Saturday, September 09, 2006

Even more Tiptree

This is another cross posting from the FEM-SF discussion list. It's long because I have a lot to say.

I have now finished the Tiptree biography, which is an amazing book; and Tiptree's life is amazing.

It's also a very painful book, because it describes someone struggling with a lifelong depression and finally giving in and dying.

It's hard for me to disentangle Alli's problems as a woman from her problems as an individual and from her depression. (Do I need to disentangle? Maybe not. But I'm still trying to figure out what Tiptree's life means to me as a woman sf writer more or less in Tiptree's generation of writers.)

A couple of things sounded familiar to me... One was the problem of writing as a woman and about women. My first novel had a male protagonist, because men were the default protagonists in sf. (The two other important characters in the novel are a three foot long pubescent female dragon and a teenage girl who passes as a boy. So I was part way to having female protagonists, but only part way. And it's interesting that the characters become more male as they age. The youngest one -- the dragon Nargri -- is fully female. The next in age is a girl passing as a boy. The oldest character, the one who is fully adult, is male.)

I had to consciously work to make my characters female. About the time I wrote my first novel, I also wrote a (short) epic poem set in the world of Spenser's Faerie Queene. I kept a list of characters: good and bad, male and female. Each time I introduced a new character into the poem, I checked the list. If the list was showing too few good female characters and the new character was good, then she became female. My goal was an equal distribution: half the good characters should be female, and half the bad characters should be female.

I am not kidding. I had to use a list, because otherwise the characters were all too likely to turn out male.

This was not an isolated problem. Leigh Brackett's heroes are male. LeGuin always wrote as a woman, with a name that is clearly female, but it took her years to write about women directly.

Two things are going on, or maybe three. One is the simple fact that the default sex in sf was male; and we are all vulnerable to conventions. We don't write what we know, so much as we write what we have read. The second is a sense that women can't be heroes, not the way men are. Fiction by and about women has a long and honorable history, but was not taken seriously by (mostly male) scholars and critics until recently. Real fiction was by and about men. Women can't play male heroic roles; and women's roles are not important enough to be a subject for serious fiction; and science fiction is supposed to be about manly men taking on the universe.

It's weird to write the above. It all sounds so untrue and silly now. But the women writers of the late 60s and early 70s had to work hard to change the conventions of the field. They had to fight.

There are other reasons why women writers may use male protagonists: a desire to distance oneself from certain topics, a personal discomfort with being female, a belief that it will be easier to sell fiction that has a male hero. (It's a truism in YA that girls will read about boys, but boys won't read about girls, so you increase your audience if you write about a boy. J. K. Rowling writes under a unisex name and about a boy, and she has certainly sold a lot of books.)

Tiptree was openly uncomfortable with being a woman, and wrote that she didn't like women much, though she found them very attractive. (This may have been part of her internalization of a male identity. Many men don't like women much, but find them very attractive.)

I don't think I share Tiptree's discomfort. She grew up in the shadow of remarkable mother, who was in many ways a traditional, male-identified woman, a member in good standing of Chicago society -- though she was also an author and world traveler and lecturer on her writing and travels. The biography portrays Mary Bradley as a very feminine woman, even while carrying an elephant gun. It's hard for me to figure out what one would learn from such an example.

I grew up in a family full of women who were conscious feminists and who liked and admired women. I had the example of my female relatives and my mother's women friends.

Having said that, I knew as a kid that what I wanted to do with my life could not be done by a woman. I should have known better. I had role models all around me. But I had internalized the society's myths. In order to do what I wanted, I ignored or evaded the fact that I was female.

Obviously I know I am a woman, and I am woman-identified, and I am a feminist. But my sense of who I am is not labeled female or male. It simply says, Eleanor. A person.

I guess you could say I evaded certain important female roles. I never married, since marriage carries the weight of centuries of oppression -- to me, at least. And I didn't have kids. I don't have a single reason for the latter, and I don't believe you should need a reason for not having children. The world is full of people, after all; and plenty of those people are willing to be parents. The job is done. We don't need any more volunteers.

Do we need more writers? An interesting question. But I figure we have a greater shortage of artists than of parents.

The final thing that seems familiar to me, while reading the biography, is Tiptree's dread of growing old. This is not a good society for old people, and being an old woman is especially difficult. Le Guin has written about this. What does one do, if one has been trained to be attractive and charming, and one lives in a culture that does not find old women attractive or charming? We don't have an alternative role, since our society does not have elders.

I think one invents the role of elder, as Meridel LeSueur did -- a splendid writer and human being. Her parents took her to the founding conference of the Industrial Workers of the World when she was a small child. She never lost her commitment to the revolution. When I met her, she was an old woman in a wheelchair, draped in Navaho turquoise jewelry. I don't remember that her voice boomed, but her personality did.

Tiptree again

This is a cross posting from a discussion of the new Tiptree biography on the FEM-SF discussion list. It's a slow difficult process for me to write nonfiction. If I can use something more than once, I will...

Why do I see Tiptree as lost through much of her life? Look at her career -- the first marriage when she and her husband played at being artists while living on money from their parents, then her time in the WACS, then her second marriage and working for the CIA, then getting a PhD in psychology, then becoming a science fiction writer. This is a lot of different activities. My sense from the biography is that she was marginal in all of these -- until she found the SF community, and then she did first class work and became a full member of a community, but not as herself and not as a woman.

She may have been marginal in part because she was a woman, but she was also marginal because she didn't commit fully to these different activities, except maybe the SF writing. This is what the biography suggests, at least. She didn't work consistantly at the art, and she didn't learn the politics involved in getting a PhD. She also dropped both activities, which suggests a lack of continuing commitment. (I can't believe, by the way, that she took a lab rat home as a pet and let it go outside. How clueless can you be? Lab rats are inside animals, raised in antiseptic environments and trained to run mazes, not live in the wild. They are terribly vulnerable outside.)

She had two things going against her -- she was very gifted and able to do many things, and she always had an income, either from her parents or her husband.

This brings us to the famous Tiptree quote:

"Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us. … When the next real crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish like—like that smoke. We'll be back where we always were: property. And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom, like the fall of Rome was. You'll see.

"We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world machine."

This was written by a woman who was (for most of her life) dependent on her parents or a husband. Whatever her personal feelings, she did not openly struggle for women's rights or anyone's rights.

Yes, she did try to make an independent life for herself -- as an artist, a soldier, a CIA analyst, a psychologist and finally a writer. But she seems to have always acted alone.

The women in the Tiptree story quoted above are hiding in the chinks of the world machine. But many women in the 20th century did not hide in chinks. Instead, they fought the machine.

I'm not trying to put Tiptree down. I'm trying to figure out what bothers me about her life.

Post script: One of the women on FEM-SF jumped up and down on me for saying Tiptree didn't commit to her various careers. Her analysis is -- Tiptree, who was hugely gifted, gave various activities a serious try and then moved on.

This may be a better way to look at Alli. I am lucky in that I am really good at one thing: writing fiction. I have friends who are multi-talented. Many abilities can be a distraction.

I still think Tiptree was too alone. She felt close to her parents and her husband Ting. After her parents died and Ting (who had always cared for Alli) became blind and dependent on her, she had only herself -- and the friends she made through the letters she had written as James Tiptree Jr. But those people were friends with Tip not Alli, or so she apparently thought.

Monday, September 04, 2006

The Edward L. Ryerson

The graveyard on Wisconsin Point

The Wisconsin channel into Duluth-Superior Harbor

The dark line to the left of the first sailboat is the B & N ore docks in Superior, Wisconsin. The lighthouse is at the entrance to the Wisconsin channel; and the second sailboat is in the channel, heading out to Lake Superior.

The Wisconsin channel, a graveyard and the Edward L. Ryerson

Duluth Harbor is closed off by the longest freshwater sand bar in world. There are two passages through the sand bar: the canal on the Duluth side and a natural channel on the Superior, Wisconsin side, which the Army Corps of Engineers has deepened and maintains. Most ships come in through the canal, providing entertainment to the many tourists who swarm in Canal Park in the summer. However, ships going to the docks on the Wisconsin side -- including the B & N taconite docks -- use the channel.

Yesterday, Patrick and I went to Duluth to catch a look at the Edward L. Ryerson as she came in. We knew she was going to the B & N docks, so we drove over to Superior and onto Wisconsin Point. The Minnesota side of the sand bar looks like a beach resort, with houses tightly packed along a single street, most with views of the lake or the harbor. The Wisconsin side is a park with a badly maintained road winding through scrub forest past entrances to beaches, all with warning signs: "No life guard. People have drowned off Wisconsin Point." At the end of the point is a lighthouse and the channel.

We got out and walked along the channel and the beach. The problem was, the Ryerson was supposed to be arriving in an hour. We should have been able to see her on the lake. Nothing was visible except sailboats. Patrick walked along the channel till he had a good view of the B & N docks, which are on the land side of the harbor, directly opposite the channel. The boat loading ahead of the Ryerson was still there.

The arrival and departure times for the big lakers are very approximate. Pat had been checking on line for several days. The Ryerson's ETA had been listed at 3:30 p.m., then 12:30 p.m. We'd stopped briefly at the museum in Canal Park. the woman there told us the Ryerson would be "in the area" between 1:30 and 2:30.

We were on time. The Ryerson must be running early or late. We didn't know which. We decided to leave.

On the way out, we stopped at a graveyard, that was used by the Fond du Lac band of Ojibwa in the 19th century. The bodies have been moved. But there's a historical marker in a stand of first-growth pines. The marker is surrounded by several of the big chunks of concrete that litter Wisconsin Point. The marker, the chunks and several little, undergrowth trees are covered with gifts: prayer ribbons, dream catchers, stuffed animals, old shoes, cheap jewelry, those pine tree deoderizers that people hang from rear view mirrors, empty cigarette packs and stubbed out cigarettes.

The cigarettes make sense. Tobacco is sacred. Patrick, who smokes a pipe, got out his tobacco pouch and left a pinch on each chunk of concrete. The rest of the gifts are what poor people have to give in honor of their ancestors.

It's a strange place, because it mixes traditional Native American beliefs with the debris of modern white American life; and it's a restful place, because it says, "Our ancestors matter. We matter. People matter."

We found the graveyard a year or two ago, and I have been wanting to go back ever since. Pat said it would be okay for me to take pictures, so I did. (He is half Ojibwa and has been studying Ojibwa culture.)

Then we headed back to Duluth. On route, still on the Wisconsin side, we saw the Ryerson. She had come in through the canal and was heading very, very slowly toward the B & N docks. We took a quick turn and found a parking place at a small park. There we sat, right on the water, and took pictures of the Ryerson as she went past, escorted by sailboats.

Why was it so important to see this particular boat? She is back on the lakes after eight years out of service. She is a straight-decker, rather than a self-unloader; and straight-deckers are rare these days. (Google, if you are curious.) Finally, she has a reputation of the being the most beautiful laker ever built. She hit the water in 1960; and her superstructure has a sleek, aerodynamic, 50s modern look -- not necessary in a ship with a top speed of 17 miles an hour, but lovely none the less.

After she passed, we drove home.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

James Tiptree Jr.

In addition to watching movies, I'm reading the new biography of James Tiptree Jr.

Tiptree belonged to the same generation as my mother and her sisters. All were bright, adventurous women born in the early part of the 20th century. They all lived through the Great Depression, World War Two and the postwar period of reaction; and all were less than satisfied with the traditional woman's role of housewife and helpmate.

(That role was always middle class. Farm wives and the women in families that owned small businesses always worked, as did many, many working class women. The stay-at-home Mom was a dream for most Americans through most of our history. Only the postwar prosperity, a strong union movement and the need to find jobs for the soldiers coming home made the dream real.)

Although Tiptree belonged to my mother's generation, she and I belonged to the same generation of women science fiction writers, who were first published in the late 60s and early 70s. She hit like a bomb, while it took me 20 years to be noticed. But we both faced the same environment, and we should have been dealing with the same problems.

I began reading the book in the hopes that it would illuminate my life and the lives of my mother and her sisters. The reviews I have read discuss Tiptree's life as an example of the lives of women writers (and women) in 20th century America.

All I can think is, thank heavens I am not Tiptree; and thank heavens my mother and her sisters led different lives. To me, Tiptree seems lonely and lost. My mother and her sisters had friends and one another and a strong set of political convictions that gave meaning to their lives. I grew up surrounded by matriarchs, who raised their children to hate prejudice, selfishness and ignorance and to love social justice, music and art. My aunt Molly was a lifelong political activist, who became the president of NOW in her 70s. The rest of the Yard sisters were less spectacular; and I think my mother regreted what she didn't do with her life. She probably should have been a college professor, but it was hard for a married woman with young children to get a job in the 1950s. Instead, she was a social worker, then a mother and the wife of the director of the Walker Art Center, then a social worker again.

More than anything, she loved books and literature. She didn't think she could be a writer. She believed she lacked creativity. But she encouraged me to write, and I believe her encouragement made me a writer.

Tiptree doesn't help me understand my relatives, and she doesn't help me understand my own life as a writer. I am an introvert, but never (I think) as lonely as she was, even when she was corresponding with everyone in the science fiction field. I remember envying the community that women science fiction writers had in the 1970s. I didn't belong to it and didn't know how to join. I also envied the success of other women science fiction writers.

But hitting like a bomb may not be entirely a good thing for an introvert who lacks self-confidence; and Sheldon's pen name may have been a problem, especially since she created a personality for Tiptree. Did Alice Sheldon ever believe her fame and friendships belonged to her, or did they always seem to belong to an imaginary man? I haven't finished the book so I don't have an answer to the question.

I suspect the life of a truly extraordinary -- and pretty darn odd -- person does not illuminate the lives of rest of us much. Or maybe Tiptree's life illuminates many other lives, just not the lives of people in my family.

Good Night and Good Luck

I saw the movie a few days ago. I found it impressive. I'm old enough to remember the 1950s, and GNGL captured the look and sound convincingly. It also captured the fear of the McCarthy era, a truly scary period. David Straitharn was awesome as Edward R. Murrow, and Frank Langella was awesome as William S. Paley, the head of CBS. I thought the movie worked at every level -- the costumes, the sets, the camera work, the script, the pacing, the acting. It's interesting on its own, but it's especially interesting now, in a period when the mass media are utterly corrupt.

An evening later I saw The Hulk, a genuinely awful movie; and last night I saw Harry Potter IV.

Good Night and Good Luck was a minimalist movie -- a handful of actors in a handful of sets, not a single outdoor scene. (Wait. I remember one: people watching a t.v. in a store window. But all we saw was their faces and the window.) For the most part, we saw the characters in their work place, where they talked about work, not about emotions. The movie presents them as tightly controlled people, who are focused on getting a job done.

The Hulk and Harry IV were typical action flicks, full of color, motion, wide landscapes, lots of people, life and death conflicts and spectacular special effects. In the end, both were mostly empty, though Harry IV is staying with me more. I will forget The Hulk as quickly as possible.

Having said the mass media are entirely corrupt, I now remember that movies are part of the mass media. Maybe I should rephrase. The news is corrupt. Other, less serious and respected media products may or may not be true to life.

Whether or not I like the movies I see, I'm liking seeing movies. Next will come t.v. shows on DVD.