March 2006

Adrienne Martini

specfic floozy

Science Fiction, Bake Sales, and the Feminist Cabal

It’s hard to know where to start with The James Tiptree Award Anthology 1: Sex, the Future and Chocolate Chip Cookies. Most of the stories included within would (and have) stood on their own, without requiring the thematic support that the award lends. Still, a little background is in order.

In 1991, writers Pat Murphy (Nebula-winning The Falling Woman) and Karen Joy Fowler (World Fantasy award-winning Sister Noon and the best-selling Jane Austen Book Club) created the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, which is presented annually to the speculative fiction that makes a reader think about or redefine gender roles. Winners, which have included Elizabeth Hand, Maureen McHugh, Ursula K. Le Guin, Matt Ruff and, most recently, Joe Haldeman and Johanna Sinisalo, receive a share of $1,000, a piece of art, chocolate and a song by a quasi-amateur chorus. Clearly, the honor lies more in being nominated.

The nomination process is just as quirky as the prize. Technically, there aren’t really “nominees,” just other worthy works. Each year, five judges are empanelled by the motherboard to read as much fiction as they can. Other readers are encouraged to suggest stories at the Tiptree Award’s site. At the end of the year, the judges publish both a short list of notable works and the winner(s). These lists provide a guide to the most interesting works of the last 15 years. You can see for yourself either in the anthology or on the website.

There’s more you need to know, though. And I haven’t even mentioned the Not-So-Secret Feminist Cabal or the Bake Sales.

But first, a little on James Tiptree, Jr. Tiptree’s short stories started hitting print in the late 1960s. By the end of the ‘70s, Tiptree’s work had collected two Hugos and three Nebula Awards. In 1975, the august Robert Silverberg, in an introduction to some Tiptree short stories, insisted that Tiptree couldn’t be anything other than male because the writing, like Hemingway’s, was colored with a “prevailing masculinity.” As it turns out, Tiptree was a woman named Alice Sheldon, who lived in the deep woods of Virginia.

By the time her gender was outed, Sheldon had lived an amazing life. Not only did her work subvert conventional gender roles, her life choices did as well. Sheldon started as an art critic at the Chicago Sun. In 1942, she joined the Army and later was involved with the CIA. At age 40, she picked up a Ph.D. in experimental psychiatry. She also wrote under the name Raccoona Sheldon. And in 1987, she shot and killed her husband, then did the same to herself.

But this tells you nothing about her fiction. In general, it is haunting, beautiful and somehow profoundly sad. But there is still a humor to it, a sense that the human condition is peppered with absurdities that simply must be laughed at, if only up one’s sleeve. Most of her shorter works are collected in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever and Meet Me at Infinity. Her novels Up the Walls of the World and Brightness Falls From the Air are out of print but can almost always be found in decent used bookstores and are well worth seeking out.

But there are contemporary writers who are creating work that is just as challenging. Murphy explains why she and Fowler decided to create an award named for this amazing writer. “We did it to make trouble,” she writes in the anthology’s intro. “To shake things up. To make people examine the fiction they read a little more carefully. And to honor the woman who startled the science fiction world by making people suddenly rethink their assumptions about what women and men could do.”

Most of the stories contained within this first anthology -- the second anthology was released at the end of 2005 and features works by Jonathan Lethem, Nalo Hopkinson and Gwyneth Jones -- provide a quick sketch of the types of ideas the Tiptree celebrates. Geoff Ryman’s “Birth Days” tackles queerness from an unexpected angle. Richard Calder’s “The Catgirl Manifesto: An Introduction” gets pomo about genetic mutations and cute girls. Fowler’s "What I Didn’t See” is a subtle examination of the giant monkey archetype. Perhaps most striking is the trio of stories that closes out the book. Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” is printed in its entirety in a new translation, then followed by two modern takes on his tale. Kara Dalkey adds an Asian twist while Kelly Link’s "Travels with the Snow Queen” will, in fact, knock off your socks, drop your jaw and make you want to buy everything she touches. Succinctly, it’s very good.

But what makes this anthology really worth the ducats are the non-fiction pieces from Le Guin, Suzy McKee Charnas, Joanna Russ and Tiptree herself. In these essays, you get a sense not only of the award itself but of the reasons that it is important in the speculative fiction field. Despite the genre’s love for expanding our concepts of space and time, it is hidebound when it comes to exploring (and exploding) our concepts of gender.

Without grassroots support, the Tiptree Award wouldn’t exist -- and the Tiptree’s batch of grassrooters is mighty. The way most supporters (all genders are welcomed, by the way) get involved is by holding a bake sale, which is presented both with great subversive glee and as an excuse to eat cookies. Here’s where the cabal of like-minded supporters comes in. Murphy explains it this way:

Since its inception, the Tiptree Award has been an award with an attitude. In the speech where I announced the creation of the award, I said -- half in jest -- that the award would be financed with bake sales. It seemed like such a perfect irony: women’s work turned to a feminist cause.

Instructions for your own Tiptree bake sale are here: http://www.tiptree.org/bake.html There are also two cookbooks filled with recipes from the likes of Marge Piercy, Pamela Sargent, Pat Cadigan and Joan D. Vinge. Funds are also raised at Tiptree Auctions, which have featured delights like a handknitted uterus, Mary Doria Russell’s bra and Vonda McIntyre’s beaded sea creatures.

This year, the Tiptree will be presented at the end of May at WisCon, the world’s leading feminist science fiction convention, which will be celebrating its 30th year. Jane Yolen and Kate Wilhelm will be the guests of honor. It will be interesting to see who will snag 2005’s chocolate and serenade, as well as which works from this year will make it into the third anthology.