Who is Tiptree, What is He? (The full text of Robert Silverberg’s infamous introduction to James Tiptree, Jr.’s Warm Worlds and Otherwise)

Dear ONION,

I’ve transcribed Robert Silverberg’s entire introduction to James Tiptree, Jr.’s Warm Worlds and Otherwise – you know, that really infamous intro, the one with that well-publicized paragraph where Silverberg declares with full confidence that of course Tiptree is a man, you’d have to be balmy to think otherwise—

The introduction is at the bottom of this letter, in full.

As far as I can tell, this is the first time it’s being made easily available, and available online. The reason I’m doing this is because I want no one to have to go through the infuriating hoops that I did when trying to track the damn thing down.

And actually I’d been trying to track it for months, and the reasons I’ve been hunting it are (a) I wanted to read the whole introduction, not just that one paragraph, because I wanted to see what interesting things Silverberg had to say about Tiptree other than that, and (b) I’ve become very, very familiar with how easily a sentence alone, or even a whole paragraph, can totally shift tone and meaning when divorced from the context of the larger thing.

So I wanted to see how that paragraph fit into the larger thing. You know how it is.

As it turns out, the introduction was almost maliciously hard to track. I tried the internet first, of course, but every source online merely parroted that one paragraph, over and over and over, to the point that I began to wonder if that was the entire introduction after all—

So I figured I’d just locate a copy of the original book, right? But without having to buy a used copy from a shady Amazon bookseller, please. We live in a city with several massive library systems at our fingertips. And just because they never ever seem to stock the damn books I’m trying to hunt down doesn’t mean—

Anyway.

It turned out the NYPL did have a copy in stock (oh Scarlett, I nearly fainted in surprise!), though, of course, it was only available at an “off-site” storage location which meant you had to request it in advance, and then could only look at it in the reading room – no check-outs allowed.

Well, alright. I could work with that. I put in a request for the copy of Warm Worlds and Otherwise and waited.

And waited.

In the end it was several months of putting through the requests in different ways and getting them ignored till I finally set aside a lunch break during a slow week at work and got my lazy ass up to the library steps with the lions, and found the correct reading room for this sort of thing, and argued patiently with a librarian for most of my dwindling lunch hour, trying to explain to him that yes I had been submitting requests using their online service, and no I definitely checked my spam folder and I’d never received any e-mails from the library indicating that they’d gotten my requests, as far as I could tell, the requests were being swallowed by the void.

After some more of this, the librarian relented and gave me his business card. Told me to call him if the request didn’t go through again. And back to work I went.

Long story short, I never did get a confirmation e-mail about the book – I simply filed a request as usual, and then showed up at the library during the next day’s lunch break, on the hunch that the book just might have arrived silently and overnight.

Which, as it turned out, it had.

It is hard to describe the immense screeching satisfaction of holding that mustard-colored volume in my hands at last, after several months of trying to get my dirty mitts on the damn thing. Actually, I came really close to hugging the library clerk but I do not think she would have appreciated it, so instead I sat down at one of the reading room’s tables and, with enormous pleasure (and a sense, as always, of my lunch break rapidly dwindling away), began reading the introduction.

Almost immediately I began shaking with laughter, because here’s a thing, on the very first page of the introduction, which no one had thought to mention and it’s that Silverberg begins his introduction with a musing on how uncommon the last name “Tiptree” certainly is, how he searched phone book after phone book and found no trace of that last name in use anywhere, and then there are the following lines:

There are no entries for “Tiptree” in the Encyclopedia Britannica, either, save only a reference to Tiptree Heath in Essex, where, according to my 1910 edition, conditions are exceptionally favorable for growing strawberries, raspberries, and currants. An uncommon name, Tiptree.

Remember, dear friends, that Tiptree literally plucked her nom-de-plume from the label of a jar of Tiptree jam.

(Honestly I wonder if Silverberg has ever reread that part of his introduction and winced at his accidental prescience.)

But all that being said: I actually want to give Silverberg more credit than he usually gets, based on that one paragraph which keeps making the rounds…

Because Silverberg’s introduction is much longer than a paragraph – it is close to ten pages within the book – and Silverberg, who was an especially big name at that point in time, paid very deep tribute to Tiptree, to that new and enigmatic writer. It was in a sense the old guard bending knee to the new.

And, in the peculiar nature of the culture in the 1970s, Silverberg’s defense of Tiptree’s masculinity was – really – as much intended as a support of Tiptree-the-writer as Silverberg’s bent-knee introduction as a whole.

It is tempting to frame Silverberg as naive, since he described himself as wanting to believe not just in Tiptree’s masculinity, but also that the Tiptree name was not a nom-de-plume at all. Except, to frame Silverberg as naive is to misunderstand what I suspect to be Silverberg’s real game: a sort of political affirmation of Tiptree in the face of his doubters.

“Look at this prose. Look at how supple and lean it is – a true master, just like Hemingway. (And none of you guys would doubt Hemingway, would you?)

Silverberg recognized, rightly, that some attempts at penetrating the Tiptree mystique were, also, attempts to somehow reduce or contextualize the startling and disorienting fiction and persona. Harlan Ellison, for one, despite his general support of Tiptree, also gave a slight impression of being that annoying kid at a magic show who keeps piping up “I know how the trick is done, I bet you it’s up his sleeve, I bet you it’s done with mirrors, I bet you—”

Because for Harlan Ellison, being seen as “smart” and “in-the-know” has always been important. It is not in Ellison’s nature to humble himself to give honor to another.

Silverberg, on the other hand… Silverberg was making a political gesture, in his own quiet way, when he decided to assert that he would take everything that Tiptree said at face value.

He gave Tiptree the truest, most respectful introduction he could manage. He sacrificed his potential dignity in the name of supporting Tiptree, in the name of Tiptree’s writing and career. And Silverberg’s infamous paragraph, whether intended as so or not, has become a mighty boon to the Tiptree myth, and to the myth’s role in feminism and sci-fi in general.

Frankly Silverberg does not seem to mind. He is content. No rancor. And as he wrote to Tiptree when the secret came out: “You didn’t fool me; I fooled myself, and so be it.”

Silverberg’s introduction was meant to boost the book of a notorious but still fresh-to-the-field author. It was meant to use Silverberg’s entire reputation as a stepping stone that could raise that reputation of Tiptree.

And in the end, his introduction continues to boost Tiptree in that same way, to this day.

Willing ammunition provided by a true lover of the Tiptree prose—

.

Respectfully yours,

ARTICHOKE

Artichoke_signature

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

.

Introduction to Warm Worlds and Otherwise, by Robert Silverberg—

.

There is no one with the surname of “Tiptree” in the 1971 Manhattan telephone directory, which is the most recent Manhattan Telephone directory I own. I hadn’t expected to find James Tiptree, Jr. in the Manhattan book, because I know he gets his mail in a suburb of Washington, D.C. But there were no Tiptrees at all in the book, a fact I regard as significant, for I have long held the belief that every surname currently in human use is to be found in the Manhattan directory. Tiptree is, therefore, an uncommon name. (There are no Tiptrees to be found in the telephone books of the San Francisco region, where I live, and I suspect there are none in the directories for the Washington suburbs. There are no entries for “Tiptree” in the Encyclopedia Britannica, either, save only a reference to Tiptree Heath in Essex, where, according to my 1910 edition, conditions are exceptionally favorable for growing strawberries, raspberries, and currants. An uncommon name, Tiptree.)

An uncommon writer, too.

The name of James Tiptree, Jr. slipped quietly into the consciousness of the science-fiction-reading public with the March, 1968 issue of Analog, which offered a frenetic little farce called “Birth of a Salesman,” furnished with characters named Freggleglegg and Lovebody and Splinx and was distinguished mainly by a certain lunatic energy of pace. A few months later If published “The Mother Ship,” a substantial though conventional story about Earth’s first contact with aliens; and about the same time Fantastic ran Tiptree’s “Fault,” a trifle of a story built around a startling and disturbing concept of time-displacement. (It can be found in this collection—a good example of Tiptree apprentice-work.) The Tiptree byline popped up now and then through the autumn of 1968 and the early months of 1969, but it was the odd and evocative surname, rather than the stories themselves, that stuck in my mind.

The March, 1969 Galaxy, though, gave us a Tiptree which, while of unpretentious scope, opened trapdoor after trapdoor for the reader and ultimately shoved him neatly into the bottomless abyss. This was “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain,” hardly more than 2000 words long; it is also present in this volume. “Dr. Ain” captured the attention of enough members of the Science Fiction Writers of America to make it one of the four finalists in the short-story category on that year’s Nebula ballot. The other three nominees were by people named Ellison, Niven, and Silverberg; it happens that Silverberg took home the trophy that time, but the juxtaposition of one unfamiliar name on that ballot with three such well-known ones ensured that Tiptree’s next few offerings would get more than usual scrutiny from his fellow writers.

“Dr. Ain,” award nomination notwithstanding, is relatively primitive Tiptree; told hastily and jerkily, with disconcerting and superfluous changes of viewpoint. Tiptree himself has spoken disparagingly of his handling of the story, in an essay that appeared in the February, 1972 issue of Phantasmicon, an amateur journal of science-fiction commentary published in Baltimore. Yet in that same essay e noted that “Dr. Ain” fulfilled one of his major purposes as a writer: to convey the mystery and strangeness of existence. “Life,” he wrote, “plunks you and strangers making strange gestures, inexplicable caresses, threats, unmarked buttons you press with unforeseen results, important-sounding gabble in code . . . and you keep sorting it out, understanding later why she said or did whatever, why they screamed when you—

“. . . Take ‘The Last Flight of Dr. Ain.’ That whole damn story is told backward. . . . It’s a perfect example of Tiptree’s basic narrative instinct. Start from the end and preferably 5,000 feet underground on a dark day and then DON’T TELL THEM.”

That passage is a clue to Tiptree’s normal working method in almost all of these stories. He likes to create a sense of disorientation and alienation, gradually and never completely resolved as the story reaches its climax. This, perhaps, is why so many Tiptree stories are about alien life-forms, beings whose motives and purposes are unfathomable to us. The mindless monsters of “On the Last Afternoon,” the silent intruders of “The Woman Men Don’t See,” the hideous gray lumps of “The Milk of Paradise,” the biology-driven beings of “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death,” even the winsome, wistful alien of “All the Kinds of Yes,” all reflect some underlying Tiptreesque view of the universe as a strange, all but incomprehensible place, through which we wander in a brave, desperate, but only occasionally successful quest for answers.

Tiptree has chosen—perhaps out of a cunning sense of public relations, perhaps out of some reclusive component in his nature—to cloak his own persona in mystery. Science fiction is a field in which writers naturally gravitate together, in which it is not at all unusual for nearly all of a writer’s closest friends to be fellow science-fictionists; yet I know no one within the s-f fraternity who has met Tiptree, no one who has any idea what he looks like or what he does for a living. As his reputation as a writer has grown, and it grew mightily through 1970 and 1971 and 972 as his work became increasingly accomplished, curiosity about the man behind the stories became intense—especially once it was apparent that he intended to maintain as much privacy as possible in this notoriously gregarious literary universe. He writes letters, yes, copious and vigorous letters, but the return address is a post-office box in Virginia. He makes no telephone calls to editors, agents, or other writers. If he comes to science-fiction conventions, he does so incognito.

Inflamed by Tiptree’s obstinate insistence on personal obscurity, science-fictionists have indulged themselves in the wildest sort of speculation about him. His real name, it is often said, is something other than Tiptree, though no one knows what it might be. (That “Tiptree” is a pseudonym is plausible enough, but I rather hope it isn’t so. I like the name and want it to belong by birthright to the man who uses it on these stories.) It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing. I don’t think the novels of Jane Austen could have been written by a man nor the stories of Ernest Hemingway by a woman, and in the same way I believe the author of the James Tiptree stories is male.

Because Tiptree lives just a few miles from the Pentagon, or at least uses a mailing address in that vicinity, and because in his letters he often reports himself as about to take off for some remote part of the planet, the rumor constantly circulates that in “real” life he is some sort of government agent involved in high-security work. His obviously first-hand acquaintance with the world of airports and bureaucrats, as demonstrated in such stories as “The Women Men Don’t See,” gives some support to this notion, just as his equally keen knowledge of the world of hunters and fishermen, in the same story, would appear to prove him male. Tiptree’s admisstion[sic] to one of his editors that he spent most of World War II in a Pentagon subbasement has contributed to this myth, and his place in the Federal bureaucracy seemed to be confirmed when he wrote to me, a few years ago, that he was “a Midwesterner who batted around jungly parts of the globe when young and worse jungles with desks when old.” Recently, however, Tiptree has tried to spike some of these rumors, declaring, “I do not, repeat it, work for the CIA, the FBI, NSA, the Treasury, the narcs, or the Metropolitan Park Police.”

For information of a non-negative kind about his life we must turn the sixth issue (June, 1971) of that estimable Baltimore s-f journal, Phantasmicom. The editors of this mimeographed publication, Jeffrey D. Smith and Donald G. Keller, struck up a close postal acquaintance with Tiptree early on, and over the years have inveigled from him a valuable series of revealing pieces. In Phantasmicom 6 Tiptree submitted to an interview by editor Smith, in which he declared:

“I was born in the Chicago area a long time back, trailed around places like colonial India & Africa as a kid . . . I’m one of those for whom the birth and horrendous growth of Nazism was the central generation event. From it I learned most of what I know about politics, about human life, about good and evil, courage, free will, fear, responsibility, and What To Say Goodbye To. . . . And, say it again, about Evil. And Guilt. If one of the most important things to know about a person is the face of his nightmares, for me that face looks much like my own. . . .

“At any event, by the time I had finished the decade’s worth of instruction in How Things Are provided by this event—you know, joining organizations, getting in the Army, milling around in early forms of American left-wing sentiment, worrying about Is It Going to Happen Here—an occupation I haven’t given up—getting out of the Army, doing a little stint in government, trying a dab in business, etc., etc., I realized that my whole life, my skills and careers, such as they were, my friends, everything had been shaped by this event, and rather derailed from what I’d intended to be in a vague way.”

The person who comes through to me from those autobiographical statements does not seem to be any sort of secret agent, though he may well have some sort of professional entanglement with the Washington bureaucracy. Tiptree himself, in the Smith interview, offers several reasons for his rigid separation of personal life and literary career, among them that he feels a reader’s evaluation of a story ought not to be colored by special knowledge of the writer’s background or personality and that “the people I have to do with include many specimens of prehistoric man, to whom the news that I write ugh, science fiction would shatter any credibility I have left.” But he also invokes a certain playfulness: “The last remaining part of my secretiveness is probably nothing more than childish glee. At last I have what every child wants, a real secret life. Not an official secret, not a q-clearance polygraph-enforced bite-the-capsule-when-they-get-you secret, nobody else’s damn secret but MINE. Something THEY don’t know. Screw Big Brother. A beautiful secret REAL world, with real people, fine friends, does of great deeds & speakers of the magic word, Frodo’s people if you wish, and they write to me and accept my offerings, and I’m damned if I feel like opening the door between that magical reality and the universal shitstorm known as the real (sob) world. . . .”

So, then James Tiptree—a man of 50 or 55, I guess, possibly unmarried, fond of outdoor life, restless in his everyday existence, a man who has seen much of the world and understands it well. All of these are mere hypotheses, based largely on the evidence of the Phantasmicom articles, Tiptree’s own occasional letters, and the stories themselves, which I think reflect much of the authentic Tiptree in characters like Dr. Ain, slinking from airport to airport, or Ruth Parsons of that remarkable story “The Women Men Don’t See,” determinedly tight-lipped about every aspect of her life in government service. What is not hypothetical is the quality of Tiptree’s writing, which has grown steadily more powerful and profound in the few years since his debut.

“My aim really is not to bore,” he has said. “I read my stuff with radar out for the first dead sag, the signal of oncoming boredom. The onset of crap, stuffing, meaningless filler, wrongness. And don’t repeat at me, you bastard. . . . Bleeding Sebastian, how I have been bored in my life. . . . I won’t do it o anyone else. If I can help it.”

Tiptree’s stories don’t bore. They are lean, muscular, supple, relying heavily on dialog broken by bursts of stripped-down exposition. Although there is no real stylistic influence discernible, I think his work is analogous to that of Hemingway, in that Hemingway preferred to be simple, direct, and straightforward, at least on the surface. He was also a formidable and extraordinary technical innovator, who altogether reshaped the character of the modern short story, but Hemingway kept that aspect of his art well out of sight of the casual reader. Hemingway was a deeper and trickier writer than he pretended to be; so too with Tiptree, who conceals behind an aw-shucks artlessness an astonishing skill for shaping scenes and misdirecting readers into unexpected abysses of experience. And there is, too, that prevailing masculinity about both of them—that preoccupation with questions of courage, with absolute values, with the mysteries and passions of life and death as revealed by extreme physical tests, by pain and suffering and loss. Hemingway, of course, much diluted his reputation as a writer in his later years by indulging in public escapades that made him look foolish and absurd; Tiptree has made no such error.

This is only the second book of Tiptree’s to be published. The first came out in 1973, from Ace Books—Ten Thousand Light-Years From Home, a collection of fifteen stories that appeared originally between 1968 and 1972. It includes most of Tiptree’s earliest stories, though several major works of 1969 puzzlingly have been excluded from both Tiptree volumes to date—the novelet “Your Haploid Heart” being the most conspicuous of these mysterious omissions. The Ace collection, because it spans five years of work, does show Tiptree’s evolution from a skilled handler of convention s-f materials to the darker, more powerful artist he later became: such stories as “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side[sic] (1971), “The Man Who Walked Home” (1972), and the terrifying, nightmarish “Painwise” (1972) testify to that newer, deeper Tiptree.

The present volume provides a similar cross-section of Tiptree’s work, containing not only his most recent short stories but also a good many that date from the first couple of years from his career–”The Last Flight of Dr. Ain” (1969), “Fault” (1968), “Through a Lass Darkly” (1970), and two or three others. They are respectable little stories, the writing of which would be a disgrace to no one, but they serve here mainly to illuminate the growth of the writer-to-be. The heart of this book is the group of 1972 and 1973 stories. As, for example, “The Women Men Don’t See” (1973), which I think is something of a masterpiece of short-story writing: structurally simple, but vivid in detail and overwhelming in psychological insight. The thematic solution is an ancient s-f cliche—Earth-women carried off by flying-saucer folk—redeemed and wholly transformed by its sudden shattering vision of women, stolid and enduring, calmly trading one set of alien masters for another that may be more tolerable. It is a profoundly feminist story told in an entirely masculine manner, and deserves close attention by those in the front lines of the wars of sexual liberation, male and female.

Then there is “On the Last Afternoon” (1972)–a flawed story, to me, trying but not quite succeeding to mate an introspective narrative and scenes of terrible energy. Yet it is worthy despite its problems of structure because it demonstrates one of Tiptree’s special gifts: his ability to create a scene of sustained and prolonged movement, a juggernaut; when the aliens come ashore in all their monstrous unthinking bulk he gives us a characteristic Tiptree specialty, a sense of extended process, that makes the scene literally unforgettable. (See also Evan’s climb of The Clivorn in “And I have Come Upon This Place by Lost Ways,” or the manifestation of the alien being in a novella not included in this books, “A Momentary Taste of Being.”)

And so much more—the comic extravaganza of “All Kinds of Yes,” the Nebula-winning “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death,” the Hugo-winning “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” the sinister and chilling “The Milk of Paradise”—oh, a feast, positively a feast. An unusual book, an uncommon writer.

We have much to look forward to. Tiptree has not yet, so far as I know, written a novel; the long story “A Momentary Taste of Being,” published in 1975, is the closest he came to a large-scale work. When he feels ready for it, he’ll write one, and it will amaze us. At 50 or 55 or whatever age he may be, Tiptree is in a state of constant growth and change. In the most recent of his Phantasmicom pieces, a memorable essay called “Going Gently Down,” he meditates on the coming of old age and offers these closing thoughts, thoughts which augur well for the future course of his development as an artist:

“By the time you get to sixty (I think) the brain is a place of incredible resonances. It’s packed full of life, histories, processes, patterns, half-glimpsed analogies between a myriad levels. . . . One reason old people reply slowly is because every word and cue wakes a thousand references.

“What if you could free that, open it? Let go of ego and status, let everything go and smell the wind, feel your dimming senses for what’s out there, growing. Let your resonances merge and play and come back changed . . . telling you new things. Maybe you could find a way to grow, to change once more inside . . . even if the outside of you is saying, “What, what?” and your teeth smell.

“But to do it you have to get ready, years ahead. Get ready to let go and migrate in and up into your strongest keep, your last window out. Pack for your magic terminal trip, pack your braid, ready it. Fear no truth. Load up like a river steam-boat for the last big race when you go downriver burning it all up, not caring, throwing in the furniture, the cabin, the decks right down to the water line, caring only for the fire carrying you where you’ve never been before.

“Maybe . . . somehow . . . one could.”

.

Robert Silverberg, in his introduction to Warm Worlds and Otherwise by James Tiptree, Jr.

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About onionandartichoke

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a pair of vegetables in possession of a good quantity of opinions must be in want of a blog. Onion and Artichoke: Purveyors of Fine Literary Reviews, Discussions of Modern Life, and Only Infrequent Eviscerations. (With occasional contributions from Messrs. Aubergine, Leek, and Zucchini.) ------------- We are two college friends in our twenties, who live in the same city and (as of April 2014) have the good luck of working in the same office too. Onion runs the Tumblr, and Artichoke runs the WordPress. Onion is media-savvy; Artichoke mispronounces words on the regular. Onion is full of grace; Artichoke listens to Ace of Base. Onion is a bulb; Artichoke is a thistle. We hope this has been a very informative reading experience. Sincerely, ONION and ARTICHOKE
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One Response to Who is Tiptree, What is He? (The full text of Robert Silverberg’s infamous introduction to James Tiptree, Jr.’s Warm Worlds and Otherwise)

  1. Pingback: BREXIT AND AGATHA CHRISTIE | Onion & Artichoke

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