A Momentary Taste of Being • 1975 • SF novella by James Tiptree, Jr.


Overcrowded Earth sends out an expedition searching for a habitable planet. They discover one but are uncertain if they should send back a green or a red signal which determines if a fleet of colonists would be sent out. But the aliens they found are in fact the “eggs” which the human “sperm” must fertilize, a momentary taste that forms “some kind of holy … zygote” which has a “ghostly life among the stars”. What happens to humanity after that remains unsure but the last remaining crew member, psychiatrist Dr. Aaron Kaye , speculates that it will be drained of all purpose: “We’re left … empty … What happens to a sperm’s tail … afterwards?”


Tiptree defines humanity as being half of something, in this case of the aliens, which makes it more human. But the negative “Taste of Being” is that they are whiped out and their whole culture and history is reduced to a sperm’s tail, giving up its identity in the creatures they are going to form. The pivotal character – Aaron’s sister Lory – asks “Why do we use the word human for the animal part of us, Arn? Aggression — that’s human. Cruelty, hatred, greed — that’s human. That’s just what isn’t human, Arn. It’s so sad. To be truly human we must leave all that behind.” That way, Tiptree investigates once again sex, life and death.

The story’s title could be from Ellison or Zelazny, but in fact is taken from FitzGerald’s translation of a eleventh century Persian poem.

The story is very intense, emotional, but also dark, nearly horrific. I only didn’t buy into the traffic light signalling as the only way of communication which is doomed to fail.

Meta: ISFDB. First published 1975 in Silverberg’s The New Atlantis and Other Novellas of Science Fiction. I read it in the collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.


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