Still playing catchup, this time with all of the awards news that took place this month, not the least of which was the announcement of the 2011 James Tiptree, Jr. Award, which went to Redwood and Wildfire by Andrea Hairston. James Tiptree, Jr. – in case you didn’t know, let me enlighten you – was the nom de plume of science fiction author Alice B. Sheldon, an extraordinary woman who led an extraordinary life. The award, per the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award Council, is “an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.”
Sheldon, you see, felt she couldn’t be taken seriously as a woman author at the time she was writing, so she invented a male persona which she maintained for much of her life. Among Tiptree’s peers, her identity – and gender – were a topic of considerable debate. Ironically, there were those who were positive that Tiptree was a man, because of the way she wrote.
According to the council’s website, apparently there was Redwood and Wildfire, and then there was everybody else. To wit:
Redwood and Wildfire was a favorite of the jurors from the moment they read it. They reported: “This vivid and emotionally satisfying novel encompasses the life of Redwood, a hoodoo woman, as she migrates from rural Georgia to Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. While Redwood’s romance with Aidan Wildfire is central to the novel, female friendship is also a major theme, without deferring to the romance. Hairston incorporates romantic love into a constellation, rather than portraying it as a solo shining star. Her characters invoke a sky where it can shine; they live and love without losing themselves in cultural expectations, prejudices and stereotypes, all within a lovingly sketched historical frame.
“Intersections of race, class, and gender encompass these characters’ entire lives. They struggle with external and internal forces around questions of gender roles, love, identity, and sexuality. This challenge drives how they move through the world and how it sees them. The characters in Redwood and Wildfire deftly negotiate freedom and integrity in a society where it’s difficult to hold true to these things.”
Sounds interesting, to say the least. But to say “then there was everybody else” isn’t quite fair; to make the annual Tiptree Award honor list is no small feat; the other works in the running can hardly be described as also rans. Here’s the breakdown of the 2011 honor list, as cribbed from the Tiptree Award site:
- Libba Bray, Beauty Queens (Scholastic Press 2011) — In this atypically comedic Tiptree candidate, a cast of iconic characters trapped on a hostile island (populated by the capitalist analog of Doctor No) illuminates the limited palette of roles for women and offers the hope of more rewarding and rounded lives.
- L. Timmel Duchamp, “The Nones of Quintilus” (in her collection Never at Home, Aqueduct Press 2011) — This standout story addresses the relationships between mothers and daughters and how the world looks different when you become (or intend to become) pregnant.
- Kameron Hurley, God’s War (Night Shade Books 2011) — Set on a marginally habitable world divided by a common religion with diverse interpretations, this engaging work explores a militaristic matriarchal society.
- Gwyneth Jones, The Universe of Things (Aqueduct Press 2011) — Running through these gorgeous stories is a fierce awareness of how gender roles and other social power imbalances are always factors in how we think, how we approach one another, how we see the world. The author questions the status quo, and then questions the questioning, so what emerges is a mature, honest, thoughtful complexity.
- Alice Sola Kim, “The Other Graces” (Asimov’s Science Fiction, July 2010) — This elegantly written short story revisits the role of mirroring in self-actualization and casts that path in a new and skiffy light as its heroine, Grace, is mentored by her older alternate selves. It also depicts racial/cultural intersections with gender roles.
- Sandra McDonald, “Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots” (Strange Horizons, 2010.10.04) — A surreal and subversive take on human-AI relations. An older female character exploring her sexuality is a rare thing in science fiction, and it is refreshing to see it handled here with such a deft hand.
- Maureen F. McHugh, “After the Apocalypse” (in her collection After the Apocalypse, Small Beer Press 2011) — This title story of an impressive collection brings to the foreground gender expectations concerning the practice of motherhood in extreme situations and then completely and matter-of-factly upends them.
- Delia Sherman, The Freedom Maze (Big Mouth House 2011) — A clear-hearted, magically immersive time travel story that explores powerful ideas. Thrown back through time to an antebellum plantation, a thirteen-year-old comes to understand how women’s experience is shaped by cultural expectations as they interweave with social, economic, and racial truths.
- Kim Westwood, The Courier’s New Bicycle (Harper Voyager Australia 2011) — This compelling novel depicts a variety of sexually transgressive characters and looks at themes of fertility and alternate family structures through a dystopic lens.
All of those sound interesting and worth reading as well, although there are two that stick out among them, in my humble opinion. The first of these is Hurley’s God’s War; religion almost always makes for an interesting topic in the right author’s hands, and a matriarchal yet militaristic culture sounds intriguing. Religious war is also obviously a very topical theme, in this day and age.
As for McDonald’s “Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots,” I’m inclined to read any short story that has the words sexy and robots in it – which probably reveals more about my psyche than you might be comfortable with – throw in cowboys and it’s a done deal.
Fortunately for me and everyone else who likes science fiction, speculative fiction and related genres, Strange Horizons – in it’s total awesomeness – keeps its previously published fiction archived online (props to the authors that allow them to do this, as well). Which means you can check out McDonald’s “Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots” at Strange Horizons right this instant.
Said it before, say it again: living in the future is a mixed bag, but generally, by and large, pretty cool.
P.S. I feel compelled to add this note, in these Internet times of shoot-from-the-hip emotional reactions and cries of reverse racism and sexism at every turn. For the cynical or misinformed among you, I’ll point out that there have been have been plenty of dudes that have won the Tiptree Award in the past.
Indeed, previous award jurists have been quite open minded; in 2009 the award was split between a novel and a manga title.