Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree, Jr. (book review).

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’ by James Tiptree, Jr (aka Alice Sheldon) is a collection of 18 Science Fiction stories, originally published 1969 to 1980. They include her Nebula Award winning story, ‘Love Is The Plan The Plan Is Death’, her Hugo-ward winning novella, ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In’ and the story hat won both these awards, ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’

Tiptree wrote all these Science Fiction stories during what has become known as New Wave, when Science Fiction was actively intermingling with literary fiction. It was a time when there was a feeling that new Science Fiction ideas were running out and the straightforward Science Fiction stories were more like dull variations on old themes. The literary addition to the genre made the stories ‘feel’ more sensuous, whatever choice of sensation the author picked.

All these stories show the literary influence on her Science Fiction and can make the reader really feel at one with the viewpoint character. The reader can wallow in the joys of life and love before they die. That is right. Every single story ends in death of some sort. Tiptree’s contention is that there cannot be life without death and vice versa.

Each story, if read on their own, would make quite an interesting read. It is why she won quite a few top-notch awards. However, when you are reading one story after another, the consistent theme means a reader can easily anticipate the ending. For me, this made the anthology as a whole tedious and hard work to finish. In the end, I thought of this anthology as a mini-encyclopaedia of Science Fiction methods of dying.

This anthology can also be viewed as a slice of genre history. It showcases the kind of writing style prevalent in the 1970s and here it serves a useful purpose.

For Science Fiction, that is more than forty years, some dated technology is inevitable. What I found interesting is that despite the literary leanings in the style, it felt old-fashioned, dated and well past its sell-by-date. Literary styles seem to have become less indulgent of writing in the moment. These days, it seems more about combining the old faster pace of Science Fiction with engendering the intensity of feeling in the reader.

A secondary theme runs through some of Tiptree’s stories: feminism. This was also a hot topic of the 70s decade and clearly demonstrates she was commentating on state of society. It is brought to an obvious head in ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ Men have become extinct, leaving the world to women and their clones. When three astronauts accidentally time travel to this more distant future, we get a lesson in how men are brutalising our world. In the end, the astronauts die because they are unable to fit in with the super-modern Herland.

This was published before it became publicly known that James Tiptree, Jr. was in fact a woman, Alice Sheldon. Given this and other feminist stories, it is surprising that the author’s true sex was not identified sooner. But in those days, it paid for female writers to publish under male pen names. Is the same true of today?

If you believe it is, it is worth reading: ‘And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side’; ‘The Women Men Don’t See’; ‘Your Faces, O My Sisters, Your Faces Filled Of Light’; ‘Slow Music’, as well as ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’

This is one of those anthologies that is best dipped into, when the reader is in the mood for sensuousness and death. I would not recommend reading it through, cover to cover without a break.

Rosie Oliver

July 2022

(pub: Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2014. 511 pages paperback. Price: £10.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-473-20324-2)

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