James Tiptree, Jr.’s “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain”

“The Last Flight of Doctor Ain,” James Tiptree, Jr.’s 1969 Nebula nominated short story, reads like an FBI or CIA operative report (reflecting her earlier work in intelligence) establishing the movements of a “target.” However, the unidentified narrator has a limited omniscience after the fact (i.e., while everyone is dying and therefore, would anyone really care how it happened?). It’s a powerful story that is prescient for it’s “biotic” or biological weapons technology. Not to say that it was anything new, but the first thing that came to mind when I first read the story was how it serves as a model for the conspiracy theories surrounding HIV in the 1980s–that it was a biologically engineered virus to eradicate a group of people (unlike Dr. Ain’s virus that kills any warmblooded animal). Also, her linking it with leukemia is interesting:

“The big security break came right at the end, when he suddenly began to describe the methods he had used to mutate and redesign a leukemia virus” (66).

Again, some of the early theories about HIV was that it was a form of leukemia, because it subverted the body’s immunoresponse system. Additionally, Dr. Ain uses his own body as a carrier and he infects wild bird, which are known carriers of the “A” variety of influenza.
This is a must read story, particularly if you’re interested in biological warfare and viral plagues. The use of sex and gender in the story is also striking, because of the Dr. Ain’s overt lack of any public displays of sexuality (e.g., attraction, PDA, etc.). And, there is his supposed lover that no one really knows about, but that he “possesses” her and “revels” in her. And finally, it is a Cold War narrative about the futility of political/ideological confrontations of that era’s magnitude, which is borne out by the fact that the medical conference is in Moscow and Dr. Ain, as a western bioweapons researcher challenges both systems by releasing a virulent contagion that ignores ideology.

There is an online copy of “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” located in a PDF document of that story along with Raccoona Sheldon’s (another pseudonym of Alice B. Sheldon) “The Screwfly Solution” here.

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Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.