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[SOR] James Tiptree, Jr’s “The Screwfly Solution”

May 19, 2016

Given that one of the more rewarding elements of this anthology has been the VanderMeer’s willingness to seek out the work of writers not usually attended to in genre circles, I am slightly disappointed to find them falling back on Tiptree.

Don’t get me wrong: I adore Tiptree’s writing in general and this story in particular but Tiptree is (along with Russ and Le Guin) one of a handful of female genre authors whose reputation is now so firmly canonical that their inclusion in any anthology dealing with feminist SF is pretty much automatic. Given that the VanderMeers have pushed at the boundaries of the canonical throughout this anthology, it would have been nice for them either to completely ignore the Holy Trinity of Tiptree, Russ, and Le Guin or to seek out some of their lesser-known works. Including a canonical story by a canonical author makes it feel as though the VanderMeers are letting genre culture off the hook by working with rather than against the culture’s flawed system of canon formation. Let me unpack this…

Despite the political posturing that surrounded last year’s Hugo Awards, genre culture remains a fundamentally liberal, middle-class space. I use the term ‘liberal’ rather than ‘left-wing’ as genre culture has always been cool with the inequalities of status and income that capitalism tends to produce. Like all liberals, genre people are fine with social hierarchies as long as these hierarchies appear broadly meritocratic.

The problem with the belief that SFF is one big meritocracy is that genre culture is quite obviously prone to systemic biases based upon gender, race, sexuality, class, and nationality. While these inequalities may be rooted in broader inequalities afflicting Western culture as a whole, the fact is that genre hierarchies have been systematically favouring straight, white, middle-class American men since their inception. Any kind of systemic inequality results in social tension and these social tensions bubbled over during both the 1970s discussions surrounding Feminist SF and the late-2000s discussions surrounding Racefail.

While a genuinely progressive cultural space would have reacted to these crises by toppling cultural elites and dismantling the social processes that had so successfully marginalised people other than white men, genre culture opted to retain its social and economic hierarchies. In order for the tension between meritocratic self-image and profoundly biased practice to be resolved, genre culture undertook a process of (i) ‘remembering’ the work of authors it had previously spent decades ignoring and (ii) ‘recognising’ the talent of marginalised voices it might previously have dismissed as disruptive and/or deranged. In other words, genre hierarchies continued to perpetuate themselves by making changes that allowed them to appear more just and meritocratic.

This type of crude gerrymandering passes muster as the gap between ‘we have always been here’ and ‘we have always been valued’ is narrow enough that cultural elites can easily dismiss further structural critique as an attempt to ‘erase’ the accomplishment of previously marginalised actors. Aside from making grotesque structural inequality appear meritocratic, the elevation of historically marginalised actors means that genre hierarchies will often wind up being defended by exactly the kinds of people that genre culture tends to overlook and marginalise.

The sexism of genre elites caused writers like Tiptree and Russ to disappear from the cultural record. The desire of genre elites to conceal their sexism caused writers like Tiptree and Russ to achieve canonical status while many of their equally-deserving contemporaries continue to languish in complete cultural obscurity. I could understand a more generalist anthology falling into the trap of thinking that including a famous Tiptree or Russ story inoculates you against charges of sexism but an anthology like Sisters of the Revolution that tries to push back the limits of the canon really needs to look beyond this types of low-hanging canonical fruit. The SF Mistressworks website reviews dozens of under-appreciated works by dozens of under-appreciated authors while anthologies like Justine Larbalestrier’s Daughters of Earth, Pamela Sargent’s Women of Wonder: The Classic Years, and Mike Ashley’s The Feminine Future delve as far back as the 1870s in their attempts to help us reconnect with the history of female science fiction writers. Tiptree’s “The Screwfly Solution” and Russ’ “When it Changed” are both great stories but they’re safe choices coming at a time when anything less than boldness feels like a compromise.

Anyway… on to the story itself.

 

 

SFS

 

Despite being re-published here under the name James Tiptree, Jr. “The Screwfly Solution” first appeared in 1977 under the name Raccoona Sheldon, another of Alice B. Sheldon’s many noms-de-plume. While the Tiptree persona famously coaxed Robert Silverberg into describing Sheldon’s writing as “ineluctably masculine”, it would be interesting to look into the extent to which Sheldon deliberately shaped her various personas and whether readers at the time would have perceived a difference between a James Tiptree story and a Raccoona Sheldon story. Either way, this story won a Nebula award in the year after the truth about Tiptree was made public and it seems reasonable to assume that SFWA members would have known who they were voting for.

The story has a similarly ornate structure to Kit Reed’s “Mothers of Shark Island” in so far as there is one primary setting, which is then augmented by other settings in the form of letters, reports, and articles. The process of dipping in and out of official-seeming reports gives the story an air of authority but it mainly provides an excuse for loads of ‘as you know, Bob’ writing in which people dump a load of exposition about their particular corner of the globe.

The first piece of correspondence comes from a woman named Anne to her husband Alan, who happens to be in Columbia conducting research into how to eradicate a type of insect that lays its eggs in human flesh. The first letter arrives after a breakdown in the postal service caused a delay in the arrival of his letters. Jealous and worried, Anne doesn’t just twitter about dusky heiresses stealing her husband, she flat out gives him permission to do whatever he wants as long as he returns home:

 

I imagine you surrounded by nineteen-year-old raven-haired cooing beauties, every one panting with social dedication and filthy rich. And forty inches of bosom busting out of her delicate lingerie. I even figured it in centimeters, that’s 101.6 centimeters of busting. Oh darling, darling, do what you want only come home safe.

 

It’s important to bear this first impression in mind as the story later complicates Anne’s character. The first impression I got from this opening section is of a neurotic housewife who is so insecure that she is willing to put up with her husband ignoring her and cheating on her just so long as he doesn’t leave her. This extravagantly feminine outburst of insecurity prompts a suitably masculine assertion of possession:

 

Alan grinned fondly, briefly imagining the only body he longed for. His girl, his magic Anne.

 

Both characters crudely sketched-in, the story proceeds to getting us up to speed about the world in which the story is going to take place. Anne makes her first reference to Barney; a friend of Alan’s who appears to be working on the insect problem back home. Anne mentions the emergence of a cult named the Sons of Adam and Barney promises to send Alan a load of press clippings suggesting that his research project might have something to do with a load of cities situated near the tropics.

This is an interesting piece of storytelling as we know that a) Alan is in the tropics trying to kill insects and b) a dangerous cult has risen up in a tropical city. Sheldon is very careful in how she unpacks the connection between these two sets of problems but right from the second page, she has connected the insects and the cultists in her readers’ heads.

Unlike some of the stories in this anthology, “The Screwfly Solution” leaves very little to the reader’s imagination. However, while Sheldon rigorously unpacks most of her ideas, there is real joy to be had in the way that she sends your attention off in one direction only to let tensions build before bringing it rushing back. I tend to prefer stories where I am left to my own critical devices but you have to admire the skill with which Sheldon directs your attention and develops the experience she wants you to have.

After referring to a spate of gristly murders that could have been related to either the insects or the cultists, Anne gushes about Barney’s willingness to come over and help around the house:

 

Barney’s such an old dear, he’s coming over Sunday to help me take off the downspout and see what’s blocking it. […] You know how shy he is with women.

 

This is another first impression that is worth bearing in mind. In just a few sentences, Sheldon establishes Barney not only as a skilled scientist but also as a man’s man who helps around the house and feels a little bit awkward talking to married women. Sheldon does unpack this impression later in the story but if it seems as though she’s leaning quite heavily on a set of gender stereotypes then you should definitely bear that in mind going forward.

Alan returns to his larvae-infested children only to receive another letter from Anne in which she expresses delight at having finally received his letters but also concern at the fact that things seem to be getting actively worse: Turns out that Barney has been roped into investigating the Sons of Adam cult but that nobody seems overly concerned about their actions. This is really worrying as the Sons of Adam appear to be in the business of murdering women. As one of Anne’s friends puts it:

 

When one man kills his wife you call it murder, but when enough do it we call it a life-style.

 

This is another interesting first impression as Anne’s early descriptions of her friend invite you to imagine her as a middle-class stay-at-home mom with an acidic tongue and a penchant for community organising. However, the story later reveals her to be a serious academic and activist suggesting that these quotes were not so much acidic remarks shared over afternoon martinis as insightful critiques that might have been delivered in front of journalists or civil servants. That weird disconnect is definitely a function of how I first saw Anne and how I first saw Anne was definitely a function of assumptions made about a certain type of white middle-class female character. I think this disconnect is deliberate: Sheldon is using our tendency to use type-based reasoning against us in order to prove a point.

The story then segues into one of its more famous passages, a first person account of a soldier’s experiences driving observers into a town controlled by the Sons of Adam. The meeting goes quite well until the mayor of the town notices the presence of a female doctor. When the woman refuses to leave, the mayor appears to accept her presence on the understanding that she will be kept out of the way. Chillingly, the soldier sides with the mayor and begins grumbling about how uncomfortable her presence made him and how relieved he was when she decided to remove herself to a room at the back of the house in order to rest and study her notes. With nothing else to do, the soldier starts looking through Sons of Adam tracts and realises that he agrees with a lot of their thinking:

 

When I got to reading the book it was very intriguing. It was very deep thinking about man is now on trial with God and if we fulfil our duty God will bless us with a real new life on Earth. The signs and portents show it. It wasn’t like, you know, Sunday-school stuff. It was deep.

 

While I was a touch ahead of the story, it occurred to me that the Sons of Adam were not cranks taking their cues from a load of questionable literature but men looking for something that would explain and validate a set of existing feelings. As the story later puts it:

 

Man’s religion and metaphysics are voices of his glands.

 

One way of looking at the Sons of Adam is that they are essentially Gamergate: They feel intensely uncomfortable around women, don’t know how to talk to them, don’t know how to deal with their feelings about women, and so they express their rage, frustration, and self-loathing in the form of a completely disproportionate and self-destructive crusade against the supposed ethics of women working in the games industry. Gamergate’s actions have nothing to do with the actual ethics of games journalism just as the behaviour of the Sons of Adam has nothing to do with God’s plans for humankind. This is one of those times when it’s worth remembering that Alice Sheldon was not just a professional psychologist but a professional psychologist who came of age in the aftermath of World War II when the psychology of collective violence was on the mind of every thinking person.

This murderous crackpot religion of McWhosis was a symptom, not a cause. Barney believed something was physically affecting the Peedsville men, generating psychosis, and a local religious demagogue had sprung up to “explain” it.

We know the Sons of Adam are murderers because Anne tells us about the stacks of bodies and the disappearances of women but also because the interview tells us what happens to the female doctor. In a harrowing sequence, Sheldon describes the mayor appearing to the soldier with blood-stained genitals and a look of intense tiredness:

 

I did it for you, do you understand?

 

The soldier explains how he suddenly looked on the man as a father and realised the necessity of such crimes in order to get humanity clean and to the point where it could reproduce itself without the need for women.

The point is that as long as man depends on the old filthy animal way, God won’t help him. When man gets rid of the old filthy animal part which is woman, this is the signal God is awaiting. Then God will reveal the new true clean way, maybe angels will come bringing new souls, or maybe we will live forever, but it is not our place to speculate, only to obey.

That last line recalls a common medieval attitude as to the relative importance of faith and reason. The eleventh century Benedictine monk Anselm of Canterbury once argued “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but rather, I believe in order that I may understand” because he believed that submission to a potentially flawed belief system was more important than retaining one’s agency and the ability to think for oneself. While we can unpack this idea in terms of the authoritarianism of the Catholic Church, we can also use it to reflect on the dynamics of faith. When you openly question the beliefs of the people around you, you are not just asserting your agency and your superior insight, you are also disrupting their attempts to remain faithful. The Sons of Adam expect you to obey rather than speculate because speculation would only encourage people to abandon their beliefs and without the beliefs to validate and explain their feelings, people would be forced to admit that they are not in control of their thoughts and feelings. That is far scarier than being wrong.

Sheldon then deepens the association between the behaviour of the Sons of Adam and the attempt to control the insect problem by suggesting that Alan would disrupt the insects’ ability to reproduce by using pheromones to mess with their behaviour patterns:

 

At the cost of million bites and cane cuts he was pretty sure he’d found the weak link in the canefly cycle. The male mass-mating behaviour, the comparative scarcity of ovulant females. It would be the screwfly solution all over again with the sexes reversed. Concentrate the pheromone, release sterilized females.

 

Attentive readers will be way ahead of the story here but there is real art to the way that Sheldon feeds us scraps of information only to send our attention scurrying off in another direction. This time, our attention is sent flying back to America when a letter from Anne announces not only the creation of refugee centres but also the lack of refugees coming out of areas afflicted by whatever it is that is happening to the Sons of Adam. Anne views this as mysterious and yet solves the mystery with talk of mass graves. Sheldon deploys Anne’s voice with surgical precision as she will often flinch away from ugly truths out of squeamishness or a desire not to worry her husband:

 

Excuse me honey, I seem to be a little hysterical. George Searles came back from Georgia talking about God’s Will – Searles is a lifelong atheist.

 

Anne’s reluctance to pull together the obvious clues really serves to build tension as the reader will either have put the pieces together by themselves or be desperate to find out what is happening. Anne’s squeamishness also speaks to the performed femininity of the character, which brings me to a somewhat tangential point.

Obviously, the story is concerned with a transformation of human sexuality that results in men suddenly acquiring the need to murder women. The story introduces this idea by considering the Sons of Adam and how their mad religion is really just a way of articulating a pre-existing set of feelings. It then (as we shall see) moves on to showing how those feelings begin to leech out into the rest of society. What interested me was the space between these two moments; the recognition that people perform their genders in a normal, healthy way and the realisation that people have started to perform their genders in abnormal and unhealthy ways as exemplified in the rapes, murders and purges carried out by the Sons of Adam. Now… given that the story encourages us to view these rapes and murders as irrational and toxic, how are we supposed to see the ‘normal’ performance of gender that existed in society before the events described in the story? If the Sons of Adam’s ideas about gender come from outside the normal state of human affairs, where do normal ideas about gender come from and why are they more legitimate than those enacted by the Sons of Adam? In truth, the obvious insanity of the Sons of Adam only serves to raise questions as to the sanity of our own ‘normal’ attitudes towards gender.

For example, consider the opening exchange of letters and the way that Alan seems to revel in his possessive masculinity while Anne twitters like an empty-headed ditz. Keeping her powder dry and her knives sharpened, Sheldon pulls the rug out from under this depiction of Anne by having Alan point out that he married her on the grounds that she was his intellectual and psychological equal:

 

Everyone said they were made for each other, he big and chunky, she willowy brunette; both shy, highly controlled, cerebral types.

 

If Anne is supposed to be this shy, hyper-controlled intellectual then why do her letters drip with ill-constrained passions, lapses into hysteria and a desire to carry out emotional labour to the point where she’ll share her fears as to what is happening around her only to inexplicably jack-knife into talk about how he shouldn’t worry and how everything is fine. Sheldon drives the knife even further in by revealing that Anne was once a professional scientist just like her husband:

 

Six months ago I was Dr. Anne Alstein.

 

If Anne was a scientist all along, why did she keep deferring to Barney and why wasn’t she out researching the changes that were so worrying her? Sheldon’s answer is beautifully ambiguous.

Finally realising that things at home are turning ugly, Alan jumps on a plane and heads for America. However, upon arriving in Miami he is puzzled by the fact that the local women are covering up in winter clothing rather than wearing the tighter and more revealing clothes he would normally associate with what he creepily refers to as “the decorative fauna”. Working his way through news reports in an effort to pass the time between connecting flights, Alan allows his thoughts to wander first to his wife’s body and then – hideously – to the body of his pre-teen daughter. The language of his fantasy is beautifully ambiguous as talk of anticipation and delicate teasing hardens into words like “grasp” and “thrust”. Words that can certainly be used in a sexual context but which can also describe a physical attack:

 

A terrible alarm bell went off in his head. Exploded from his dream, he stared around, then finally at his hands. What was he doing with his open clasp knife in his fist?

Stunned, he felt for the last shreds of his fantasy, and realized that the tactile images had not been caresses, but of a frail neck strangling in his fist, the thrust had been the plunge of a blade seeking vitals. In his arms, legs, phantasms of striking and trampling bones cracking. And Amy –

Oh, god. Oh, god –

Not sex, blood lust.

 

Aside from being beautifully written, this passage demonstrates the way that the misogynistic blood lust seems to integrate almost seamlessly with Alan’s normal thought processes: He’s sat in an airport lounge reading papers, he allows his thoughts to drift, he was horny anyway because his eyes naturally sought out the local talent and he starts to get hard thinking about his wife and suddenly he’s standing in the middle of the airport with a knife and a head full of naked children and trampled bones.

While I’ve never fantasised about raping and murdering a child, I can definitely recognise the way that sexual thoughts seem to come out of nowhere and just insert themselves into your normal conscious thought patterns. The line between ‘what’s that written on her T-shirt?’ and ‘booooooobies’ gets progressively thinner, the longer you go between orgasms. This brings me back to my tangent…

One of the more subtle themes in the story is the way that the desire to kill women seems almost entirely compatible with ‘normal’ ideas about gender. Whatever is happening to humanity is not creating the desire to dehumanise, rape, and murder women but rather exaggerating a set of ideas that are already present and have been for a long time. Men dehumanise, rape, and murder women all the time, it’s just that they don’t do so systematically and so humanity’s survival is never in jeopardy. Sheldon re-visits this idea every time an institution or report seeks to downplay the murder of women. When the Sons of Adam appeared, the media simply dismissed them as cranks. When the murder of women became common, the media dismissed it as group hysteria and some institutions even cluck their tongues, shake their heads and point out that, actually, they had been saying that women weren’t people for decades and it’s nice that people have finally come to realise they were right:

 

Cardinal Fazzoli, spokesman for the European Pauline movement, reaffirmed his view that the Scriptures define woman as merely a temporary companion and instrument of man. Women, he states, are nowhere defined as human, but merely a transitional expedient or state. “The time of transition to full humanity is at hand,” he concluded.

 

Sheldon is beautifully ambiguous about all this as one can read the story as suggesting that the movement between normal and misogynistic psycho simply played itself out over a period of months rather than weeks. Also ambiguous is the question of whether the changes are only happening to men or whether they might also be influencing the behaviour of women. Did marriage turn Anne into a twittering housefrau and Alan into a sweaty-palmed patriarch or was it something artificial? The truth is that the line between normal gender performance and gender performance resulting in the wholesale murder of women is so fine that it is impossible to know where normal sexism ends and murderous alien sexism begins.

Now aware that he is infected, Alan returns home to warn his family. Sheldon explores the idea of a toxic, debilitating femininity by recounting the story of Alan’s return home in the words of his daughter, who writes in her diary about her parents pulling knives on each other before feeling obliged to comment on her choice of outfits:

 

Oh I forgot to say I was wearing my gooby green with my curl-tites still on, wouldn’t you know of all the shitty luck, how could I have known such a beautiful scene was ahead we never know life’s cruel whimsy.

 

Despite Anne telling her to pack her bags and get ready to run, Amy defers to Daddy and escapes to the lab in order to spend time with him, never to return.

Her family dead and the whole world falling to pieces, Anne escapes to the far north where she (in a biographically telling moment) assumes a male identity and hides out in the woods to await the end. In a beautiful move, Anne’s tendency to twitter disappears the second she assumes a male identity. Her final words are cool, calm, and collected when she notices an alien coming to take possession of its new digs. Turns out the aliens used a similar technique to the humans were trying to deploy against the insects in south America, mess with the sexual behaviour patterns just right and the population will tear itself to pieces:

 

This way there’s no muss, no fuss. Just like what we did to the screwfly. Pinpoint the weak link, wait a bit while we do it for them. Then only a few bones to kick around; make good fertilizer.

Barney dear, good-bye. I saw it. It was there.

But it wasn’t an angel.

I think I saw a real estate agent.

 

While Sheldon’s history and the sheer amount of text devoted to the question may encourage us to view “The Screwfly Solution” as a story about gender, its final line suggests that it might be something else altogether. Sure… the story looks at the way we perform gender and the way that gender stereotypes lock us into toxic patterns of behaviour that are only one or two stops shy of outright murder but the story makes it clear that alien-inspired misogyny is really only a means to an end. “The Screwfly Solution” is as much about gentrification as it is about gender.

4 Comments
  1. May 19, 2016 4:08 pm

    In the end, I am glad this story was included, so I could read this very detailed review!

    Like

  2. May 20, 2016 10:08 am

    I am really glad you enjoyed it :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. May 20, 2016 12:57 pm

    If you can forgive the concision and staccato thoughts in this comment, I’d just like to make a connection between this story and a conversation that’s happening elsewhere.

    It occurred to me while lying in a 11AM haze that this story breaks a lot of the contemporary stylistic orthodoxies. It shifts narrative viewpoint and form freely when many of the inheritors of Sheldon’s work in this anthology (and all of us fiction writers) now told to hew to close third-person, stick to first-person, have an identifiable and likable protagonist, and ultimately blend voice into an Analog Clarkesworldian Trade Fantastic Mush. The recitation of this story is as interesting as its message.

    The connection I’d like to make is to the comments on Paul McAuley’s post about the Clarke Awards where Nina Allan and Paul are discussing the prose of SF. In this thread Paul writes:

    I think it has something to do with voice. The voice of the characters woven into the narrative. Perhaps it could be better defined along the lines of ‘a sustained, appropriate aesthetic’. Much genre fiction, of course, defaults to close third person, because that’s what is taught as standard in many writing workshops. Which is why any prose that deviates from it, in genre, too often attracts bilious comments dripping with comic-book-guy disdain.

    While the stories earlier in the anthology are for the most part well written (an empty statement) they are all in my memory rather conventional. This may suggest one reading of why this story is included alongside it’s canonical status. The Screwfly Solution is a story published under the name of a woman (Raccoona Sheldon) which starts to dismantle the liberal stylistics of genre by following few of its orthodoxies. How easy is it to imagine this story being written entirely from the perspective of Anne or Alan to place emphasis *their feelings*?

    Right it’s time for me to put some boots on and find some breakfast/lunch.

    Like

  4. May 20, 2016 1:56 pm

    Will — That’s a really interesting point. One thing that struck me about the shifts of form and voice is how well rooted they are in the world of the story.

    Alan is the hot, horny guy who is miles from home and revelling in his role as husband. Anne tries to be supportive but is also worried by what she sees on the news and what she hears from Barney and her intelligence draws her to comment on stuff BUT wives must be socially supportive (a quality she ascribes to the dusky heiresses) because of the weirdness but also because she is a woman at that time and in that place.

    She writes beautifully in a number of forms and in a number of voices but all of those voices make perfect sense and tell you about the world. How good is that?! 😃

    Like

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