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The Dead Authors Podcast Chapter 60: James Tiptree Jr.

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HG: “Hello all and welcome to Chapter 60 of the Dead Authors Podcast. I am your host, author and time traveler H.G. Wells. I invented the science fiction genre (despite the claims of a certain giant squid obsessed hack who shall remain nameless), and so I am especially delighted to introduce tonight's guest, the famous science fiction author James Tiptree, Jr. I must ask, should I be addressing you as James, Tip, Alice, or Raccoona?”

JT: “Thank you for having me. I realize that your listeners may be more familiar with me as James Tiptree, but I’m quite proud of my work under both pen names, so tonight I’ll go by Alli Sheldon.”

HG: “Of course, Alli. Onto the first question. Your work often exhibits a very dark, apocalyptic view of the future. How do you feel about your glimpse of 2016?”

JT: AS: “Well, I would like to congratulate the audience members on not dying in a nuclear holocaust. I honestly didn’t think the human race would make it to the 21st century. And I say that as someone who worked in the CIA during the cold war.”

HG: “I know you’ve had a few days to look around now, Alli, and get yourself up to speed with modern day events. Do you believe that humanity has passed the crisis point?”

AS: “Are you asking me to lay odds on the chance of us making it another few centuries? It’s not looking too good. Seems like the smart money’s on us wiping ourselves out with climate change, unless there’s a Dr. Ain out there working to save the planet from us. In which case a weaponized Zika or Ebola virus, or even zombies, they all seem popular as mad-science apocalypses go. However, I have to say the nuclear war option is making a comeback since the US is about to hand over its nuclear codes to a hothead who enjoys insulting communist China in 140 characters or less.”

HG: “My apologies, but we do generally try to avoid digressions into modern political or religious matters, unless they bear directly on the interview questions.”

AS: “Huh. I'll try, but if we're avoiding any topic with moral or political implications, we're going to be stuck talking about the weather. Oops, no, wait, there's climate change again.”

HG: “How about this one? It has been suggested that you adopted a male persona to improve your chances of being published in the science fiction industry, in an era where that would have been exponentially more difficult as a woman. How would you respond?”

AS: “That's your idea of an apolitical question? My first response is, if there is such a thing as an era where men and women have truly equal opportunities, I would very much like to visit it in that time machine of yours.”

HG: “Perhaps after the show.”

AS: “Look - obviously it helped, but I didn’t become James just to be published. It wasn’t about the money, or the respect, or even escaping out from under the anchor weight of misogyny. It was … freeing, corresponding with people as a man. Exploring that part of myself. Letting go of the inner censor telling me to be a good girl, to storm naked with hard-on waving thru the world, spouting whatever comes. I’ve been doing a great deal of reading since you brought me to this time, about transsexualism, gender identity, marriage equality, and the battle over these ‘bathroom bills’. I think, if I were growing up today I would have considered myself gender-queer, or perhaps gender-fluid, rather than a very frustrated lesbian who wished she were a man. In fact, I believe the human race would be better off if we could eliminate the concept of gender altogether.”

HG: “Exploration of the differences between men and women is a major theme of your work. How do you reconcile that with the idea that gender is something that can be eradicated?”

AS: “This might seem a little off-track, but bear with me. I hope that an audience of science fiction fans will remember the Star Trek episode, ‘The Enemy Within’. Yes? It’s the one where Captain Kirk is caught in a transporter accident that splits him into two people, good Kirk and evil Kirk. Good Kirk is compassionate and idealistic, but indecisive. Evil Kirk is impulsive, assertive, and sexually aggressive. Neither one can command the Enterprise without the other, and in the end they get reintegrated to make a whole, functional person. You see where I’m going with this, right?”

HG: “Do I perchance scent a whiff of self-promotion?”

AS: “No, that episode was fantastic, but not my style at all. My version would have had Shatner in drag, and shown the masculine ‘evil’ Kirk admired for his strength while Jamie Kirk was viewed as completely unfit for command. Also, James would have raped and murdered Jamie Kirk in the third act. What? If you’ve read my stories, you know that’s how I’d write it. ‘Men live to struggle against each other; we're just part of the battlefield.’ There’s reasons why I decided to publish my Star Trek script in a fanzine instead of submitting it to the network.”

HG: “Sadly, even such fabulists as ourselves must at times suffer the scourge of the censor. However, I believe you were explaining how the human race would be better off without gender?”

AS: “I’ve read the feminist sci-fi that claims the solution to our world’s problems is to set up some all-female utopia. I’ve might even have written some of it, depending on your definition of utopia. And, having served in the WAAC during WWII, I can honestly say that an all-female environment was one of the best experiences of my life. But it’s not men that are the problem – it’s gender itself.”

HG: “I see that you trained as a psychologist at one point. Does that inform your understanding of gender?”

AS: “Yes. After the war I studied experimental psychology. Human behavior exists on a spectrum. We chop it up into bits to make sense of it. This part is normal, that abnormal. This is male, that is female. In the process, we truncate people, shoving them into boxes and slicing off anything that doesn’t fit. It’s gruesome, if you think about it. Boys are not allowed to cry or show empathy. Girls grow up afraid they might scare men off, even provoke violence if they are too intelligent or assertive.”

HG: “But surely that is the nature of the fairer sex, to be passive and caring?”

AS: “You’re talking about biological determinism. I’ve thought about that a lot. Written about it a lot. But we spend far too much time and energy, as a society, teaching and reinforcing these gender roles for them to be natural and self-sustaining. I say this as someone who was raised as Alice, liberated by living as James, and sometimes, eventually, made the choice to write as Raccoona. I would have, at various times in my life, given anything to be a man. Male or female were my choices, and who the Hell would choose to be a woman when they are the damsels in distress, the fridged girlfriends, the designated victims of our society? Plenty of people, I suppose, including some lovely trans-woman I’ve met in the past few days. But, really, is that the version of womanhood you’d want your daughter to aspire to? The predator-prey dynamic we’ve imposed on human beings is unnecessary and destructive. We can do better. And I think, to survive as a species, we must.”

HG: “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Alli Sheldon, Raccoona Sheldon, James Tiptree, Jr. A visionary in her time -”

AS: “-Their time.”

HG: “Their time, and in yours. Thank you, and goodnight.”