Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Utopias Module, James Tiptree, Jr.’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” Bridging Herland to the Stars, June 8, 2007

This is the seventeenth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

During the second semester of the MA in Science Fiction Studies programme, we had two modules: ENGL612: Utopias and Dystopias and ENGL681: Special Author: Ursula K. Le Guin. We also pitched our dissertation projects and began meeting with our assigned advisor (I was very happy to have worked with Dr. David Seed on mine–more on that in another post).

In the Utopias and Dystopias module, we read a library’s worth of utopias and discussed them in depth during our meetings with Mr. Andy Sawyer, Dr. Peter Wright, and Dr. Seed (depending on the work being considered during a seminar session, we met with different faculty).

After studying under Dr. Lisa Yaszek at Georgia Tech, some texts stuck out in my mind–namely stories by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice B. Sheldon) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Julie Phillips had very recently published her excellent and authoritative account of Sheldon’s life, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. Reading Phillips’ biography of Sheldon rekindled some ideas from my SF and Gender Studies classes at Georgia Tech, which I brought into our seminar discussions in the Utopias and Dystopias module. This essay is the culmination of those discussions and further research. Also, it permitted me to think about how First and Second Wave Feminism related to these two very important writers and their work. This essay was the final project in this module.

Jason W. Ellis

Mr. Andy Sawyer

ENGL612: Utopias and Dystopias

June 8, 2007

James Tiptree, Jr.’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” Bridging Herland to the Stars

What women do is survive.  We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.

James Tiptree, Jr., “The Women Men Don’t See”

The above quote by Ruth Parsons in James Tiptree, Jr.’s 1973 story, “The Women Men Don’t See” is probably one of the most quoted lines from Tiptree’s stories, because it’s a powerful indictment of male patriarchy as well as a shout from the heart of the author behind the pseudonym, Alice B. Sheldon.  It’s interesting that Tiptree employed the word, “chinks” to describe the space in which women may inhabit in the overwhelming male created world-machine, because chinks can describe an opening, crevice, or aperture as in the gaps between gear teeth.  However, chinks may also describe a weakness in one’s armor either figuratively or literally.  It’s within the weaknesses of the patriarchic hegemony that women may find their own space, but it’s confining and forever shifting.  Sheldon, through Tiptree, developed a voice that challenged the “world-machine” in many of her stories including the later published, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”

What’s engaging about Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” besides its own message and vector is that it maintains a striking similarity to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, which was first published serially in Gilman’s groundbreaking monthly magazine, The Forerunner in 1915.  In fact, “Houston” could be referred to as a far-future retelling of Herland in outer space.  Additionally, these two works form their own geared system where one’s earlier movement within First Wave Feminism propels the other’s movement in the much later era of Second Wave Feminism.  These actions in turn inspire later feminist SF.  It’s this interlocking and intertextual engagement between the two stories that positions “Houston” as a bridge between Gilman’s classically utopian story and First Wave Feminism with the SF impulse in later utopian writing and Second Wave Feminism.


Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Alice B. Sheldon

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born in 1860, and endured a childhood of near-poverty and dislocation along with her brother and single mother, Mary A. Fitch.  Gilman’s father, Frederic Beecher Perkins, a member of the well-known Beecher clan, left Fitch following Gilman’s birth.  Rising above her beleaguered childhood, she maintained a certain independence by working, “as a designer of greeting cards, an art teacher, and a governess” while living at home, and later establishing herself as a writer and lecturer on socialism and women’s issues (Lane vi).  Her life is accented by an early marriage to Walter Stetson, with whom she had a daughter, Katherine.  However, the marriage didn’t last, and it was later agreed that Stetson and his second wife, Gilman’s friend, Grace Ellery Channing, should raise their daughter.  Through her first marriage, and the years following it, she returned to a nomadic existence of writing and public speaking in part to avoid attacks from the press, “particularly in California, for ‘abandoning’ her child and for being an ‘unnatural mother’” (Lane viii).

During this tumultuous time, Gilman wrote her most famous work, Women and Economics and it was first published in 1898 (Lane viii).  She went on to write many more books that further galvanized her prominence and reputation.  Following her second marriage to George Houghton Gilman in 1900, she began publishing The Forerunner in November 1909 until December 1916.  The Forerunner was a monthly magazine that contained articles and stories that supported socialism, Edward Bellamy’s “Nationalism,” and women’s rights issues.  It was during 1915 that her comedic utopian novel, Herland found its first and only publishing during her lifetime.

Alice B. Sheldon, who later assumed the pseudonyms James Tiptree, Jr. and Raccoona Sheldon, was born on August 24, 1915 to Mary Wilhelmina Hastings and Herbert Edwin Bradley (Phillips 12).  Mary was a socialite and writer, and Herbert established his wealth with shrewd Chicago housing investments.  Together, they traveled on safaris in Africa, and they brought Alice along with them.  Alice was never left wanting, and her early life was punctuated by adventure and attention (though not always welcomed).  Before the Second World War, she had a tumultuous marriage to William Davey, and she considered a life in making art.

Unlike Gilman, Sheldon didn’t settle on one career earlier in life.  She worked at photoreconnaissance in World War II, where she met her second husband, Huntington Denton Sheldon, and subsequently worked for the CIA.  Between the war and joining the CIA, Sheldon and her husband ran a chicken hatchery, and she earned a PhD in experimental psychology following her work with the CIA.  It was during the final stages of her dissertation, that she rediscovered SF, something that she had enjoyed in her youth, and wrote four stories of her own, which she mailed out to magazines under the pseudonym, James Tiptree, Jr.

Gilman, Sheldon, and First Wave Feminism

Before continuing, it’s important to describe the political movements that both of these authors arrive from initially.  Gilman and other women around the turn of the century were building political power for change and improvement to the lives of women.  Today, we call this movement in America, First Wave Feminism.  First Wave Feminism has deep roots and an established history that goes back hundreds of years.  Many historians and critics point to the Enlightenment as the beginning of feminist thought, because it was also the time when established systems of political control and patriarchy were challenged.  A notable date for American First Wave Feminism is the year 1776 when Abigail Adams wrote a letter to her husband, John Adams, to “remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors” (par. 1).  John Adams incredulous response was, “As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh…We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight” (pars. 7 and 12).  The struggle for women’s rights and issues would be a long and arduous one, but significant change was on the horizon when Gilman was born.

Gilman grew into a world where many women were fighting for universal suffrage and additional rights for women at the turn of the twentieth century.  There were two prongs to this and they were the woman’s movement and feminism.  The woman’s movement preserved sex and gender differences while taking back the language of patriarchy and supporting municipal housekeeping (i.e., if a woman can run a household, why can’t she run things in the public sphere).  On the other hand, feminism challenges the idea that there are fundamental difference between men and women.  This idea grows out of the increasing awareness and promotion of socialism at that time.  Feminists sought women’s rights rather than supporting assumed concepts of “duties.”  Also, proponents viewed economic and sexual freedom as intertwined.

Gilman, following a writing tradition established by revolutionary writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and her 1792 published A Vindication of the Rights of Women, employed writing to get her vision promoted with reasoned arguments.  Her most recognizable work is Women and Economics first published in 1898.  However, her rediscovered serialized novel from 1915, Herland, is a more humorous story that uses the utopian tradition to elucidate liberal humanist themes and her thoughts on women’s issues.  The major liberal humanist themes that Gilman promotes in Herland include:  meditations on the changeability of human nature (usually for the better), inevitability of human progress, inevitability of human rationality and reason, and the danger of unexamined authority.  Also, these themes can be seen through a feminist lens as including:  the danger of women’s economic subordination and the need to replace existing male-dominated power structures with new ones based on female nurturance and cooperation.  Furthermore, Ann J. Lane describes Gilman’s particular approach to enacting change:

Convinced of the plasticity of human nature, she vehemently sought to destroy the molds into which people, especially but not only, female people, were forced.  Her specific contribution to this wing of Social Darwinist thought was her assertion that women, as a collective entity, could, if they so chose, be the moving force in the reorganization of society (x).

Gilman, as did other leftist thinkers at the turn of the century understood, it was the power and will of the people that could evince change.  For her, it was the power of women, as half of the population, to “be the moving force in the reorganization of society.”  She hoped to enact this political shift through the ideology of First Wave Feminism and the woman’s movement:

In her utopia, Charlotte Perkins Gilman transforms the private world of mother-child, isolated in the individual home, into a community of mothers and children in a socialized world.  It’s a world in which humane social values have been achieved by women in the interest of us all (Lane xxiii).

“A world in which human social values have been achieved by women in the interest of us all” is the central, defining theme of Herland.

Where does Alice B. Sheldon/James Tiptree, Jr. fit into Gilman’s and other First Wave Feminists’ ideologies and plans?  Sheldon was born the same year that Herland was serialized in Gilman’s The Forerunner.  Her mother, Mary, was clearly an independent woman who was well respected, published, and not afraid of hunting in the unexplored wilds of Africa at the turn of the century.  However, Mary played a role of the socially active and ebullient woman who flirted, hosted parties, and enchanted men with her stories and charms.  Also, Sheldon considered getting married again after her first failed marriage to Davey in order to achieve independence from her parents prior to getting an art critic job at the Chicago Sun (Phillips 104).  In fact, Sheldon didn’t espouse hard line feminist ideals in her early life beyond wanting to do the things that she was interested in, and that was not something available for compromise, which is something Gilman learned the importance of in her first marriage and the medical treatment she received during the depression following her daughter’s birth.

It was after World War II that she began to find out more about women’s rights and issues.  Phillips writes about Sheldon’s discovery:

What Alli finally discovered in the 1950s was women’s work.  She read Hannah Arendt, who led her to Simone de Beauvoir.  She studied Rebecca West and Mary Wollstonecraft.  In 1955 she told Dr. K that she was reading Lady Murasaki and that a man friend had just given her Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (192).

It’s highly unlikely that Sheldon read anything by Gilman, because Gilman was not largely rediscovered until late Second Wave Feminism.  Additionally, Phillips responded to an email query that neither Alice or Mary mention Gilman in their personal writing.  This makes the connections between these two authors’ works that much more interesting.

Sheldon’s late awakening to First Wave Feminism beyond her own headstrong and striving character to lead her own life and propagate negentropy (altruistic adding information and order to the universe), situates her in a unique position as a bridge between the old guard and the approaching Second Wave marked by the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966.

Second Wave Feminism and Its Influence on Sheldon

Following World War II, the short term freedoms won by women both on the home front (e.g., jobs, economic independence, and greater self-esteem and personal worth) as well as on the front lines (e.g., the Women’s Army Corps, of which Sheldon was a member during her photoreconnaissance work in WWII) didn’t last for long.  However, there was a backlash against women in the wake of the war that by-and-large forced them back into the home.

Many women struck back at these trends to enforce culturally derived notions about a woman’s place in society.  Leading up to Second Wave Feminism there were several key events and shifts taking place that led to the new wave.  First, Esther Peterson was named Assistant Secretary of Labor and Director of the United States Women’s Bureau for President John F. Kennedy.  She directed investigations and commissions that uncovered discrimination against women across the board, which led state and city governments to follow suit and form their own commissions.  Another impetus was Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which was published in 1963, and it disseminated what is best described as a popularized version of the government reports.  Then, in an attempt to kill the Civil Rights Act of 1964, certain members of Congress included sex along with race and religion as criteria barring discrimination.  However, this ploy failed, and as a result, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, and religion.  And finally, women were already involved in the civil rights and peace movements, but they were restricted from attaining the higher positions within these organizations.  Therefore, women had to go out on their own and found organizations, such as NOW, to address issues with which they were most concerned.

These new organizations, as well as individuals, were concerned about several key issues.  The Equal Rights Amendment was hoped to establish equality by employing simple language:  “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex” (Paul sec. 1).  There were also struggles over reintegrating women into the public sphere and the work place.  One way to accomplish this was achieved in the 1972 Title IX Education Codes, which regulate how education is done in public schools.  It guarantees access to education regardless of sex.  Other important goals involved women’s health care issues (e.g., physical, mental, and spiritual), and domestic issues such as having access to the things that make a household work (e.g., having a credit card in one’s own name).

Sheldon was aware of the growth of women’s rights, and she contributed to the effort through letter writing and research that ultimately didn’t result in a book as she had initially hoped.  After Sheldon had begun writing SF as James Tiptree, Jr., she paused in the spring and summer of 1973 to begin a new project.  It was to be “a book under her own name, on the nature of women, to be called ‘The Human Male’” (Phillips 291).  It was to be an “answer to all the ‘scientific’ studies men had produced over the years on Woman” (Phillips 291).  Sheldon set out to counter male centric views in these ways:

It would review current research on gender differences while serving as a guide for young women to the male world and the male agenda…At the same time, by talking about men from a woman’s point of view, it would illustrate women’s way of looking at the world (Phillips 291).

Had “The Human Male” been completed and published, it would have been a work much like Gilman’s earlier works about women, and it would have employed a strategy similar to that Gilman uses in Herland.  However, Sheldon never finished “The Human Male,” but she did utilize “talking about men from a woman’s point of view” in a future Tiptree story, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”

Twice Told Tales:  Herland and “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”

Sheldon, as Tiptree, wrote stories about women either escaping the bounds of Earth and male patriarchy, as in “The Women Men Don’t See,” or women who entered the patriarchic circuit found only pain and death as in “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.”  However, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” is a compelling example, because it follows on the footsteps, most probably unknowingly, on that of Gilman’s Herland.  Both works appropriate a male voice, but the dissonances and contrasts reveal a woman’s point of view speaking of men.

Herland is about a group of three male adventurers who discover an isolated land only attainable by the then new technology of powered flight, and there they discover much to their initial disbelief that only women populate it.  In fact, as Lane describes:

In Herland women have created a utopia without men at all.  Again this world is unfolded through male eyes and a male consciousness, not in the traditional manner of a dialogue, but through the dramatic confrontation that occurs when three American men stumble on an all-female society (xiii).

The “dramatic confrontation” allows “Gilman [to romp] through the game of what is feminine and what is masculine, what is manly and what is womanly, what is culturally learned and what is biologically determined male-female behavior” (Lane xiii).  The author’s questioning of accepted sex/gender roles through contrasts and confrontation breaks with the typically didactic approach of earlier utopia fictions.

Gilman explores male points of view through her three American male creations in the story:  Terry, Jeff, and Van.  Terry is a hyper-masculine chauvinist, who is rich, a dilettante, and mechanically inclined.  Jeff is a sentimentalist who is the opposite of Terry, because he idolizes women and reads poetry.  Between these polar opposites is Van, a sociologist.  He represents a synthesis of Terry and Jeff, but he’s also a willing learner and he never fit in well in our world outside Herland.

The men are presented with a world created by Gilman that combines elements of “the new woman” and “the true woman” into what Rebecca Holden labeled, “the new, true woman.”  This amalgamation combines the “new woman’s” concept of “angels in the household” with the “true woman’s” “cult of domesticity” and “cult of true woman,” both of which were debated during the era of First Wave Feminism.  Examples of the “new woman” in Gilman’s Herland include:  Celis insisting on carrying her own basket (92), the women’s control over their own sexuality and the sheer force of will to procreate (56), breaking the linkage between child bearing and childrearing (102-103), the women are “people” (137), switched gender roles, and Herlanders radical departure from Christianity (109).  Examples of the “true woman” in Herland overlaps some of those of the “new woman” and include:  sexual purity and non-sexuality, always considering the future, having children and nurturance, municipal housekeeping (e.g., Herland is like a great big house where the cats are quiet, everything has a purpose, it’s tidy, and there’s no distinction between public and private spheres), switched gender roles (e.g., Moadine was “patient…courteous,” but also described as “some great man” on page 74), and the religion of Herland as the worship of Motherhood or the cult of true womanhood (109).

James Tiptree, Jr.’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” echoes the issues and narrative themes in Gilman’s Herland, though through a far-future lens and in light of the shift from First Wave Feminism to Second Wave Feminism.  Tiptree’s approach to this relied on her, “[embracing] evolutionary biology as a source of hope.  Only when people understood their biological drives, she believed, could they transcend them, learn to control their emotions, and achieve real cultural change” (Phillips 293).  She embraced this in her writings as James Tiptree, Jr. and Raccoona Sheldon.  Also, her transcendent beliefs mirror those held by Gilman in that culturally derived containers that box people, particularly women, in, are something to be resisted and overcome.  However, Sheldon, as an experimental psychologist, believed that much of our behavior is wired into us, and “one of the ironies of [Sheldon’s] career as Tiptree is that she insisted most on the biological, essential nature of gender at the moment she seemed to be proving that it was all an act, that gender was what you said it was after all” (Phillips 294).

She did embrace the consciousness raising works and Second Wave Feminism beliefs, at least in part, because she realized how dated her own mother’s views were regarding equality of the sexes.  Her mother’s “independent spirit had begun to tarnish in Alli’s eyes.  Like many older women, Mary resisted the new wave of feminism, and Alli now described her as ‘distinctly unliberated’” (Phillips 296).  Additionally, her correspondence with other women SF writers, most notably Joanna Russ, further fueled her recognition of the plights of Second Wave Feminism.  However, these exchanges were tempestuous at times, because Sheldon performed herself as the male James Tiptree, Jr. in her correspondence as well as her writing until her identity was revealed in late 1976.

Sheldon, as Tiptree, received a real education about Second Wave Feminism from Russ, but she had been exposed to all major varieties through her reading.  The four types of Second Wave Feminism included liberal humanist feminism, Marxist feminism, radical feminism, and lesbian separatist feminism.  Betty Friedan is most closely associated with liberal humanist feminism.  Gilman and the contemporary critic, Shulamith Firestone are aligned with Marxist feminism and it’s analysis of reproduction with production.  The Catholic philosopher Mary Daly is a well known radical feminist who believes that patriarchy can not be changed from within–the entire system would need to be scraped and rebuilt from the ground up.  Lesbian separatist feminism is often connected to radical feminism, but it also holds that emotions for another woman are feminist ideas, and that only women can be feminists.  Joanna Russ runs the gamut between radical and a lesbian separatist both in her fiction and professional writing.  For example, Russ “wouldn’t accept [Tiptree] as an admirer, only sometimes as a sympathetic figure, and as a feminist not at all” (Phillips 305).

With these things at heart, Sheldon, as James Tiptree, Jr., began contemplating a new story for Vonda McIntyre’s upcoming anthology, Aurora:  Beyond Equality.  McIntyre and her coeditor, Susan Janice Anderson tasked Tiptree, Russ, and others to write “fiction that explored what the world might look like after equality between the sexes had been achieved” (Phillips 304).  The result for Tiptree was “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”  “Houston” is about a space mission with three men onboard who are flung several hundred years into the future after encountering an energetic solar flare at pointblank range.  These men discover that they are in a future inhabited only by cloned women who exist in an anarchistic culture of creativity and exploration on planets and in space.  In the end, two of the three spacemen react against their female rescuers and all three are ambiguously confined, because as Lady Blue tells Dr. Lorimer, “We can hardly turn you loose on Earth, and we simply have no facilities for people with your emotional problems” (Tiptree 221).

The obvious connection to Herland in “Houston” has to do with the fact that it’s a society of women with a unique means of reproduction.  Lorimer, the beta physicist of the three men, realizes when talking to the “twin” female Judys, “You aren’t sisters…You’re what we called clones” (Tiptree 206).  Judy Dakar replies, “Well, yes…We call it sisters” (Tiptree 206).  Gilman’s parthenogenesis in Herland, if there were some kind of scientific basis to it, would result in cloned children of the mother.  In “Houston,” there are many copies, but each copy is an individual with her own personality, goals, and abilities possibly shared with the other clones, but not necessarily so.  The elimination of men in the story necessitates women finding a way to continue the species.  However, a double meaning underlying the cloning is the solidarity and shared experience of women that’s realized through the “book” that each of the 11,000 clone types share to pass along information and experience across and between generations (Tiptree 207).  As sisters, they are human beings that sing, “Adventure songs, work songs, mothering songs, roaming songs, mood songs, trouble songs, joke songs–everything” (Tiptree 207).  Also, they have love–friendships as well as deeper, physical love, which is diametrically opposite to the asexualized beings in Herland who literally consider one another sisters.  Another layer of meaning to the clones comes from a letter Tiptree wrote to Ursula K. Le Guin, in which she wrote, “the clone fantasy arose…from, ‘my own loneliness and longing for siblings–sisters especially’” (qtd. in Phillips 311).  Additionally, clones imply the elimination of having to make choices, which for Sheldon would have seriously considered in order to relieve her own stresses imposed by pushing herself professionally and creatively (Phillips 311).

A further parallel between Herland and “Houston” is that mothering and childcare take place behind the scenes.  In both cases, there’s a portion of telling, but little showing by either author.  Tiptree briefly describes the implementation of enucleated ovum in a mother’s womb, and Gilman recounts the parthenogenesis and restrictions placed on potential mothers in Herland.  These stories are significantly different than Joanna Russ’ Whileaway in The Female Man and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time in the way that childbirth and rearing are carefully described.

Sheldon breaks with Gilman regarding the ‘new true woman.’  Sheldon’s Second Wave Feminist ideals enables these future women to be sexual beings that enjoy one another and establish relationships beyond friendship.  In part, this is probably a wish fulfillment on Sheldon’s part, because of her own unrealized lesbian fantasies and relationships.

This is one of the things that the three astronauts in “Houston” are unable to wrap their patriarchal minds around.  Unlike Terry, Jeff, and Van, the astronauts aboard the Sunbird are all more or less chauvinistic.  Dr. Orren Lorimer is a physicist, and the narrator of the story.  Often there, but observing instead of acting, he’s accompanied by the alpha males of his crew compliment:  Major Norman (Dave) Davis and Captain Bud Geirr.  Bud rapes one of the female crew members aboard the Aurora, Dave tries to kill them all in support of his Judeo-Christian fundamentalism, and Lorimer watches and is slow to act in favor of the women with whom he’s supposedly aligned.

The actions and reactions of the male astronauts propelled into the future, “raises many more questions than it answers, including ‘Are men/women really like that?’ and ‘Is this society really happy?’” (Phillips 311).  On the one hand, these characters are extremes or archetypes that Tiptree employs to realize her utopia.  Additionally, “Tiptree said at the time that he was enjoying imagining the world of ‘Houston.’  It’s a world of cool, competent women who take care of practical matters while the men flounder in a useless search for hierarchy and authority” (Phillips 311).

As Phillips points out, the story very much rests on the problems of the men choosing to either conform or react to their new surroundings.  They come from a society very much entrenched in hierarchy and based on a command structure.  Coupled to that structure is the belief that as men, they are superior to women physically, mentally, and morally.  Cracking under the pressures of arriving in a ‘brave new world,’ Dave reverts to the patriarchy of his religion to enforce order, and Bud lapses into misogynistic power over women through rape.  Dave exceeds his rank by noting his middle name of “Paul” and proselytizing, “I was sent here…You have spared us from the void to bring Your light to this suffering world.  I shall lead Thine erring daughters out of the darkness.  I shall be a stern but merciful father to them in Thy name” (Tiptree 218).  Dave’s self-righteousness as a male, Christian leads him to the conclusion that the new world order is evil and it’s up to him as the ranking male to enforce God’s will on these feminine profaners.

When Bud rapes Judy in the bower, he openly speaks his inner thoughts under the influence of a drug administered by the women.  Between telling Judy sweet nothings and coaxing her towards sex, he says, “You can tell you’ve been out too long when the geeks start looking good.  Knockers, ahhh–,” and “Ass-s-s…Up you bitch, ahhh-hh” (Tiptree 213).  For Bud, the women are objects subject to his will and exist for his gratification.  His hostility to women marks him as a misogynist surpassing even Terry in Herland.  However, even more interesting about this character is his refusal to believe that he and his two crewmates are literally the last men.  Judy, held and shaken by Bud, asks, “Why do there have to be men,” and Bud replies, “Why, you stupid bitch…Because, dummy, otherwise nothing counts, that’s why” (Tiptree 215).  For Bud, Dave, and even Lorimer, men are the unit by which progress and life are measured.  Without male patriarchy, “nothing counts” in their antiquated worldview.

One final comparison between the two stories involves the use of plants in both stories.  Herlanders cultivate the Earth by means of a harmonious arrangement that doesn’t serve to deplete or destroy their isolated ecosystem.  The female spacefarers of “Houston” use plants for air and food on their long journeys.  It’s necessary for them to maintain a balanced ecosystem within the metal confines of their ship holding out the vacuum of space.  In Herland, Van comments on Jeff by recording, “Jeff, with his gentle romantic old-fashioned notions of women as clinging vines” (Gilman 21).  Tiptree mentions vines, particularly kudzu, within the confines of the women’s spaceship Gloria.  The literary identification of the vine with Eve/woman has a long history.  Horace and Virgil both wrote of the vine wedded to the elm, and in Christian theology and related literature such as Milton’s Paradise Lost, the identification falls between the vine/Eve and the elm/Adam.  However, Gilman and Tiptree use this imagery for different effect.  Gilman further develops Jeff as the hopeless romantic who idolizes women, and therefore doesn’t understand them as people, but as objects worthy of worship as defined by man.  Tiptree specifically names the vine as kudzu, which is a peculiar choice compared to the more pleasant vines like ivy (168).  Kudzu would be useful in a space environment, because it grows very quickly and spreads out to cover a large area.  In this sense, when the reader later discovers that the Earth has been overrun by women and the men metaphorically suffocated by a disease induced failure at the genetic level, it’s apparent that kudzu is more than a scientifically minded choice on Tiptree’s part.  However, kudzu’s enormous growth potential must be controlled, just as the cloning and expansion of the new feminine-only humanity is controlled collectively.

Tiptree’s use of kudzu and other troubling imagery in “Houston,” could be a warning about what might appear as a perfect lesbian separatist utopia, which Philips described thus:

Alli decided after all to write about an all-female world, as seen through the eyes of a male narrator.  She wanted to know what women would be like as themselves, outside men’s shadow.  The world of ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ is more peaceful than ours, and knows neither greed nor power.  But it does not seem like a free or comfortable place–certainly not a utopia in which Alli could live (310).

This is where the story derives its power.  Additionally, the story explores recurrent Tiptree themes:

The question of the alienness of women to men and men to women is an important one in her work.  The alienation of one sex from another stands as the paradigm, one to which she repeatedly returns, of other forms of difference, of the relation between self and Other (Lefanu 108).

Typically utopian authors build utopia to match their ideal world, but in this case Tiptree/Sheldon uses the utopian setting to challenge and provoke the reader.  And, it is this skill that she employed on her other stories to make them memorable and notable as great SF.


Reading and engaging Gilman’s Herland and Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” provides a new insight into the literary development of feminist literature in transition from First Wave Feminism to Second Wave Feminism.  Furthermore, reading these two works together brings out further meaning from each singular story.  They are in dialog with one another thematically, narratively, and culturally, and therefore, deserve critical analysis together even if the connection was not deliberate.

Herland provides a primarily upbeat and comical utopian fiction about the successes of a race of women, while “Houston” reveals darker themes about a female utopia threatened by the male penetrating force as well as the conviction of the new female-only world order.  First Wave Feminists such as Gilman were fighting for something that they had not had before, while Sheldon as a product of First and Second Wave Feminism shows a hidden anxiety about the potential loss of gains made, but she also makes clear that women are capable of confining threats and ultimately, building utopia.

The most fascinating thing about the parallels between Gilman and Sheldon’s lives and works is that Sheldon probably didn’t know about or read Herland.  The parallels in theme and narrative elements are unmistakable, but they are telling very different stories.  Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” is a bridge between time as well as ideological and political ideas.  Even today, these works are invaluable cultural resources that tell us about where we’ve been and they point the way to way to the future by challenging us to consider new possibilities as well as warn us about our launching pad.

Works Cited

Adams, Abigail and John.  “Letters Between Abigail Adams and Her Husband John Adams.”  The Liz Library Collections.  1998.  15 May 2007 <;.

Friedan, Betty.  The Feminine Mystique.  New York:  Dell, 1963.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins.  Herland.  New York:  Pantheon, 1979.

Horace. The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace. John Conington trans. London: George Bell and Sons, 1882. 17 May 2007 <;.

Lane, Ann J.  “Introduction to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland.”  Herland.  New York:  Pantheon, 1979.  v-xxiii.

Lefanu, Sarah.  Feminism and Science Fiction.  Bloomington and Indianapolis:  Indiana UP, 1989.

Milton, John.  Paradise Lost.  1674.  16 May 2007 <;.

Paul, Alice.  “Equal Rights Amendment.”  National Organization of Women.  1921.  16 May 2007 <;.

Piercy, Marge.  Woman on the Edge of Time.  London:  The Women’s Press, 2000.

Phillips, Julie.  Email to the author.  7 June 2007.

—.  James Tiptree, Jr.:  The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2006.

Russ, Joanna.  The Female Man.  London:  The Women’s Press, 2002.

Tiptree, James, Jr.  “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.”  Warm Worlds and Otherwise. New York: Ballantine, 1975. 79-121.

—.  “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”  Her Smoke Rose Up Forever:  The Great Years of James Tiptree, Jr.  Wisconsin:  Arkham House, 1990.  168-222.

—.  “The Women Men Don’t See.”  The Year’s Best Science Fiction No. 8.  ed. by Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss.  London:  Sphere, 1976.  57-88.

Vergil. Bucolics, Aeneid, and Georgics Of Vergil. J. B. Greenough. Boston: Ginn & Co, 1900.  17 May 2007 <;.

Published by 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 coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.