Review: The James Tiptree Jr. Award Anthology 2

If one of the reasons to read science fiction and fantasy is to hack your mind (the way listening to a new piece of music rewires your neurons), and, as some argue, you — like all humans — are really only wired for one thing: Wouldn’t you want to make it a point to read SFF that challenges your ideas about that one thing?

Alice Sheldon wrote and published under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr. The SFF award named for her honors works that that, “explore and expand our notion of gender.” The stories in The James Tiptree Jr. Award Anthology 2 push gender beyond the narrow definitions of straight, gay, bi-, trans-, pre-op/post-op and the permutations of self-love, coupling, threesomes, “Big Love” and relationships that have been named and have yet to be named, and thus limit our definitions of gender. In other words, the stories awarded the JTJAA2 push gender in directions that only SF+F are equipped to do.

You might be tempted to think the award recipients limit their stories to the multi-tentacled, mind-controlling aliens you’d expect to find in hentai. But with the exception of the story excerpts from 2004 JTJ award-winners Joe Haldeman’s brilliant “Camoflague” and Johanna Sinisalo’s incredible “Troll,” there are no aliens in sight.

Instead, the JTJ award-winners play with gender the way the wind plays with sand: driving it hard across open spaces, forcing it through the smallest crevices and piling it high and shaping it into beautiful and unique dunes.

JTJAA2 gives a history of the Award: Conceived by writers Karen Joy Fowler and Pat Murphy in 1991 at WisCon, the world’s leading feminist science fiction convention, the award was the result of their irritation that the major SFF awards – Nebula, Hugo, Dick – were all named after men. Now, one of the most respected awards in SFF-dom, the JTJ’s goal – as specific and at the same time nebulous as it might sound – is to “expand and explore notions of gender.”

The stories in JTJAA2 span a broad range and often, might leave you scratching your head, wondering: Was that story really about gender?

Jonathan Lethem’s “Five F#**s” follows its protagonist from the end of an affair back to its beginning, shifts point of view to someone becoming obsessed with the protagonist, then changes direction a few more times, all the while exploring the idea that desire can be so strong that it undoes the fabric of time and space.

Carol Emsmiller‘s “All of Us Can Almost…” explores power issues and role reversals among non-flying birds. When one female of this species decides she is going to launch herself off a mountain and fly, she finds herself recruiting and motivating a younger male to follow her lead while at the same time fending off an older male seeking a mate.

Ursula K. LeGuin‘s melancholy and exciting novella, “Another Story or a Fisherman of the Inland Sea,” tracks its protagonist the through his childhood off-world, where the family unit is defined as two men and two women and their children in the specific roles of morning, evening, day and night, to his adulthood as a teleportation researcher. If that isn’t confusing enough (it’s not), try wrapping your head around how light-speed travel might impact love and relationships.

The JTJAA2 also includes several non-fiction pieces: an essay from Julie Phillips’ James Tiptree Jr. A Life of Alice Sheldon; Gwenyth Jones’ “The Brains of Female Hyena Twins: On The Future of Gender” in which how Jones discusses how she extracts ideas for her fiction and summarizes the most recent research on sexuality published in The Differences Between the Sexes, the proceedings of the Eleventh International Conference on Comparative Physiology (a mouthful!).

In “Looking for Clues” (her guest of honor speech at WisCon 2002), Nalo Hopkinson talks about growing up as a black child in Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana and reading comics, watching television and finally finding SFF. Throughout her readings, she realizes, she was searching for people like her in the “approved” media. When she finally sees a picture of Samuel Delaney, she began crying and wept.

Her conclusion, which I share in reading the JTJAA2, is:

I treasure the works by writers who make me dare to think beyond straight and gay, male and female, and to see that the spectra are much broader than that.