Monday, February 15, 2010

1977 Hugo and 1976 Nebula for Novella “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”, 1974 Hugo for Novella “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” by James Tiptree, Jr.

I’ve never had a separate entry for short story (or novella) awards before, but these two stories and their author were so fascinating (and not really represented in any other categories) that I had to take a moment to talk about them.

What’s fascinating about the “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” is that it’s straight-up cyberpunk, almost a decade ahead of schedule. After an unattractive and miserable girl named Philadelphia Burke survives a suicide attempt, she is hired by the Global Transmission Corporation (GTX) to inhabit a “remote” body of a mega-celebrity or “god” named Delphi for product placement (since explicit advertisements have been banned). Soon, she discovers just how much corporations like GTX are manipulating and misleading people around the world. This story is so cyberpunk that it even annoyed me for the same reasons as cyberpunk – there’s an overuse of jargon and slang and an in-your-face attitude that grates, as well as a tendency to exaggerate the dangers of technology to help establish the dystopian future du jour. There’s no question that this story is hugely influential though.

In “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” three (male) astronauts are kicked into the future by a solar flare and rescued by an all female crew. I won’t reveal the story’s twist (though it’s fairly obvious), but most of what follows is a commentary on gender politics. I do feel like Tiptree stacks the deck a bit by making the crew a group of frat-boys, but it is a fascinating story idea even if I disagree with some of the conclusions.

James Tiptree, by the way, was a pseudonym for Alice Sheldon, a psychology Ph.D., World War II veteran and former CIA employee. No one in the science fiction community knew her gender until after these stories were published (which led to some embarrassing discussions of her works in anthologies). I was a bit surprised to see a woman writer hiding her gender in the 1970s; after all, Ursula LeGuin did quite well in the decade. But, considering that Joanne Rowling was still worried about her gender affecting the response to her work in the late 1990s, maybe it’s not so surprising. Sheldon is one of the most unique and challenging voices I’ve read for this project, especially on gender, and, unfortunately, I can see how her work might have been dismissed more easily by her male contemporaries if she had published it as Alice Sheldon. Shedlon also had a very dark point of view that pervades her work, and she (with her husband) committed suicide in 1987.

"Houston" Grade: B+

"Plugged In" Grade: B-

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