And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side • 1972 • SF short story by James Tiptree, Jr.


Synopsis: Humanity is hyped for alien contact. A journalist interviews a station engineer at a space port how je became sexually obsessed with alien “Sellice”. Dancing is like walking for them and enormously arousing for the males:

‘ She was fantastically marked and the markings were writhing. Not like body paint – alive. Smiling, that ’s a good word for it. As if her whole body was smiling sexually,
beckoning, winking, urging, pouting, speaking to me. You ’ve seen a classic Egyptian belly dance ? Forget it – a sorry stiff thing compared to what any Sellice can
do. This one was ripe, near term.
‘ Her arms went up and those blazing lemon-colored curves pulsed, waved, everted, contracted, throbbed, evolved unbelievably welcoming, inciting permutations.
Come do it to me, do it, do it here and here and here and now.

A little bit alien porn. The humans are frustrated, because the aliens are mostly uninterested in their desire. They don’t even intend to act sexually, it is just normal behavior for them.

Review: John Keats wrote a ballad “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” in 1884 which was the basis for this SF adaption – the last line of the eleventh stanza is the title of this story. It tells the story of a knight who fell in love with a faerie, she enchants him, he falls asleep and wakes up alone “on the cold hill’s side”. The poem is sexually hinting and the SF story takes it a step further: instead of the knight, we have a station engineer, and the faerie is replaced by colorful aliens who could have staffed the Mos Eisly Cantina in Star Wars. 

The story takes a different turn when it comes to the station engineer’s relationship to his “loving wife” who is just a comforting replacement in his frustration without love. He refers to the alien relationship as a “cargo-cult of the soul”. Cargo cults came up in indigenuous societies which were confronted with techologically advanced societies, and rebuilding ships and planes with wood and sand for worship. In the case of this story, the humans sacrifice their sanity for alien sex.

Our soul is leaking out. We ’re bleeding to death !

This story is a milestone in SF: While the pulp magazines often displayed sexy females on the cover illustrations, the stories didn’t dive into sexual relationships like Tiptree did. The cringey bestiality is contrasted with the reporter’s naivety, ignoring the constant warnings of the frustrated station engineer.

‘ Go home ! Go home and tell them to quit it. Close the ports. Burn every god-lost alien thing before it ’s too late ! That ’s what the Polynesians didn ’t do.’

With nearly 50 years, the story is quite old, and the question arises if it transports well in our modern days.

Technologically, there is only one minor element which doesn’t work nowadays – the journalist’s tapes storing hologram recordings. This is negligible, as they were mentioned twice only and don’t really play a role outside of the framing story.

From a societal point of view, the story works very well, especially given the fact that the author – Alice Sheldon with pen name James Tiptree – was one of the most prominent stakeholders of SF feminism, and a women herself.

It is certainly a disturbing story, but it holds up very well, and is worthwhile reading – clear prose, fascinating brain food, interesting characters. Go and read it, and don’t miss the great author spotlight at Lightspeed.

Meta: isfdb. Available online at Lightspeed.  I’ve read it in the collection Ten Thousand Light-Years From Home

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2 Responses to And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side • 1972 • SF short story by James Tiptree, Jr.

  1. pdtillman says:

    Cool review of one of my favorites of hers. As you say, worth rereading every few years. Nice that there’s an online reprint. And thanks for calling-out the interesting essay there, which I’d missed. Here’s another cute one, about another favorite author:
    Plus ICYMI:
    Florence in the plague year 2020 . 5*!

    Liked by 2 people

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