The Tiptree Question

In the Challenge Cheryl series of articles, David Moles asked:

What should have won the Tiptree this year?

As I explained to David at the time, I can’t answer this question as posed without reading a whole lot more books. In particular I haven’t read many of the books on this year’s Tiptree honor list. I have, on the other hand, read a lot of books that might have been on that list (several of which I actually recommended to the jury). I can talk about those books, and about the general process of choosing a Tiptree winner. If you are spoiler-averse, stop reading now.

We should start with a definition. According to the official web site, the Tiptree is an award for:

science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender

Quite what that means is up for grabs. The Tiptree jury changes each year, and each jury is encouraged to come to its own conclusion as to what it is supposed to be looking for. There is no official oversight of the jury to ensure that its deliberations are in line with the philosophical requirements of the award. The most control that the Tiptree Motherboard has is in the choice of the jury. Once those jurors are empanelled everything else is, as I understand it, up to them.

This leaves the whole process in a very fluid state. What do we mean by “science fiction” or “fantasy”? What do we mean by “expands” or “explores”? And what do we mean by “gender”? All of these things can be debated, and there is no guarantee that this year’s jury will come to the same conclusions as last year’s. In many ways, Tiptree watching is as much a case of trying to understand what the jury saw as its remit as it is of looking at the works that came out on top of the pile.

On the other hand, such deliberations never take place in a vacuum. The approaches that individual juries take regarding their task will be affected, not only by the make-up of the jury, but also by the intellectual climate of the time in which their decisions are made. John Clute has a fascinating concept of the “Real Year” of a science fiction story, which is not the year in which the story is supposed to take place, but the year in our world from which the story can best be understood. Often this will be the year in which the story is written, but with a particularly far-sighted or conservative writer the Real Year could be later or earlier than that. (And some stories have no obvious Real Year.)

Tiptree juries often tend to pick works whose Real Year is close to the year in which the jury makes its deliberations. If the exploration of gender that is contained in a book is seen to be old-fashioned in terms of current feminist thought then that book will be unlikely to win. After all, such a book doesn’t “expand” or “explore”, it merely re-states. Equally a book that makes an argument that is ahead of current feminist thought may lose out because the jury doesn’t accept that argument as valid or appropriate.

Early winners of the Tiptree tended to focus purely on standard feminist issues – “women’s rights”. Later on the award went to books that explored sexual orientation, transgender issues, and even masculinity. It has occasionally been suggested that successive Tiptree juries were trying to out-do each other in their choice of new and more outrageous examples of gender exploration. The obvious question is, “what next?” And one obvious answer is, “a backlash.”

The winner of this year’s Tiptree is The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall (recently published in the US as Daughters of the North). It is an excellent piece of literature – Hall has been up for mainstream literary awards in the UK for her other books. There are also interesting political aspects to it. In the Tiptree press release the jurors talk about the book’s portrayal of violent women. Gwenda Bond said, “Hall does so many things well in this book writing female aggression in a believable way, dealing with real bodies in a way that makes sense, and getting right to the heart of the contradictions that violence brings out in people, but particularly in women in ways we still don’t see explored that often.” This is a valid point. I might argue that other books have portrayed violent women (e.g. Suzie McKee Charnas’ Holdfast series), but Gwenda might respond that Hall’s book is the first one to do so in a contemporary setting rather than an alternate world. I certainly don’t know of another such example that can also qualify as SF.

But this isn’t the only aspect of the book that appealed to the jury. Geoff Ryman said, “It faces up to our current grim future (something too few SF novels have done) and seems to go harder and darker into war, violence, and revolution.” This is also a valid description, and it is what worries me about the book, and about it winning the Tiptree.

The Real Year of The Carhullan Army seems to be about 2005. This was a time when rather a lot of people in the blogosphere were saying things that might be characterized as:

OMG! Bush & Cheney!! We are living in the most vicious and oppressive military dictatorship EVAH!!!

Which would generally be followed by a comment that the only thing that left-thinking Americans could do was flee to Canada where they would be safe from persecution. Hall’s book reminded me very much of that sort of attitude. It is set in a near-future Britain that is moaning under the inept Wellington boot of The Authority, a very British and seemingly rather incompetent police state. Life under The Authority is clearly a significant step down from life under New Labour, but it seemed to me that it wasn’t that much worse than life in Burma, or life under the Taleban, and certainly wasn’t a patch on your average SF dystopia. It looked like a society that was ripe for a bit of V for Vendetta style civil disobedience, and desperately needed a group of Ken MacLeod characters to organize a proper revolution.

Hall’s heroine, however, appears to have decided that her situation is hopeless (a decision made easier by the placid acquiescence of her fellow Brits – it may be that placidity in the face of an ever-encroaching surveillance society is actually what Hall is most concerned about) and that her only option is to run away to a feminist separatist commune in the hills. That leads her quickly into a violent revolution that is clearly fated to be a glorious (for the participants) failure that will have little effect and be quickly forgotten. Revolutions, as Ken never tires of reminding us, need to be well planned, and the Carhullan Army clearly never had a clue.

To be fair to Hall, it is by no means clear that she intends us to take her protagonists’ side. Indeed, the downbeat ending could easily be read as pointing out just how futile their actions were. However, as I was reading the book I had this vision of other people reading it and saying to themselves, “yes, that’s it, we are all doomed, we have no option but to get lots of guns and kill all the men.” I also expected some readers to glamorize the failed revolution, even if it was far from clear that Hall intended them to do so.

George W Bush (and Karl Rove) can be blamed for many things, but one that he doesn’t often get fingered for is the tendency towards extremism in American politics. In his first speech after 9/11 he said something about the world being “either with us or against us”, and that attitude has stuck. If you aren’t in favor of the Iraq war, then you must be an Evil Muslim extremist; if you aren’t against the Iraq war, then you must be a bloodthirsty right wing monster. Jackie Nixon, the leader of the Carhullan Army, is also a “with us or against us” sort of person, and one of the ways you can be against her is to be a man, or a heterosexual woman. Goodness only knows what she might have said about the transgendered if Hall had let her, but I’m pretty sure she would have shot them on sight. And all this, I submit, is a sign of the times.

We’ve been here before, of course. Suzy McKee Charnas chronicles the whole process in the Holdfast series. In the course of four books feminism grew from being a revolt against male rule, to a separatist movement, to a conquering empire, and finally back to a humanist movement. Jackie Nixon and her army are similar in attitudes to the Riding Women of Motherlines, but without the technology to reproduce by themselves. Had their revolution succeeded, it would have looked a lot like the worst aspects of The Furies. A Tiptree win for The Carhullan Army looks awfully like a return to Riding Women politics. Furthermore, Charnas made it very clear just where that sort of attitude would get you, whereas Hall leaves the lessons largely up to the imagination of the reader, which makes them very much easier to ignore.

What I have read of the honor list doesn’t look a lot better. Standing out on the list of books the jury decided to honor is Glasshouse by Charlie Stross. I’ve gone on quite long enough about this book already, but actually Timmi Duchamp has made the necessary points much more clearly. Glasshouse is another book that has a 1970s view of gender, right down to the ideas that men and women are entirely separate, but that you can be brainwashed into adopting “feminine” gender expression. As a Charlie Stross book about future technology and person freedom it is a fun read, but as a work that “expands or explores our understanding of gender” it sucks.

Then there is Flora Segunda, which is a really fun book, but also a book whose heroine is often portrayed as a stereotypically over-emotional and helpless female. Flora’s mother does hold a powerful position in local politics, but she is portrayed as that favorite right-wing caricature, the ambitious career woman who has no time for her family. What this book is doing on the Tiptree honor list is a mystery to me.

An honorable exception to my disappointment is Kelley Eskridge’s novella, “Dangerous Space”, because that is a work I did recommend to the jury. Eskridge is very good at writing Mars, her character whose gender is never specified. The fact that she does this in stories that are often intensely sexual is even more remarkable. I would have had the novella on my honor list, but it wouldn’t be the winner because Eskridge has done this sort of thing before, most notably with “And Salome Danced”, which also made the Tiptree honor list. I should also note that John Scalzi has apparently done a very similar thing, and at novel length to boot, in The Android’s Dream. However, it was a 2006 book (and didn’t make the honor list last year).

I’ll also make an exception for Laurie Marks Water Logic. I haven’t read it yet, but the previous two books in the series were superb and I have every faith that Laurie will have done a great job again The other members of the honor list I haven’t read and can’t comment upon, save to note that I’ve given up reading Sheri Tepper because the last few books of hers I read were very unsubtle rants.

So the question that you should now be asking is, “if Cheryl were on the jury, which books would she have been championing?” There are several books that I’m disappointed not to see on the list, so let’s take a look at them.

If we are looking for books that expand our understanding of gender, we need go no further than Ilario by Mary Gentle (published as The Lion’s Eye and The Stone Golem in the US). This book contains a whole plethora of gender-variant characters. The lead character is a genuine hermaphrodite, and the book also features a transsexual, a eunuch and a gay man. I did have concerns about parts of the book, in particular the way in which Gentle appears to be setting up a comparison between Ilario, who is clearly authentically transgendered, and the transsexual Neferet, whom Gentle portrays as something of a poser and a fraud. However, Ilario is a book that presents an intersexed person as its lead character, demonstrates the sort of prejudice and persecution such a person will face, and encourages us to view such people sympathetically. If that isn’t expanding our understanding of gender then I don’t know what is.

Another book that I recommended to the jury is Brasyl by Ian McDonald. If you haven’t read the book (or even if you have) you may be wondering why, because most of the reviews have avoided the gender aspects (kudos here to Gary Wolfe and Jonathan McDermot who bucked the trend). However, one of the three lead characters is bisexual and a transvestite (McDermot describes him as a ‘drag queen’, but I’m not sure that is an accurate translation of the Brazilian term “travesti”).

The question with Brasyl is whether it is actually engaging with the gender debate. In a discussion of potential Tiptree nominees on the Whileaway LiveJournal “coalescent” (who I’m sure many of you know) said that he didn’t think the book expands or explores gender “by the standards or contemporary sf” (the whole Real Year thing again). I’m not sure that I agree with him. Sure SF has used characters who cross-dress before, but…

Those of us who enjoy sociological science fiction are used to authors making a point with their fiction. If you see a gender-variant character in a book you tend to expect him or her (or it) to be there for a reason, and you look forward to an argument being developed. Mary Gentle does that very obviously in Ilario. But in Brasyl Edson’s sexual orientation and gender expression are never issues for discussion. He is who he is, and beyond that McDonald has no great point to make, other than that perhaps Brazil is a country where people like Edson are not regarded with the same degree of horror as they might be in, say, the United States, or Northern Ireland.

So Brasyl is obviously not making an argument about gender. But is it expanding our understanding? I think it is. We see plenty of talk on the Internet about the fact that most characters in SF&F are effectively straight white Americans. Why can’t they be Afro-American, or Chinese, or Pakistani, or Finnish? But equally, why can’t they be people like Edson? Why can’t a cyberpunk hero be a black bisexual who likes wearing a dress, a wig and makeup to go dancing? Maybe if we read more books about people like Edson then we’d come to realize that they are ordinary people too. After all, Edson is a futbol fan, just like everyone else in Brazil. The point about Brasyl is that people like Edson can be action heroes too, not just supporting characters. Ten years ago that certainly wouldn’t have been possible, and I’m pleasantly surprised that McDonald got away with it in 2007.

Next on my list is Maledicte by Lane Robins. It is much more of a character novel than a sociological or political novel. However, the central element of the plot is that a young girl, Miranda, disguises herself as a boy in order to be reunited with her lover, Janus. The pair end up pretending that they are having a gay relationship, and the book does a fine job of showing how certain social roles are acceptable to Maledicte (a gay man), but not to his alter ego, Miranda. It is set in a society that is based on 18th/19th Century Europe, but many of the points it makes are equally valid today. I really liked the book, and I’m disappointed not to see it get a nod.

Recommending British-published books to the Tiptree jury is a bit of a hit and miss affair. Obviously they can win (e.g. M John Harrison’s Light), but another jury might find getting hold of them too much like hard work. I knew of two books I would have liked them to consider. The first is Liz Williams’ Bloodmind. Liz has been producing some fine feminist SF recently and no one in the US seems to be taking any notice of this, which is a shame. The other is Questors by Joan Lennon, which is aimed at middle school kids and features a young character from an alien race that does not express gender until puberty. Lennon is taking the gender issue right to the heart of the debate where it really matters – with kids. She deserves to be rewarded (and she has at least by US publication late last year).

The final book on my list is Amberlight by Sylvia Kelso. This book came out very late in 2007 so the jury might have missed it. The Tiptree rules do allow a subsequent jury to pick up a book that suffers that fate, and I’m hoping that next year’s does (for both Amberlight and Questors). I’m also hoping that next year’s jury is a little less backward-looking, because Amberlight is a book that takes a firm head-butt to the nose of lesbian separatism. I see that the jurors for next year are K. Tempest Bradford, Gavin Grant (chair), Leslie Howle, Roz Kaveney, and Catherynne M. Valente. These are all people I know. Some of them might even read this blog. But whether they like the same books as me is entirely open to question. We shall see.

10 thoughts on “The Tiptree Question

  1. A tiny caveat about The Carhulllan Army: Jackie Nixon is gently derisive of the lesbian relationships that develop on the farm, and her attitude towards men is closer to dismissive than hostile. Her focus is less on gender and more on the state and its authority, which ties into the observation you made that the true focus of Hall’s novel seems to be the gender-neutral tendency to back down before power, something I also noted in my review of the book.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, I think Richard Morgan’s Black Man ought to be considered for the Tiptree. It’s an interesting exploration of masculinity, and certainly takes the debate in new directions.

  2. I think Jackie is generally dismissive of anything that smacks of sentimentality. However, men are barred from the settlement, and boy children get sent away once they reach a certain age. While the women are initially allowed relationships with men, their loyalty has to be to the Army first. I suspect that if Jackie had parthenogensis then she’d have banned men altogether. But then one of the strengths of the book was how well it portrayed the practical difficulties of life in the wilds, and therefore there could be no high tech medicine.

    I’m certainly very interested in what I’ve read about Black Man. It is on my list of books to buy. But I’m afraid it is too late for the Tiptree now.

  3. Recommending British-published books to the Tiptree jury is a bit of a hit and miss affair. Obviously they can win (e.g. M John Harrison’s Light), but another jury might find getting hold of them too much like hard work.

    One assumes that’s not the case for this jury, though, given that The Carhullan Army didn’t have an American edition at the time it won.

    And surely if Amberlight can be belatedly considered, so can Black Man?

  4. What is different about The Carhullan Army is that is was getting talked up by a lot of folks well in advance of its US publication. But I guess the same was true of Light. I think the important point here is that juries like the Tiptree often don’t get sent books by publishers, so to consider a work they have to rely on the generosity of others and/or the deep pockets of the jurors (and hopefully an internal budget, if the bake sales have gone well). That can make it hard for some deserving works.

    As for Black Man, the point about reconsidering is that it is a question of timing. Amberlight came out late in November. Black Man came out in June. I don’t know how the internal deadlines of the Tiptree process work, but I know that works have been reconsidered if they were published very late in the year of eligibility. I don’t think that argument can be applied to a June release.

  5. Hmm, maybe. I went to hunt for previous holdovers, and the two that I found (Air and Venusia) were both September books originally.

  6. I suspect it may be a matter of how enthusiastically a jury makes its case, and also whether the previous jury did consider the book. If a jury really wants a book they may well get it, unless the previous jury considered the book and rejected it, which makes it difficult to argue that the book was missed.

  7. I’m curious: do you consider The Carhullan Army‘s ambiguous nature with so much dependent on the reader a good or bad thing?

  8. Imani – I’m all in favor of ambiguous books. I like authors who make their readers think. Had the book won the Clarke, I would have assumed that it was because of its literary quality. But I don’t think that it would have won the Tiptree if the jury hadn’t tended to favor siding with Jackie Nixon and Sister.

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