The Women Men Don’t See • 1973 • novelette by James Tiptree, Jr.

★★★★★

I’m lazy and let Tiptree summarize the novelette in her own words:

„‚Hero‘ – narrator, two plain women (mother & daughter) and Maya pilot crash on a sand-bar in Asuncion Bay. Hero and the mother set off on foot to cross bay and bring back fresh water. That night they are awakened by strangers in military-type vehicles who do not respond to their cries for help. Narrator thinks they are revolutionaries; woman picks up a dropped artefact and deduces that they are aliens. When aliens return for their object next eve, woman persuades them to take her and narrator back for plane. Arriving there, she quickly gets her daughter in the boat and over narrator’s horrified protests, begs aliens to take them off earth. They do. Story has lots of struggle, hardships, wounds, tension. Message is total misunderstanding of woman’s motivations by narrator, who relates everything to self. Message No. 2 is bleak future for feminism.“

Review

This exemplar for feminist SF is probably Tiptree’s most iconic story. The novelette can be read from several perspectives:

  • At the time of publication it wasn’t known that Sheldon is behind James Tiptree. So, it can be read from the POV of unreliable narrator Don Fenton. In fact, there is some Alice Sheldon in Don, with his background in intelligence and his hobby of fishing. Don can only see women in a sexual way, e.g. describing Mayan women: „the little Maya chicks in their minishifts with iridescent gloop on those cockeyes are highly erotic. Nothing like the oriental doll thing.“ That is why mother Ruth „in her nothing way“ and her daughter Althea „there isn’t any spark at all“ become invisible to him. He simply doesn’t understand what’s happening around him, women are presented as aliens, „Mrs. Ruth Parsons isn’t even living in the same world with me“. Both women reflect the classic role of women in SF – they are damsels in mistress, exist to be rescued, only to be inverted later on when they rescue themselves. In the words of Robert Silverberg in „Warm Worlds and Otherwise“: „The thematic solution is an ancient SF cliche: Earth-women carried off by flying-saucer folg – redeemed and wholly transformed by its sudden shattering vision of women, stolid and enduring, calmly trading one set of alien masters for another that may be more tolerable.“ Ironically, Silverberg told us that men can master feminism, because this story is „a profoundly feminist story told in entirely masculine manner, and deserves close attention by those in the front lines of the wars of sexual liberation.[…] it has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.“ Of course, he didn’t know that Alice Sheldon is female which was revealed 4 years later.
  • The other POV would be a feministic one which Tiptree builds up exceptionally well. Here, the main protagonist is not the narrator Don Fenton but Mrs Ruth Parsons. That way, the story’s layered structure works much better. It demonstrates the audience how easy it is to miss the whole point.

I didn’t enjoy the story in the first read and would have given it only two stars. But after analyzing it and re-reading, the story just clicked.

The story was nominated for Nebula and Hugo awards, but Tiptree withdrew it, officially to give the younger writers a chance.

Meta: ISFDB. First published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, December 1973. I read it in the collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. Available online.

 

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