Saturday, 28 January 2012

James Blackshaw and James Tiptree Jr.


A forthcoming LP from the brilliant twelve string acoustic guitarist and chamber music composer James Blackshaw has just been announced, and I was excited to discover that he's named the album, Love Is the Plan, The Plan Is Death, and all of its six tracks after science fiction short stories by James Tiptree Jr. Blackshaw has drawn his titles from literary sources before. 2009's The Glass Bead Game comes from Hermann Hesse's novel set in a future world in which monkish scholars and intellectuals devote their lives to a complex game which encompasses all life and thought. 2010's All Is Falling seems to reference Samuel Beckett's 1956 radio play All That Fall, the demands for the production of the sound effects for which led to the establishment of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. 2007's The Cloud of Unknowing, meanwhile, is named after an anonymous 14th century work of Christian mysticism, and is typical of Blackshaw's tendency towards titles which allude to spiritual and mystical, although he firmly denied any personal religious faith or belief in an interview in The Wire in October 2006.

James Blackshaw - Love Is the Plan, the Plan is Death
Tiptree was the pen-name of Alice Sheldon. She was the child of colourful society parents (Herbert Edwin Bradley, and attorney and explorer, and the writer and adventuress Mary Wilhelmina Hastings Bradley), and worked with US Intelligence Forces during the war, going on to spend a brief period with the CIA in the mid-50s. She abandoned this direction, although her decision to study experimental psychology, in which she attained a PhD, could be seen as tangentially related. She was also interested in the nature of human visual perception, and its aesthetic dimention, having been an artist earlier in her life. Her doctoral studies fed into the subtly and deeply troubling story The Man Who Wouldn't Do Awful Things to Rats, which dissects the psychology of evil (or the weakness which permits evil) with great acuity. She began writing science fiction short stories in 1968, choosing a male name (she picked the surname, Tiptree, at random, noticing it on the lid of a jam jar) as a mask, and perhaps also as an experiment in testing the expectations of the SF world, still dominated by men at the time. It was also a good way to go unnoticed, and thus not have to bear the pressure of being a pioneer female writer in the field, and attracting unwanted attention as a result. This disguise was maintained until 1977, when her true identity was uncovered (against her wishes - she referred to the anonymous period as her 'James Tiptree retreat'). She wrote as both Alice Sheldon and Racoona Sheldon in the 80s, with some reduction in intensity,although the stories are still fine and worth reading. Everything ended in 1987. Her husband, Huntingdon Sheldon, with whom she had lived in a close and mutually supportive relationship for over 40 years, was drifting away from her, declining into the advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease. In an act which was seemingly pre-arranged and agreed upon, she shot him and then turned the gun upon herself. Love is the plan, the plan is death.

Tiptree's best stories are incredibly powerful and intensely felt works, often meditating on mortality, loneliness and the gulf between individuals and the sexes. They use science fiction's devices and props to great allegorical effect. The Women That Men Don't See and The Screwfly Solution are both devastating commentaries on the position of women in society and underlying male attitudes to them - the first heartwrenching and the second utterly terrifying. The heightened emotional tenor of her short stories bears comparison with Harlan Ellison. Like Ellison, the intensity of her fiction and the lyrical, burning language in which it was written couldn't easily be sustained over longer lengths, and she was at her best in shorter forms. Also like Ellison, she gave her stories baroque and poetic titles, which make for ideal, evocative song titles. Blackshaw has chosen The Snows Are Melted, the Snows Are Gone from Tiptree's first short story collection, Ten Thousand Light Years From Home (1973). Love Is the Plan, the Plan Is Death, and And I Have Come Upon This Place by Lost Ways are from Warm Worlds and Otherwise (1975), A Momentary Taste of Being and Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (my God, what a story that one is) from Star Songs of an Old Primate (1978) and We Who Stole the Dream from Out of the Everywhere (1981). Blackshaw could have chosen from the equally striking story titles I'll Be Waiting For You When The Swimming Pool Is Empty, Faithful To Thee, Terra, In Our Fashion, And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill's Side, Mother In The Sky With Diamonds or The Girl Who Was Plugged In. I look forward to reading these astonishing stories to the accompaniement of whatever music Blackshaw has been inspired to create from them.

2 comments:

Derek said...

I picked up a Tiptree book on the advice of my father and read "The Man Who Wouldn't Do Awful Things to Rats". Not an easy experience -- one that reminded me how much of my normal SF reading habit really is about the comforts of escapism -- but I've always known that I owe it to myself to read more of her stuff. Maybe now I will, thanks to you and Mr. Blackshaw for reminding me...

Symbolt said...

That's one of her worst stories. My favorite one would be "Slow Music" ("Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death" is a close second)