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The James Tiptree Award Anthology 3
edited by Karen Joy Fowler, Pat Murphy, Debbie Notkin and Jeffrey D. Smith
Tachyon Publications, 278 pages

The James Tiptree Award Anthology 3
The James Tiptree, Jr. Award
In February of 1991, Pat Murphy announced the creation of The James Tiptree, Jr. Award, an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender. She created the award in collaboration with author Karen Joy Fowler. The award is named for Alice B. Sheldon, who wrote under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr.

The James Tiptree, Jr. Award Website
SF Site Review: The James Tiptree Award Anthology 2
SF Site Review: The James Tiptree Award Anthology 1
SF Site Review: The James Tiptree Award Anthology 1
SF Site Review: The James Tiptree Award Anthology 1

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jakob Schmidt

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The James Tiptree Award Anthology has been accompanying the annual Tiptree Award for two years now, collecting a wide range of fantastic short fiction and essays held together by their common focus on gender issues. In the introduction to The James Tiptree Award Anthology 3, Jeffrey D. Smith points out that the editors have not only set out to publish a volume of stories that challenge our notion of sex and gender, but also of genre. Consequently, the nine pieces of short fiction range from magical realism to space opera -- on first glance, a rather eclectic mixture. Yet, most of the fiction is connected by a common interest in the question of how the idea of beauty is negotiated culturally and technologically. By design or by accident, this common topic makes the third volume the most internally coherent Tiptree Award Anthology yet -- and, as might be expected, it's also coherent in terms of the generally high quality of the collected stories.

The first featured story, "Have Not Have" by Geoff Ryman, is also the first chapter of his novel Air, which won the 2005 James Tiptree Jr. Award (and several others, among them the 2006 Arthur C. Clarke Award). It works extremely well as a short story and showcases the elegant, non-effusive stylistic beauty one has come to expect from Ryman. "Have Not Have" is about ordinary people facing the fact of continuous social and technological change and dealing with it in their own idiosyncratic ways. I have to admit that I haven't read Air yet, but the short story suggests that claims that Ryman's new novel might redefine science fiction are not -- or at least not by far -- exaggerated.

"The Glass Bottle Trick" by Nalo Hopkinson is basically a contemporary ghost story dealing with issues of racism -- conceptually, it might best be compared to some of Toni Morrison's work. As a story, it works pretty well, featuring two believable main characters and some scary moments.

"Wooden Bride" by Margo Lanagan definitely made me want to check out her anthology Black Juice -- it's a slightly surrealist little story, highly allegorical and yet taking place in a completely realised world of its own. It runs a strange course to make its final point, literally misleading the reader, along with the protagonist, for quite a while.

I'm probably a little subjective on the next entry, "Dearth" by Aimee Bender, since it belongs to a certain brand of magical realism which I generally tend to shun -- the one that loudly declares itself "metaphor." Its characters seem to be normal people in a contemporary world who react in an utterly unbelievable way to the fantastic entering their life. Nevertheless, the story is entertaining and has some witty one-liners, so it's probably not as bad as I might depict it.

"Mountain Ways" by Ursula K. Le Guin is about the complex marital relations of a people who basically have four social genders (including and intersecting with the two sex-identified ones). It features most of Le Guin's typical qualities: poetic language, likeable characters and little gems of wry humour. All of these are probably best summed up in a touching little scene about a man who has to come out on being not bisexual. On the other hand, the story feels a little too didactic overall, with a plot and setting that seems to be conceived more for the sake of experiment.

The next featured short story is "Liking What You See: A Documentary," by Ted Chiang, which is a stylistic experiment gone absolutely right. It's based on the premise of a new technology that allows you to shut off your perception of beauty and thereby to avoid founding your social actions in lookism -- that is, reacting more positively to people you consider beautiful. Chiang tells the whole story through interview snippets and thereby manages to deal seriously and yet humorously with a subject matter that otherwise might have provided for little more than a bigoted satire.

"The Girl Who Was Plugged In" is the James Tiptree Jr. story the editors chose for this volume. I haven't read all of her stories yet, but of those I read, this one has always been my favourite. It's fast and gritty and yet one of the most complex Tiptree stories, dealing with the technical enhancement of the human mind and body in all its ambivalence. It certainly has been an inspirational text for Cyberpunk, and yet it feels far less dated than most of that sub-genre.

"Little Faces" by Vonda McIntyre is a space opera set in a distant future where humans roam the universe in symbiosis with their organic, sentient spaceships. Naturally, the gender relations have changed radically as well -- men are little symbiotic organisms in the bodies of women. "Little Faces" is basically about regaining the sense of wonder -- and it's pretty successful at that. It even features a well-written space battle. There is also a story about relationships, trust and dependence in there, but the main objective seems to be the fun of creating an alien environment.

"Knapsack Poems" by Eleanor Arnason basically achieves the same thing for fantasy. Here, the protagonist is one of a race of "Gestalt"-people, where every person consists of several humanoid individuals. The implied complex gender relations are a subject of the story, but the concept isn't explored in the same depth as in the Le Guin and the McIntyre stories. The main quality of "Knapsack Poems" is its relentless humour and strangeness, culminating in Arnason's dwelling on the subject of "testicle straightening," a most painful and humiliating procedure for the male parts of an individual.

The three non-fiction entries feel a little bit lost among the stories. Pam Noles essay "Shame" deals with the TV-movie adaptation of Le Guin's first two Earthsea novels and basically sums up the justified criticism of it for casting the parts of dark-skinned characters from the book with white actors. Noles critique is to the point and relevant, but the text nevertheless feels slightly dated due to the simple fact that the Earthsea movie was so utterly forgettable.

Dorothy Allison's essay on Octavia Butler has been initially published in 1990. It's a meticulous examination of Butler's female heroines up through the Xenogenesis trilogy, dealing insightful with the question of how they are caught up in social hierarchies.

Finally, there is L. Timmel Duchamp's "Letter to Alice Sheldon," that discusses how the discourse on James Tiptree, Jr. changed after the revelation of "him" being a "her," arguing that until today, SF authors who happen to be women are predominantly treated as "woman authors," their persons becoming the main issue to the detriment of their fiction.

In general, The James Tiptree Award Anthology 3 is absolutely recommended for everyone who is interested in a wide range of fantastic fiction with a taste for the experimental. An interest in gender subversion might enhance the reading experience, but it's certainly not a requirement.

Copyright © 2007 Jakob Schmidt

Jakob writes and translates reviews, essays and short stories, most of them for the German magazine Alien Contact (www.alien-contact.de) and its publishing house Shayol. That's in his spare time, which luckily still makes up the bulk of his days.


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