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The James Tiptree Award Anthology 2
editors: Karen Joy Fowler, Pat Murphy, Debbie Notkin, Jeffrey D. Smith
Tachyon paperback $14.95

review by Duncan Lawie

The James Tiptree Jr literary award is an odd one. Most readers of science fiction will be aware of its existence, and many of these will know that James Tiptree Jr was the carefully maintained alias of a female writer. After that, it probably gets a bit hazy, which makes the introduction to The James Tiptree Award Anthology 2, with its explanation of its subject, a valuable tool for understanding the rest of the book. The award is for the science fiction or fantasy work "that best explores and expands gender." So, there is no constraint on the length or form of publication, as with the Philip K. Dick award, nor on the gender identity of the author, as with the Orange prize for fiction. In addition, this award chooses not to publish a shortlist until after the winner is announced, a clever technique for surrounding the winner with a corona of other 'good stuff', rather than elevating it above a set of 'losers'. This approach strengthens the anthology's inclusion of short-listed works - and I would defy anyone to guess which pieces came from short lists. There are two reasons for this; the breadth of material which has won - "all over the map" as the introduction says; and the memorable quality of almost all the work. Before moving on to that work, a note on the final two words of the title. I haven't seen the first anthology, and so make no comparison with what it contains. Also, this is an anthology in an old fashioned sense. It is not a short story collection and isn't just a fiction collection either; it's closer to a scrapbook, with two conference papers, excerpts from two novels, a brief biographical note on the woman who was James Tiptree Jr, a letter by that person and seven short stories.

The brief biography and the letter provide a little enlightenment as to why Alice Sheldon wrote as a man, but don't offer much insight to the rest of the book. The first story, on the other hand, shapes the readers view of the whole collection, and probably of the whole world, for at least a little while. Congenital Agenesis Of Gender Ideation by Raphael Carter is presented in the form of an academic essay, and so foregrounds the processes and language of science. This makes for rather heavy reading but also tunnels through suspension of disbelief to show the binary gender we take for granted as utterly false. It is worth getting this book just for this story. Perhaps it is by contrast, but The Gift by L. Timmel Duchamp feels rather thin. It is good SF, with clever world building and a story that grows neatly out of that setting, but the story does not quite break free of the fact that it is in this anthology. In a sense, nor do the next two pieces, extracted from the 2004 award winners. However, as the pieces are both taken from the early parts of novels - Camouflage by Joe Haldeman, and Troll: A Love Story by Johanna Sinisalo - the set-up for a fascinating tale is apparent in each case. These extracts made me want to read both books.

The nature of the book changes yet again with Nalo Hopkin's Guest of Honour speech at WisCon, the convention, which is the home of the James Tiptree Jr award. She focuses more on race than gender, but her comments on "looking for clues" in the media that "other people like me exist" are perfectly relevant and something of a reminder that our dominant cultural images rarely represent any of us as we actually are. Nirvana High, by Eileen Gunn and Leslie What, follows up on this theme of the strangeness of normality by offering a slice of teenage life at a very strange high school - one free of jocks and cheerleaders! It cuts to the core of the conflicted state of teenagers trying to develop their own identity, even if the protagonists have mutant powers. Jonathan Lethem's Five Fucks is far more opaque, being a fable on the wearing away of identity, expressed in a story which moves from the precise and particular to the generic and mythical. All Of Us Can Almost... by Carol Emshwiller entertains more easily, being the amusingly told story of an escape from self-imposed captivity. The analogy might seem sufficient, but there is a direct challenge to gender roles within the story, too. Even so, this is a story that flies, rather than galumphing along in the dust. The Gwyneth Jones piece - The Brains Of Female Hyena Twins - is a conference paper surveying the study of sex function in the animal kingdom. It is filled with examples of creatures that don't fit the two-by-two definition and suggests that perhaps humans don't either.

The second stand out in this collection, alongside Raphael Carter's piece, is Another Story, Or A Fisherman Of The Inland Sea by Ursula K. Le Guin, a long story from her Hainish universe. Though knowledge of the story's background milieu adds to its context, it isn't necessary to understand this tale of a young man who escapes the confines of his upbringing only to learn how much he has lost. Le Guin has built the society of his home planet on the foundation of marriages of sets of four people. The way this is woven into the fabric of the story alongside interstellar travel and ansibles is science fiction at its best.

The final, quite short, story (by Jaye Lawrence) is more a fantasy, literally about Kissing Frogs, it is clever and funny and not possible to relate further without ruining it. The contrast with Le Guin's long piece is that of a souffl´┐Ż after a roast dinner. Rounding out the book - coffee and petit fours, perhaps - are the James Tiptree Jr award winners and short lists.

Over all, the context of the James Tiptree Jr award accents certain aspects of the fiction in this collection, aided by the tools provided in the non-fiction material. Nevertheless, these stories are well rounded and well written and I am grateful that the award has brought them to my attention.
James Tiptree Award Anthology





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