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Starry Rift, by James Tiptree, jr.

February 3, 2012

The Starry Rift, by James Tiptree. Tor Books (1994), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 250 pages. (First published 1986.)

The Starry Rift by James Tiptree is enjoyable, slightly off-beat science fiction, written by a woman using a male pseudonym in the 1970s amd 1980s when the genre was largely a male domain.

James Tiptee, jr., is a story in herself. Frustrated by her limited opportunities for expressing her creativity, Alice Sheldon took the man’s name and became famous in the 1970s as a male author of science fiction. She won prizes for her writing and was known for being both “hard-edged” and being unusually sensitive in her portrayal of women creatures. As a book critic for the New York Times put it, “Only when she became someone else could she tell the truth about herself. Only in writing about the alien could she speak about her body and her experience.“ I just added a recent, well-regarded new biography of Sheldon/Tiptree by Julia Phillips to my wishlist.

In The Starry Rift Tiptree presen three adventure stories of the human exploration of the Rift, a starless region of our galaxy beyond which lay non-human civilizations. The first story is about a 15 year-old girl whose wanderlust leads her to a friendship with an alien and a dilemma they must face together. The second is a tale of a free-spirited man who roams space assisting those in trouble or salvaging their ruins. His work brings him face to face with his past and the need to choose between love and freedom. The last story is that of a clash of cultures, two super powers engaging across the rift zone. We watch from both sides as events escalate toward war and individuals struggle to avoid that dire outcome. The stories are framed with encounters in a library, where an amphibious librarian assists two students, also alien to human eyes, in their exploration of human history.

The stories are compelling, mixing sheer adventure with deeper moral questions. The gadgetry of classic science fiction is much in evidence. I didn’t understand, or even try to understand, much of the technical talk, but its presence helped create the right mood. And yes, her female characters are particularly well drawn.

I picked up this book planning to read it for the Gender in Fantasy and Science Fiction Challenge, which failed to materialize. None the less, I read it looking for how Tiptree treated issues of gender.

Sometimes typical twentieth-century gender roles seem to be in place, but here and there are some sharp suggestions of alternatives. The fact that the young adventurer in the first story is a girl rather than the more typical boy is one. In addition, women hold significant leadership positions in the hierarchy of human space administration, not something that would have been possible when the story was written. An example is the women executive in the last story.

Even more striking is the alien civilization where three genders rather than two are required for reproduction. The man and woman of this culture seem less bound by gender definitions than humans generally are. Although the extra being was by definition neither male nor female, I found it hard not to see it as a nurturing and sacrificial female nanny. Interestingly this third-gendered creature is the one that saves the lives of all the aliens on the ship before dying itself.

I reccomend Rift to all who enjoy adventure, science fiction, or different views of gender.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. shelleyrae @ Book'd Out permalink
    February 4, 2012 7:59 pm

    What a fascinating story about the author. It certainly sounds like a great book. Thanks for your recommendation

    Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out

  2. February 5, 2012 8:31 pm

    I haven’t really read a lot of sci-fi, but I’m taking a gender and literature course this semester and we’ve been discussing the ways in which sci-fi and fantasy genres allow for more imaginative gender play, which has peaked my interest a bit. Maybe it’s time to give sci-fi another try…

    • February 7, 2012 9:03 am

      Sci-fi is less likely to play with gender than fantasy which is part of why Tiptree is interesting. But feminist fantasy is great fun. Some of my favorites for relaxing, hopeful reading.

      If you haven’t read LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness and Piercy’s Woman of Time, they’d be a good places to start. And there is lots more. There was supposed to be a “Gender in Fantasy and Sci-Fi” challenge with a list of some of the best, but it never got off the ground. On my challenge page you can see the books I was going to read and link to the longer list.

      What are you reading in your gender and lit course. I’m curious.

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