Alien Plots by Inez van der Spek (book review)

Now here’s an odd or unusual book depending on your perspective. Inez van der Spek’s book ‘Alien Plots’ makes better but not total sense from its sub-title ‘Female Subjectivity And The Divine In The Light Of James Tiptree’s A Momentary Taste Of Being’.

On first seeing the title when I was selecting books from the publisher, Liverpool University Press, I thought it would be more like an overview of James Tiptree Jr aka Alice Bradley Sheldon’s career as an author. It’s not. Van der Spek is basing this book solely on one solitary 70 page novella ‘A Momentary Taste Of Being’ (1975). I’ve read some Tiptree material but not this one. Other than a resume, the story isn’t included in this book and my reviewer instinct is always to read the source, especially as van deer Spek reveals her religious bent in the introduction.

Looking at how to obtain a copy, its only in three books: ‘The New Atlantis And Other Novellas Of Science Fiction (1975) with other authors and in two of her own anthologies, ‘Star Songs Of An Old Primate’ (1978) and ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’ (1990). The latter has been re-released in Gollancz’ ‘SF Masterpieces’ in 2014 and could request a review copy so everyone gets served.

Giving only a synopsis in this book isn’t good enough. There should have been a copy of the story at the least especially as she quotes from it so often. Other warning signs crop up in the introduction when she notes messianic messages in ‘Star Trek’ and ‘V’ although doesn’t mention what those are supposed to be. As van der Spek is also a theologian, that might not become much of a surprise. Although I wouldn’t be surprised had Sheldon/Tiptree had included layers in her stories, it doesn’t necessarily mean it would follow in that direction as she was, after all, an atheist. If anything, picked Sheldon seems an odd choice for van der Spek to select although the only SF author who I know acknowledges his religious background is Orson Scott Card but doesn’t use it in his books.

Sheldon doesn’t even affirm to feminist attitudes other than good writing. Van der Spek points out various female SF writers over the decades and misses out the likes of C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, C.J. Cherryh and Andre Norton, surely the best examples of names that not so much concealed their sex but made for a fairer field with so many male writers during their writing careers. It was a surprise this came up in the footnotes at the back of the book, sans Cherryh, when it would be more pertinent in the main content. There is a footnote for chapter 5 noting other female SF authors who can’t be identified by any other means but that wasn’t deemed pertinent to put in the main text.

As I mentioned, I stopped reading this book a third of the way through to locate the actual story, as mentioned in the ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’ which I reviewed earlier in the month. Coming back now, I can’t help but think van der Spek is over-analysing. More so with examples like Prigogine’s theories that were popularised in 1984, although originally coming out in 1977. Considering that Sheldon wrote her story in 1975, I doubt if she would ever have heard of them. It would have made more sense had van der Spek worked out from what was available at the time Sheldon wrote the story would have at least given a better chance of influence. As such, this becomes more of a distraction.

Considering all the footnotes which indicates the depth she has looked at her sources, I find it odd that she twice cites ‘David Poole’ as the man who went through the stargate in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Considering how ingrained the film is in the community and at large, someone should have spotted this mistake.

Van der Spek also uses the 1989 book ‘The Mother/Daughter Plot’ by Marianne Hirsch to explore relationships in the story. Even she admits it’s not a perfect fit, hardly surprising as there is no mother or daughter in the plot, but the book was also released a decade after Sheldon wrote her story.

The analysis of character names being significant to their roles in the story should have had more proof. By that I mean show proof that Sheldon does do this in her other stories as a regular pattern. The means to generate names for characters comes from all kinds of sources. I think I’ve only ever intentionally done this a couple times with any of my characters and one of those I made the link after the fact and had chosen subconsciously and justified later. A lot of the time with writers, especially with short stories, it’s more a question of a name feeling right than any analysis as to why. Sheldon/Tiptree always started with fresh cloth for every story.

I did have to wonder how long it would be before van der Spek brought religion into her debate and this develops solely out of Sheldon calling one of her characters ‘Aaron’. It’s a good thing Sheldon didn’t have a character called Mary. Granted she later points out that Sheldon was an atheist but looking over her stories in general, there has never been a trend in her material to take on religious themes as plots. Bringing in the film ‘Alien’ (1979), again made after Sheldon wrote her story also has little bearing, especially as there was no thought of a queen alien at the time. If anything, all we had there was Kane was the xenomorph’s parent.

To end on something definitely wrong noted in this book, Sheldon did not commit suicide because she was depressed as van der Spek notes the fate of three other writers. Sheldon did a mercy killing of her husband and took her own life rather face life without him and probably in an American court.

Throughout this book, as you can tell from above, I found things that were either wrong or definitely after the fact that Sheldon couldn’t have known at the time of writing her story. Van der Spek clearly had her own agenda when she wrote this book in 2000 and is the only book, as far as I can see, translated from her native dutch.

This tends to make such books rather redundant and a lesson for writers as to what to avoid. I might not have a university degree but if I was to do an analysis of an author’s work, even if it was centred on one story, I would be checking their other work for patterns and what was available at the time that might have influenced them.

GF Willmetts

June 2017

(pub: Liverpool University Press, 2000. 241 page indexed enlarged paperback. Price: £18.50 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-85323-824-9)

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