Group Read 27: The Big Book of Science Fiction
Story #59 of 107: “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” by James Tiptree Jr
We’re now past the halfway point in The Big Book of Science Fiction, and I’ve written almost five dozen essays on science fiction, yet leaving so much unsaid. We’re at least six stories into the 1970s with “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” by James Tiptree Jr., first published in the March 1972 issue of F&SF, and we haven’t mentioned the changes in the decade. The seventies was a very distinctive time for science fiction, as was the sixties, fifties, forties, and thirties. Science fiction changes with the times, and has all the fashions of pop culture.
Our last story, “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ was about gender. This story was written by a woman posing as a man. This is much different from science fiction coming out in 1962 or 1952. After reading “When It Changed” I read a 1963 SF story by Joanna Russ. It was a bland mousy ghost story revealing nothing about the Joanna Russ of the 1970s. The nonfiction works of the second wave feminists had a great impact on the new wave of science fiction.
So Alice Sheldon writing as James Tiptree is quite revealing. And the POV of “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” to me was decidedly male. And reading about Sheldon’s life says a lot about gender and feminism too. But there were many other changes in the 1960s that allowed Seldon to write this story. There is content that would have been censored from mainstream magazines of the early 1960s much less the notoriously prudish science fiction magazines of that era. Philip José Farmer wrote graphic stories of humans having sex with aliens in the 1950s, but not with the language and frankness Tiptree uses in “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side.” But then humping aliens wasn’t Triptee’s point either.
In March 1972 readers didn’t know that James was Alice. But did Alice assume that one day readers would know that he was a she? Did she write in the voice of a male to authenticate her cover, or because she wanted to break out of the gender stereotypes imposed on women writers? Joanna Russ wrote, “I love my body dearly and yet I would copulate with a rhinoceros if I could become not-a-woman.” Was Sheldon using Tiptree to escape being a woman? Or had her own experience of being a world traveler and succeeding in many careers not deemed for women during those times meant she didn’t give a damn about imposed gender roles?
The sex addict addicted to sex with aliens interviewed in this story has an aggressive point-of-view of a world-weary male. But is that really a factor in this story? Tiptree captures a conversation between two males about lust for aliens, with one man warning another not to fall into his addiction. But he keeps alluding to cargo cults and Polynesians, places ruined by advanced societies. That’s one kind of ruin. Sheldon was sexually attracted to women at a time (the 1930s and 1940s) that led to another kind of ruin. How much of this story is science fiction and how much is veiled experience?
“And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” is not just a story about aliens. It’s not just science fiction. It’s a complex coded message from a complex person hiding who they were. It’s working on all kinds of levels.
And that’s something we haven’t been talking about yet. Science fiction grows up in the 1970s. The genre had a long childhood. For decades science fiction appealed to the young and was mostly childish and adolescent. The reason Heinlein blazed on the scene in the early 1940s is that his work was more mature. Most of the best science fiction from the 1950s we remember today were from writers who tried to adultify the genre. Science fiction fans want young adult content, and that’s what it mostly gets. But if you look at the stories we’re reading from the 1970s, it’s the stories that deal with mature awakenings that we’re remembering. The VanderMeers love the stories that remember science fiction’s social conscious awakenings. But there were many other kinds of literary awakenings too. The VanderMeers follow in the footsteps of Judith Merril anthologizing certain kinds of science fiction. But Wollheim, Carr, Harrison, Aldiss, Dozois, Hartwell, would be anthologizing other types of science fiction that reflected a growing maturity too. Are the stories we’re remembering giving science fiction an imposed identity?
As the decades progress, SF evolves, and this anthology is only touching upon some of that evolution. The trouble is the topic is too big. It hurts my head to think about it. I read through the 1970s in my twenties, and it seems like there was so much more than these few stories. But my head hurts struggling to remember those times. I’d have to spend weeks or months digging through that past to recover those stories, and I just don’t have the energy anymore. We have another six stories from the 1970s, and then we’re on to the 1980s. In the back of my mind, it feels like there should have been a hundred great stories from the 1970s we should be remembering. Stories with different identities.
Don’t get me wrong, “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” is a 5-star story, a classic, one I admire. But all these stories from the 1970s in The Big Book of Science Fiction have a certain flavor, and I vaguely remember other flavors. Or is that a false memory? Could it be I remember a time before growing up that I long for?
James Wallace Harris, 12/14/21