Title: Her Smoke Rose Up Forever
Author: James Tiptree, Jr.
He wails voicelessly as conviction invades him, he who had believed in nothing before. All the agonies of Earth, uncanceled? Are broken ghosts limping forever from Stalingrad and Salamis, from Gettysburg and Thebes and Dunkirk and Khartoum? Do the butchers’ blows still fall at Ravensbruck and Wounded Knee? Are the dead of Carthage and Hiroshima and Cuzco burning yet? Have ghostly women waked again only to resuffer violation, only to watch again their babies slain? Is every nameless slave still feeling the iron bite, is every bomb, every bullet and arrow and stone that ever flew, still finding its screaming mark — atrocity without end of comfort, forever?
The writings of James Tiptree Jr. are a revelation of pain. The above passage reflects the thoughts of a long-dead protagonist at some indeterminate time in the far future when the human race itself is extinct. He has been resurrected briefly by alien intelligences, and is reliving his life — but only the most painful moments. That’s all that’s left of us: our pain. “Was pain indeed the fiercest fire in our nerves, alone able to sustain its flame through death?” Tiptree’s answer was unequivocal.
He had a peculiar genius for bleak tales laced with emotional violence and sexuality and death. He wrote with an especially masculine voice and did a great job getting inside the male mindset. Yet he was also hailed as a feminist, a sensitive man who understood women, writing in a genre where that was rare.
How ironic, then, that he turned out to be a woman. James Tiptree Jr. was actually Alice Sheldon, and she appears to have been an extraordinary person. I expect to learn more about Tiptree/Sheldon in her biography which I’m reading next.
Each story in this collection is strong stuff. The extinction of the humanity occurs in roughly a quarter of the tales. Yet through all the misanthropy, there is also a keen sensitivity to that thing we call the human condition.
My favorite story in this anthology is “A Momentary Taste of Being.” In fact, it’s one of my favorite stories of all time. I encountered it years ago in a collection titled The New Atlantis. It’s really more of a novella than a short story, and it’s a tour de force of cosmic proportions. I defy anyone to read it and not have their mind blown.
I must add that I’m a little disappointed with the way the stories are presented in this edition. They are not in chronological order, and indeed I could find no logic at all to their sequence. Apparently in a previous edition they were grouped into thematic sections. This edition maintains that sequence, but without the sections I couldn’t make sense of it. A minor quibble.
My recommendation: Check it out. You can get it from Octavia Books right now. Read a story, then put it on the shelf, and maybe read another one next month. Tiptree’s nihilism is best enjoyed in small doses. Reading it through from cover to cover as I did (aloud at bedtime for Xy’s benefit) can be a bit overwhelming. Further, some of the stories have resolutions which are quite subtle and deserve to be savored. That kind of gets lost when you just turn the page and start the next story.
Update: One month later, I find that a couple other stories bear mentioning because they left a particularly strong impression. They linger in my memory more than the others. “The Screwfly Solution” is short but horrific. “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!” is lyrical and disturbing; although it contains science fiction themes, I wouldn’t classify it as a science fiction story in the strictest sense. Interestingly, both these stories were published under Alice Sheldon’s other pen name: Racoona Sheldon.
I should also note that the original 1990 edition of this anthology had classy illustrations by Andrew Smith and an introduction by John Clute. (He has the good taste to cite “A Momentary Taste of Being” as “the finest densest most driven novella yet published in the field.”) The 2004 reprint I got has a cheesy cover, no illustrations, and a perfectly serviceable introduction by Michael Swanwick. Considering the above-noted arrangement of stories into thematic sections, I believe the original edition is superior, so get it if you can. If not, you can at least read Clute’s intro here.
You can read another review of this anthology here (second half).
Also, there’s a cookbook entitled Her Smoke Rose Up from Supper.