quart of water down her throat.
I trust you can see the problem with this, beyond the fact that it’s ludicrous. On the one hand, this is child abuse. On the other hand, the author has gone out of her way to create a pretext (piss jewelry?) for a forced-urination scene. Emotionally, that leaves me in a tough spot as a reader. Am I supposed to feel sorry for Zarq here, or jealous that it’s not me on the potty? In the actual event, I felt neither of these things. I was simply annoyed.
Even if you ignore the mixed message in TbV‘s torture scenes, Zarq isn’t a sympathetic victim. There’s a big difference between being helpless and being passive. My definition of a heroine is someone who, even when caught in circumstances largely beyond her control, uses what little control she has (e.g., Chung Mae in Air). For much of TbV, Zarq just sits there and suffers. And when, near the end of the novel, she finally starts showing some initiative, it feels less like something Zarq is doing than something Janine Cross is doing, in order to set up the sequel.
So, thumbs down from me. The author meant well, and the book has some value as a demonstration of why good intentions aren’t enough, but students of gender oppression would do better to look elsewhere.
The Mercy of Thin Air by Ronlyn Domingue — A ghost story about a New Orleans suffragette’s daughter, Raziela Nolan, who is debating her boyfriend’s marriage proposal when she accidentally drowns in his swimming pool. The rules of the afterlife stipulate that she cannot safely linger near the people she left behind, but decades later, her spirit is drawn to find out what became of him.
I’m a sucker for any tale about a love powerful enough to defy the grave, and Domingue gets bonus points for never once making me think of Demi Moore. But the best and most Tiptroid parts of the book are the flashbacks to the period before Raziela’s untimely death, when she worked in the underground birth-control movement, educating poor women about contraception in defiance of the Comstock Law. This is an aspect of early feminism that I haven’t seen covered in fiction before, and the Southern setting is also refreshing—I didn’t realize Margaret Sanger had made it all the way to the Big Easy.
Alanya to Alanya by L. Timmel Duchamp — Welcome to Seattle in 2076. Democracy is a sham, and the U.S., like most of the Western world, is controlled by a plutocracy of Rollerball-style Executives who are so power-mad that they are willing to be sexually neutered as the price of admission to the highest ranks. There’s government-mandated birth control, rampant pollution, and widespread shortages of food and water. One February afternoon, as our protagonist Kay Zeldin is finishing her latest book, a group of aliens called the Marq’ssan blanket the Earth with an EMP field that renders most electronic devices inoperative. The Marq’ssan then contact Earth’s governments and direct each country to select three representatives to come talk with them. These representatives must be female.
Not a bad opener, but Alanya to Alanya soon reveals itself to be a quintessential example of what I call a theory book. (The author herself refers to it in the afterword as “my thought-experiment in political science.”) As such it’s not for me, but there’s a subset of Tiptree readers for whom this will probably be the best thing on the long list. If you’re one of those folks, good news: Alanya to Alanya is only part one of a five-part cycle.
The Red Rose Rages (Bleeding) by L. Timmel Duchamp — Dr. Eve Escher, a specialist in “Rehabilitative Medicine” (read: mental torture) works for Penco, a privately run prison system in a dystopian future U.S. Eve’s latest “client” is Sarah Minnivitch, a political prisoner guilty of organizing a work-stoppage and hunger-strike among the inmates at another facility, and corrupting several members of that facility’s staff. Spying on Minnivitch in her isolation cell, Eve struggles to come up with a effective “therapy,” but as the two begin to interact via the cell’s intercom system, it’s clear that Eve isn’t the only one running a mind-fuck here.
Red Rose Rages was much more to my taste than Alanya to Alanya. Eve is a more interesting character than Alanya‘s Zeldin, and her drunk-the-Kool-Aid devotion to Pemco policy allows her to expound on a lot of ideas in a way that feels like natural introspection rather than an author lecture. The only times the narrative gets preachy are during Eve’s conversations with her colleague Venedra Poole, and these are fairly brief.
The novel’s fatal flaw is its anticlimactic ending. Duchamp sets up this juicy battle of wills between Eve and Minnivitch and doesn’t follow through on it. I was looking forward to learning more about Minnivitch, and seeing whether she’d break Eve before Eve broke her (imagine 1984 told from the p.o.v. of Julia’s interrogator, and you’ll have some idea of what I was expecting). And the story does start to go down that road, but then, after Eve’s first face-to-face encounter with Minnivitch—right at the point where Minnivitch is becoming a real character—it’s suddenly over. Eve’s boss, over Eve’s strong objection, decides to cancel the rehabilitation and instead use Minnivitch as a guinea pig in an illegal medical experiment. Then Venedra Poole reveals, deus ex machina, that she’s a secret rebel who can not only free Minnivitch, but hypnotize Eve so that she won’t remember her own role in the escape. It’s about as tension-free a resolution as you could come up with, and it has the unfortunate side-effect of turning Minnivitch back into a prop. I don’t know what happened here—maybe Duchamp just got bored—but it’s a pity, because the first two-thirds of Red Rose are really quite good.
Mister Boots by Carol Emshwiller — A Depression-era fantasy novel about a girl named Bobby Lassiter, who lives in the California desert with her mother and her older sister. Then Bobby’s mother dies, and two strangers enter her life. One is her father. The other is an equine shapeshifter named Boots.
Though Bobby spends much of the novel pretending to be a boy, the cross-gender theme seemed far less central here than in Luna or Misfortune. It’s a good story, though.
Tesseracts Nine edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Geoff Ryman — An anthology of Canadian speculative fiction, coedited by our Tiptree Award winner. Like most anthologies, it’s a mix of good stuff and not-so-good stuff, Tiptroid and non-Tiptroid. My favorite piece in the collection is “Lemmings in the Third Year,” which concerns a group of lemming scientists who offer themselves to predators in exchange for survey data (“About how many lemmings do you eat in a given day?”).
“Planet of the Amazon Women” by David Moles — A scientist named Sasha Rusalev travels to the world of Hippolyta, which has been under strict quarantine ever since something called Amazon Fever killed every male organism on the planet. The Fever is not a biological contagion but the result of a causal anomaly that still lingers. Sasha’s equipment includes “quantum inference engines” meant to protect him as he goes about his research.
This is an engrossing tale reminiscent of early J.G. Ballard (there’s a river journey that put me in mind of The Crystal World), although the abrupt ending did leave me feeling like “Amazon Women” was a novel trapped in a short story’s body.
The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi — 8-year-old Londoner Jessamy Harrison travels with her parents to visit her mother’s family in Nigeria. Once there, Jessamy makes friends with a mysterious girl named Titiola, or TillyTilly, who appears to be Jessamy’s African doppleganger. When the Harrisons return to England, TillyTilly tags along, and mischief ensues.
I think Helen Oyeyemi has a bright future as an author, but she’s not there yet. The Icarus Girl starts off too slowly and ends much too quickly; in between, it does have its moments.
Luna by Julie Anne Peters — This wonderful story about a girl growing up with a transgendered brother was popular with the judges (I believe Georgie Schnobrich recommended it in the first place), and if it had been the least bit SFnal, it would have been a contender for the Award. Instead, it takes a spot on the long list as a non-Tiptree novel that Tiptree readers will likely enjoy.
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld — A rollicking Y.A. novel, reminiscent of Logan’s Run, about a society in which everyone’s sixteenth-birthday present is a trip to the plastic surgeon’s to become pretty. Unfortunately, the procedure also makes you stupid and complacent. Book one of a trilogy.
Margarettown by Gabrielle Zevin — A man named N. falls in love with a woman named Maggie, who takes him home to Margarettown to meet the rest of her family: Old Margaret, Marge, Mia, and May, all of whom seem suspiciously like the same woman at different ages. And the house where they live is called Margaron…
Margarettown was the first Tiptree nominee that I really fell in love with. Unfortunately, no amount of category stretching would make it fit the basic criteria: it’s not really about gender, and what initially appears to be a fantasy scenario turns out to have a nonmagical explanation. But that didn’t stop me from devouring the whole novel at one sitting.
Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward — A concise guide to writing characters from cultures and backgrounds other than your own; the authors also teach a workshop on the same subject. We picked this for special mention because it’s topical and because it fills a need. It should be of particular interest to novices worried about needlessly giving offense and/or making fools of themselves (although if the latter is really an issue, you may be in the wrong line of work).
Regender website by Ka-Ping Yee — The Babelfish of gender: type in a URL, and it produces a translation of the target site with all male/female references reversed. This may sound like a cheesy gimmick, but wait until you try it on Google News and start reading about the latest doings of President Georgia W. Bush and her Vice President, Diane Cheney… While I still don’t think it’s taught me anything about gender stereotypes, as a portal for looking into an alternate universe—one in which I am Mary Ruff, beloved wife of Lionel Gold—Regender earns itself a bookmark on my web browser.