A World Full of Sisters – more of why I love sf/f
One day at the store I happened upon a paperback copy of The 1977 Annual World’s Best SF edited by Donald Wolheim. I owned several of his earlier annual anthologies, having gotten several of them as part of my introductory new member shipment from the Science Fiction Book Club a few years previously. The paperback was in pretty good shape, having only been published about six months previous, so it was probably marked at half cover price, which meant it wasn’t in my usual price range, but I had enjoyed the earlier collections, and there was more than one author in the table of contents whose work I really loved, so I bought it.
One of the stories in this particular collection was a novella, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” by James Tiptree, Jr. I didn’t know, at the time, that Tiptree was a pseudonym of Alice Sheldon (I think the year I read this was the year that her true identity was revealed, after ten years of being published under the name).
I believe I had read a few of Tiptree’s earlier short stories in the various SF magazines that I followed semi-regularly. I recognized the name, at least, but didn’t have a strong recollection of what kind of stories Tiptree had written before or whether I liked them. So I wasn’t prepared for just how good this story was.
The tale concerns the three-man crew of a NASA mission sent on a polar circuit of the sun. The ship is hit by an unexpectedly strong solar flare and is severely damaged. The crew survives and eventually gets their radio repaired, but are unable to reach Earth. At first it’s because Earth isn’t where they expect it to be in relationship to their position. They eventually figure out that they are further off course than they thought, and start transmitting their distress signal in the correct direction. No answer comes.
Eventually, as they scan more frequencies, they start picking up signals, many of them conversations in English with Australian accents. This is confusing, particularly since many of the signals are coming from various parts of the solar system, indicating a rather large number of space ships. Plus Australia, as far as they knew, didn’t have much of a space program. Also, almost all of the voices on the radio sound like women.
They establish contact with one ship which detected them and has diverted from its course to rescue them. During the radio exchanges before the rescue ship reaches them, they learn that it has been hundreds of years since their mission went up. The world is anxious to meet them, they are told, because they had long been assumed to be dead.
They also learn that there has been some sort of catastrophe on Earth in the intervening years which greatly reduced the population. When the rescue ship finally arrives, the men are surprised that there is only one man in the crew of the ship. Lots of other things surprise them, too. Two of the crewmembers seem to be twins, and both named Judy, but one seems to be several years older than the other. There are several other anomalies and slips of the tongue during the weeks that the ship is returning them to Earth that make the astronauts more suspicious.
Eventually they learn that the catastrophe was even worse than they imagined: it was a plague which only 11,000 women survived; not one single man survived it. The remaining people have been reproducing for several generations by cloning. Children are raised in a communal setting. Some are chosen to receive hormone treatments to give them the musculature and size of men. The story seems to imply that the only reason this is done is for the physical benefits of the muscles and such, and it is unclear if these children choose to became essentially transmen, or if it is imposed by some sort of societal system.
The three astronauts react in very different ways to the discovery. One becomes convinced that god threw them through a wormhole so that they can “rescue” this society and bring men back in charge. Another assumes that since there’s a whole planet of women who have never had sex with a “real man” that he will become sort of a sex god to them all. The last simply hopes that they will be allowed to rejoin society and help repopulate the species (since there are some health problems due to the of lack of genetic diversity).
It turns out, of course, that none of that is to be. The actions of the three men have been being recorded and sent back home. The men were slipped drugs which supposedly made them act out their true natures. The leaders of the world agree that men are simply too dangerous to introduce back into the species. There’s a particularly moving conversation between the captain of the rescue ship and the one man who has remained rational where she points out that most of the heroic behavior the man has tried to cite as proof that men can be good was simply men protecting their own women and children from other men.
The men’s genes are going to be used. Before the three are euthanized, sperm is collected, to diversify the gene pool, but only female babies will be taken to term. Since the entire story is told from the point of view of the one man, the reader never finds out what happens after he and his companions are put to sleep.
I wasn’t the only one who thought the story was good. It won both the Nebula and Hugo award for best novella the year it was published. The story did not kick off much in the way of controversy at the time, in part because people believed Tiptree was simply a feminist-minded man. A man could write a science fiction story decrying generations of misogyny and patriarchal violence and be thought of as open-minded, and a forward thinker. A woman, on the other hand, would (and still often is) branded as a radical man-hater.
I simply thought it was an intriguing story. I was still struggling to accept my own sexual orientation at the time, and I was intimately familiar with how the cruelty of boys toward boys who weren’t manly enough was overlooked, approved, and often encouraged by a sexist society. So the notion that culture might be a better place without all that hypermasculinity was appealing, even if I felt sorry for the reasonable male viewpoint character who was going to be exterminated along with his more brutish companions.
I want to emphasize that Tiptree made the male character sympathetic. She laid out the case for both sides convincingly, and seemed to be inviting the reader to consider (and maybe fight for) solutions to the problems of toxic chauvinism other than simply wiping the men out.
It was another mind-blowing story. Another time that sci fi helped me (as a very closeted queer teen living in a small town among Christian fundamentalists) imagine a better life, particularly the notion of romantic relationships other than opposite-sex pairings. After that story, whenever I saw Tiptree’s name on an anthology or magazine cover, I knew I wanted to read it.