Her Smoke Rose Up Forever - James Tiptree Jr. "Ahead lies only the irreversible long decline. For the first time we know there is nothing beyond ourselves."

when do you know that the book you've just read is one of your favorite books? that an author you've been reading is one of your favorite authors? probably a variety of factors come into play. for me, the love affair often begins when i realize that the author or book has a few specific attributes: genuine compassion and empathy for human beings combined with a dark and despairing view of the human condition itself; an imagination so fertile and original that it verges on nuts. James Tiptree Jr. and the stories contained in this collection have such traits. it's a beautiful thing when that kind of connection between reader and story happens. and when, on top of that, the author's personal story is both fascinating and moving... LOVE. if you know nothing about the author, look her up under her pen name or her real name, Alice Sheldon. a truly fascinating and complex individual.

Tiptree has been pegged as a feminist author, from the good ole days of the 70s, and is sometimes described as a so-called Angry Feminist. well, the shoe sorta fits: she is definitely angry! her stories about gender imbalance are filled with brutal men, disempowered women, and a barely simmering undercurrent of rage at the injustice of it all. i have absolutely no problem with this and i don't think being considered a "feminist" is remotely insulting. however, the idea that Tiptree writes primarily about the issues of women is not just limiting (similar to likewise limiting descriptions of Angela Carter or Margaret Atwood)... it is incorrect. Tiptree writes about gender, about change, about society, about life, about death - the whole kit & kaboodle. she is not a single-issue writer and her stories are overflowing with marvelous idea after marvelous idea - of which the relationship between the genders is just one of many concerns. she writes with passion, fierce conviction, and is possessed of a remarkable generosity of spirit towards her doomed characters and despairing situations. "despair"... that should probably be addressed. the stories in this collection are bleak and deeply tragic. don't look for happy endings when reading Tiptree! one of the more positive endings has its effervescent narrator joyfully accepting his slow death and consumption by his beloved life-partner; another has a pair of characters excitedly exit the dull, restrictive confines of earth, forever.

all of the stories contained within this collection are gems. some are beautifully polished and glitter with their brilliance. others are more rough-hewn, less pretty to the eye - but valuable nonetheless. each one is deeply intelligent; each one is a distillation and expansion of a particular thesis or set of ideas; each story is overflowing with wit, smarts, sadness, and life; each story stands completely on its own. here are some of my favorites:

(special thanks to BunWat for helping my wee little brain fully understand the ramifications of several of these stories.)

The Screwfly Solution: something insidious is turning men against women... Tiptree takes her basic idea and spins it in directions that are full of tension and slowly ratcheting unease... the mid-stream change in narrators is an ingenious decision.

The Girl Who Was Plugged In: a sad pop culture addict becomes a glorious celebrity & beautiful face of sinister corporate interests... a buzzing, dizzying use of slangy language and a dense narrative full of extreme emotional highs and lows.

The Women Men Don't See: are women a separate species? apparently only time and opportunity will tell... perhaps Tiptree's most famous tale, this story about the secret nature of women is warm, wise, deviously sardonic, and has one of the most nihilistically hopeful endings i've ever read.

Houston, Houston, Do You Read?: three astronauts are flung far into the future, to discover that the world has changed, possibly for the better - but for them, definitely for the worse... i loved the depiction of this futuristic society, in many ways a personal dream come true (minus, ahem, a few key aspects)... i smiled and laughed so much while reading this one. oh, the tragic fate of assholes!

With Delicate Mad Hands: a physically unattractive woman takes control of a ship to search for destiny and fulfill her most secret dreams... it should be mentioned that the highly sympathetic woman in question is a murderous psychopath... this novella is equal parts nuts 'n bolts thriller, xenographic study of a bizarre planet full of unusual (and unusually loveable) alien species, and psychological portrait of a disturbed and downtrodden woman... a rapturously annhilating mystery in space.

A Momentary Taste of Being: a suspenseful, well-detailed and richly characterized novella about a scout ship's search for a colony site for an overpopulated earth... featuring disturbing mind control, creepy incestuous undertones, a hyper-sexualized alien 'invasion', a terrifying transcendence... my favorite story in the collection.

We Who Stole the Dream: tonight the aliens revolt! against disgusting, oppressive humans, of course. HUMANS OUT OF THE GALAXY NOW!

Love Is the Plan the Plan is Death: a hopeful tale of a charmingly high-spirited, forward-thinking young lad learning about life, death, and love... slowly coming to understand that the increasing length of the cold seasons equals increasing danger... fighting against tradition and culture to protect his and his loved ones' future... it should also be noted that the endearing hero in question is a gigantic, savagely violent alien-spider-monster.

Slow Music: two of the final inhabitants of earth struggle to decide if they want to stay themselves and continue the human race, or transcend into the great beyond... a great twist ending... a mournful saga in miniature.

"A Mournful Saga in Miniature"... that phrase could also be used to describe each and every one of these glorious stories. i was enchanted by the despairing, empathetic tragedy and lightly percolating wit of the visions contained within this book. in many ways i am reminded of an equally dark and wonderful classic scifi writer - the ineffable Cordwainer Smith. two beautiful writers and two amazing human beings.

i love you, Alice Sheldon! and your stories, so full of dark yet wistful tragedy.

"The lutroid's nictitating membranes filmed his eyes. After a moment he said formally, 'You carry despair as your gift'."