Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Tiptree: Master of Deception

The pervasive element I noticed in James Tiptree Jr.'s short stories was the effective use of deception to draw in and fascinate his readers. In his stories, the characters' secrets range from hiding one's true actions to simply sheltering his/her fundamental and pessimistic beliefs. Similarly, he also appears fond of hiding the true nature of the narrative until its conclusion which fools the reader into both making false assumptions and focusing intently on otherwise unimportant details up until the final twist. Naturally, this ties heavily into Tiptree's own existence as an fictional author created as a pen name by Alice B. Sheldon.

While the inherent pessimism of Tiptree's stories has been touched upon in other posts, there is the underlying element of deception both by Tiptree's characters and by his own writing style. In The Last Flight of Doctor Ain, the story is cadenced and told in a manner to suggest the titular character is trying to evade his own past crimes. With a rather ominous title and a narrative style the suggests it was compiled from eyewitness or police reports, the story is both a brainteaser and a thriller. Only in the final pages do we discover that Ain is not responsible for some petty (or even capital) offense. Rather he is responsible for the death of millions (billions?) in a global pandemic spawned by his laboratory. In this manner, Tiptree expertly masked key facts in order to build the tension in the narrative, finishing the story by revealing that Ain's crime was of an unanticipated magnitude.

The "Last Flight of Doctor Ain" is told as though compiled from news reports, only heightening the suspense leading up to the final reveal Ain's fatal crime.

Conversely, in other stories, the characters deceive each other while the reader is able to see the full picture. In The Girl Who Was Plugged In, Delphi's true nature as an "avatar" of the deformed P. Burke is not revealed to Paul until he accidentally kills both her true self and the body he fell in love with. Unlike The Last Flight of Doctor Ain, the excitement comes not from the reader seeking the truth, but rather from he/she discovering how the characters in the story finally realize the actual situation. Despite a predictable outcome (it is something of a failed-love story after all), we still empathize with Paul as he unknowingly kills both forms of his love, Delphi. Deception is once more used to build tension, though it is that of the characters rather than the reader that builds the suspense.

I had a feeling that "The Women Ment Don't See" had more to it than this.

Finally, Tiptree weaves both of his deceptions in The Women Men Don't See. In this case, the true story is hidden as the narrative simply follows the story of survival for a plane-wrecked quartet. I for one, suspected there was mischief afoot since the story seemed remarkably bland and straightforward for a Tiptree piece, at least until Aliens make a surprise appearance. In the closing pages, not only do Ruth and Althea suddenly reveal their pessimistic views of society, but also they commit to departing Earth in hope of experiencing an exciting and free world among the stars. Thus the truth of both the Parsons' eventual goal and the Sci Fi twist of the story are revealed simultaneously to the reader and the protagonist (Don). As a mark of excellent writing, Tiptree had convinced me (up until the conclusion) that the root issue would be a deeper mystery surrounding the Parsons. However, the final pages reveal that while there is in fact a mystery, it instead derives from the appearance of extraterrestrials rather than Ruth or Althea's shady past.

Much more Sci Fi now.

All in all, Tiptree is a master of using deception to excite, misdirect, and draw in the reader. Whether the reader him/herself or the story's characters are sheltered from the truth, the end result is the same, and exciting and suspenseful Sci Fi tale.


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