Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Tiptree vs. Gilman?

     An initial engagement with the work of Tiptree and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  I was initially interested in producing  a comparative engagement with these two works, but I have grown more interested in the work of Gilman and the comparative approach has been dropped.  In any case, the initials thoughts are still somewhat interesting....

          James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon) has garnered a great deal of academic interest in the past decade, although this work has focused on her curious biography, rather than on her literary work.  Most notably, Julie Phillips’s biography, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, but Larbalstier’s analysis of fan culture in The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction also puts the enigma of her double life in the center of her narrative about gender in fan culture, through her involvement (and expulsion) from the Khatru debates, the misinterpretations of her prose style, and the revelation of her true identity.  Tiptree’s biography becomes central to the feminist narrative because of its ability to challenge any number of assumptions about gender roles.
            Tiptree is the one who could hide her identity through the use of a series of devices she learned in the CIA, but she was also able to convince her audience of her masculinity.  Larbalstier notes that she not only fooled readers, but also longtime correspondents such as Ursula Leguin and Joanna Russ.  For Larbalstier, this narrative “break(s) down the imaginary barrier between “women’s writing” and “men’s writing”[1] and her work has been read to explore their themes, primarily through the narrative of the biography.   However, the actual literary work of Tiptree has gotten much less attention.  The chapter will focus on one of Tiptree’s more famous novellas “Houston, Houston, Can You Here?”  The narrative has been used as an important example of the new critical utopia by Tom Moylan.  Moylan reads the narrative as a crucial model for the new critical utopia in his chapter on the new utopias in Scraps of the Untainted Sky, but neither he nor other readings of the text have noticed that the narrative is a rewriting of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland.
            This response uses the same comparative methodology introduced by Hans Robert Jauss in his analysis of Valery’s rereading of Goethe’s Faust.  However, this chapter will use Jauss’ methodology to explore the evolution of the utopian form, from the feminist appropriation of the genre in Herland to the more contemporary novella by Tiptree.  The retelling shifts the narrative style, the historical logic of the utopian community, producing the utopian space through that catastrophism of biopolitics, rather than through the isolation of geography.  The narrative offers a totalizing vision of the world through the novum.  The exploration of this shift allows for an understanding of the transformations in the expectations of the genre, the expectations of the audience, and the transformation of the utopian form through the expectations of the formation of the genre of science fiction.
            Perkins’ Herland is not set in any specific location.  Instead, it’s located in the generic space of the primitive, signified through the description of wildlife, references to tribal life containing obvious references to tropes of travel writing, ethnography, and adventure stories.  The three protagonists, as explorers and scientists, fit this narrative as well.  The local residents tell of a community of women living in an isolated, who are feared by the indigenous population.  The men decide to investigate the society, and are quickly captured by the women of the society.  They are then held as prisoners so that the women can understand the outside world that they had left years ago, after the destruction of a strange “Aryan” kingdom through a lengthy and mysterious invasion.
            The remainder of the story creates a sort of ethnography through the narrative.  Its defined by a combination of gender essentialism and, more implicitly, by the contemporary science of eugenics.  The focus of the society, which is profoundly egalitarian, is defined by the collective raising of children, although the ability of the society to reproduce is not explained in scientific terms, linking the narrative to the fantastic.  The raising of children and the utopian quality of the society are both linked to a nature that is ‘essentially feminine.’  This nature is cultivated through the focused and planned raising of children, allowing only ‘suitable’ mothers to raise their children.  The eugenic dimension of the text is not explicitly marked until the sequel, however, eugenics are implicitly brought into the text through the planned animal breeding program.  The society, however, is as completely asexual as the all women worlds mocked by Joanna Russ in her essay, “Amor Vincit Foeminam: The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction” and the introduction of ‘romance into the community of women both drives the narrative arc, and eventually creates the logic for the expulsion of the men from the community through an attempted rape.
            Tiptree’s work mirrors the three protagonists of the first novel, however, rather than playing role of colonial explorers, the three are astronauts, who are thrown into the future.
As noted earlier, the community of women expands from a small section of a valley to the entire world through the catastrophe of biowarfare, creating a society of clones which are variants of the 11, 000 survivors.  The clones work towards exploring the potential through their various types, both through genetic experiments, along with elaborate collective narratives on the potentials in the lifespan of the type.  The three men are brought onto one of the remaining spaceships in order to be tested for their compatibility with the new society, through a drug that lowered the men’s inhibitions, and the group is put under examination.  The narrative follows the same pedagogical path as the original narrative, but it takes a much more narrative path, as the lead protagonist slowly discovers the nature of the society, and the inability for the three protagonists to adjust to it.
            The shift in the narrative takes on the obvious differences in the scientific knowledge of the two eras, from the rejection of eugenics and the development of the understanding of genetics, from the isolation of the structure in 1869 to the the full understanding of its form and function in the late 1950’s. But the narrative also re-imagines the nature of gender, rejecting the essentialism of the earlier text.  Instead, the women involved are capable of both deception and violence, although the question of sexuality never gets fully explored.  The forms of knowledge produced by the clones  These shifts lead to a much different narrative structure, moving from a traditional pedagogical structure to a more conventional narrative, which uses those deceptions for the brakes to create suspense in the narrative.  Along with this transformation in narrative, the utopian transformation must be imagined as total, and constructed through a complete catastrophe, linking up to Jameson’s claims that the utopian form must be radically reimagined in the integrated capitalist system.

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