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.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

Posted in Review, Science Fiction
2 comments on “James Tiptree, Jr.’s “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain”
  1. Carol Simoes says:

    I just found your blog while searching Tiptree’s work. You must have skimmed the story…it clearly stated that any warm-blooded animal could be a vector (i.e., a carrier), and that the recovery rate for infected animals other than humans and anthropoid apes was close to 100%. Ain’s goal was to save the planet from humans. If his virus killed all the warm-blooded animals, it would have been a very different story. I seem to remember reading in the 1974 revised version of the story Ain apologizing mentally to the apes because he couldn’t engineer the virus in such a way that it would not be fatal to them.

  2. Hi Carol,

    Thanks for pointing this out. Your comment reminded me how good Tiptree’s stories are. I haven’t read her work in some time, but I hope to find the time to revisit her writing in more detail in the future.

    It has been nearly 10 years since I last read the story, so I had to look at the story again to refresh my memory.

    Tiptree writes, “[Ain] Then gave a terse description of the effects of the mutated strain, which were maximal only in the higher primates. Recovery rate among the lower mammals and other orders was close to ninety percent. As to vectors, he went on, any warm-blooded animal served. In addition, the virus retained its viability in most environmental media and performed very well airborne. Contagion rate was extremely high. Almost offhand, Ain added that no test primate or accidentally exposed human had survived beyond the twenty-second day.”

    I agree with you that according to the story any warm-blooded animal can be a carrier for the virus, but I stand by my general statement that it kills warm-blooded animals. It is true that it is designed to eradicate primates and humans (none exposed “had survived beyond the twenty-second day”), but the carrier species are decimated (“recovery rate . . . was close to ninety percent”).

    I agree with your assertion about Ain’s goal. There’s no doubt that Tiptree leveraged her obsession with death to explore one way of resolving our slowly unfolding ecological disaster.

    Thanks for alerting me to the 1974 revised version, which seems to be appear in her Warm Worlds and Otherwise collection and Harry Harrison’s Author’s Choice 4 (http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?52116). The version that appears in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is the original 1969 version from Galaxy.

    Best, Jason

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Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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