Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree, Jr. (SF Masterworks book 122) (book review)

For over a decade in the 1970s, many people thought James Tiptree, Jr. was a man. Indeed, reading the fiction here might well support it as at that time particular words here were thought never would be used by a woman, let alone aspects of rape. There are samples in this anthology that would certainly raise your eyebrows when you cross-check the dates they were in print. If anything, it also illustrated just how much we create our images of people based off their names and we fill the gaps. A bit weird when you consider how several women SF writers were out there from the 1950s up relying on their initials like C.L. Moore or might be male with Andre Norton or Leigh Brackett.

It wasn’t until the late 1970s that someone made the connection about odd bits of info Tiptree revealed he was actually a she named Alice Bradley Sheldon who also wrote SF as Raccoona Sheldon, although I can’t recall any book collections being released under that pen name.

Another book I’m reviewing this month relies heavily on a novella, ‘A Momentary Taste Of Being’, but only included a synopsis. Realising I needed to read the story properly, I went hunting and found it had only been in three anthologies and then found that one was still available for all. That’s this one, ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’, used as part of Gollancz’ ‘SF Masterworks’ series. What you have here are 18 stories from across her active period although not necessarily in release order.

A problem with many of the earlier anthology books, both collectives and individual writers is that their editors didn’t always start with the good stuff and so you ended up having to read through several stories before finding gold. Today’s generations are more likely to give up because of this and I do have to wonder if the effect of this is why so few of the big publishers are willing to take on us short form writers. Tiptree/Sheldon only ever wrote two novels, the rest of her work was compacted into three anthologies, this one being the last and considered her best. In case you’re wondering, the other book of her’s in my own collection is ‘Up The Walls Of The World’.

It becomes obvious from the beginning that Tiptree/Sheldon knew how to write a story but the opening stories centring on a population decimating by virus, ‘The Last Flight Of Doctor AIN’, and ‘The Screwfly Solution’ having to survive after a plague, both centred on the lives of either the antagonist or protagonist. What does stand out is Tiptree/Sheldon had a way with titles which acts as enticement to read. ‘I Have Come This Place By Lost Ways’ is her first space story in this collection where a human, after mixing with a cross-culture of alien species suddenly finds himself alone with minimal chances of survival. ‘The Martian’ it ain’t and refreshing not to have a happy ending as the American writers like so much these days.

Absolute gold is reached with ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read’ where, set in the future, the wholly female crewed spaceship encounters a spaceship from the past with just men on board. The language and near rape used is probably what led many to think Tiptree had to be a man. The characters are totally realistic and with some pure SF twists that would be spoiler to reveal here but becomes a must read story if you’ve never come across it before.

Except for the more wonky ending, ‘With Delicate Mad Hands’ is also a spellbinder. Carol Page or CP has a nose deformity that bears some resemblance to that of a pig. That doesn’t stop her wanting a career in space or her mutiny against a horrible captain. The fact that Tiptree/Sheldon turns the story from a matter of space survival into a first contact twist with some interesting aliens will keep your eyes to the page. Sheldon is also better with novella-size than the shorter stories when you compare the sizes in this anthology.

‘A Momentary Taste Of Being’ was the main reason to buy this book as you will see when I review ‘Alien Plots’ by Inez van der Spek later in the month as her book centres on this novella. It is another reason to buy this anthology because it’s an interesting story in itself. A scoutship, bar most of its crew, returns to the slower starship and Lory Kaye finds herself being interrogated as to the fate of the rest of her crew on the planet they are approaching. The only problem is she can’t explain what happened, more so as one of the other crew has the alien in a sealed part of scoutship. Slowly, things are put together and revealed and you will be left wondering why film rights were never bought. It’s not totally ‘Alien’, rather the antithesis of it really and Sheldon has a large crew of opinion to cover. Very engaging.

‘We Who Stole The Dream’ is another alien story as Jalun is seen more a sex toy but is richly engrossing. Oddly, the title story, ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’, lacks direction or rather splits direction and although the characters are strong, the plot tends to be lacking. It’s either that or I’ve read too many of her stories in a row. A rule of thumb for those getting used to anthologies, spread the stories out a bit if you find yourself reading too many at a time and this book is a big one.

‘On The Last Afternoon’ is a post-apocalypse story where a man is convinced that the silent alien nonion can help him get his people out of the fix they are in. You’re left wondering if he was delusional or not.

Post-apocalypse seems to be a theme of Tiptree/Sheldon here but each is treated different. In ‘Slow Music’, Jakko is looking for his father and, during his trip, he meets Peachthief who needs someone to father her children and decides to accompany him. Although we aren’t told what happened to the population, this is the first early story I’ve come across that describes Viagra in all but name before it was invented. The limited ability of some animals to say a few words and the nativity of the characters makes for a charming story even if the ending seems to jump.

If you’ve never encountered James Tiptree, Jr. before, she is worth seeking out. Not all of her stories hit their mark but the prose, especially when descriptive, gets into you and you’ll realise why Sheldon was so highly regarded.

GF Willmetts

June 2017

(pub: Gollancz, 2014. 508 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £10.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-473-20324-8)

check out websites: www.orionbooks.co.uk, www.gollancz.com and www.sfgateway.com

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