More Wickedness Than Men Can Make Right. #Sciencefiction by Alice Bradley Sheldon (James Tiptree Jr.)


Chaucer’s Wife of Bath anticipates that women’s literature would express an inconsolable anger of women toward men.

693       By God, if wommen hadde writen stories,
                By God, if women had written stories,
694       As clerkes han withinne hire oratories,
                As clerks have within their studies,
695       They wolde han writen of men moore wikkednesse
                They would have written of men more wickedness
696       Than al the mark of Adam may redresse.
                Than all the male sex could set right.

James Tiptree Jr. is the most common pen-name for Mary Bradley Sheldon (1915-1987). She is a recognized master of popular science fiction storytelling. I haven’t yet read all of her work. At least a handful of her stories explore gender conflict in dire ways. The best treatments are, in my opinion, the astonishing ones that share a low opinion of men. The others are worthy entertainments that share a low opinion of men. Can you find the common theme? It’s not pleasant for me to share group punishment, but I like these stories. This essay will examine two of her novellas. One describes an Earth without Men. The other describes an Earth without Women. Both are at least sometimes uncomfortable reads, but worth it.

Problem! It’s difficult to discuss The Screwfly Solution and Houston, Houston, Do You Read? and offer full analytic treatment without spoilers. I will restrain myself here with more limitation against spoilers of the better story.

The strongest of the two stories is The Screwfly Solution. It first appeared in Analog magazine, which reached my mailbox as a teenager. It doesn’t just touch the mostly highly sensitive and upsetting problem of gender conflict, male violence against women. Rather, it embraces that violence for larger effect on the reader. The story arms the very idea of “male violence against women” with explosive metaphorical power. For that reason, it is reasonable to join it to the horror genre, as well as science fiction. Its protagonists ask what is causing the disease that weakens the barrier between male desire and male violence? I don’t want to spoil it because the answer is a shocker. The path of the narration toward that conclusion shocks all the way to a world without women. A horror story, horrible also in a common sense, and a powerful story.

If you can grant yourself 55-minutes to listen, this radio play leads to a world without men. The novella “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” not at Tiptree/Sheldon’s highest level of work. However, it is fun and free to hear as a radio play (link below). Its postulate is a little like Planet of the Apes: Wayward male astronauts return to a changed Earth of women and trans women-to-men. Planet of #TheFutureIsFemale! Some of the sexist things two of the male characters say about the women seem dated, but some do not.

This is important: I’m unable to conclude the authorial intent here… is there something self-consciously sinister in the way the women treat the men? Or does the narrative fabric consider the men to deserve it? There is a scene of sexualized violence, but the women have the power. Arguably, but without full clarity, the women rape one of the men for conspiratorial reasons, although he doesn’t know it. It’s sinister.

Returning to my fundamental unease with the narrative opinion, near the end the women assess the role of men, evolution and civilization in a way that doesn’t bode well for men. Assuming procreation is not a problem, does the human species need men to continue be human? The women of Tiptree/Sheldon’s planet without men have no doubt: Maybe humanity needed men tens of thousands of years ago, but not anymore. And men aren’t worth with risk to preserve. Does the narrative mind consider this sentiment evil, or is it progress, as the women of the future assert? That’s what intrigues me most…


Here (below) is the trailer for the merely adequate televised version of Tiptree/Sheldon’s  novella, The Screwfly Solution. It’s an episode of a TV series called Masters of Horror. Again, Sheldon does not shy away from upsetting ideas. I suppose the written version might be less disturbing than to see them on screen. While I don’t want censorship, I myself sometimes walk out of the room during any kind of murder scene on TV, then rush back. This is no exception, but nonetheless, the story’s weaponizing metaphors of gender conflict are so precise and so chilling.

In The Screwfly Solution, the future is male. In contrast to Houston, Houston, Do You Read? a male-only future unambiguously leads to human extinction.

Both Houston, Houston, Do You Read? and The Screwfly Solution reserve an aggressively misogynist roles for male preachers which sometimes sound like a selectively worst sample of the religious right.

In sum, women’s fear and resentment of men, sometimes rising to hatred, can be more than just a social movement or social media post. It can be the force behind bad, fine, good, even great art, just as any disturbing aesthetic or set of ideas can. In addition to their value as stories, these two Tiptree/Sheldon novellas provide anthropological data points of women’s rising expectations. Revolutions happen when social conditions start to improve. Whether or not revolutions succeed in building a better world is another question. Is gender conflict a zero-sum game? Tiptree/Sheldon’s stories suggest that it is. This could be the author’s opinion, or it could be a way to tighten the conflict. Unlike social movements, it’s not the duty of storytelling to provide solutions. Tellingly, neither of these two Tiptree/Sheldon novellas foresees a solution to gender conflict other than emphatic androcide. If men by their nature can’t make it right, as the Wife of Bath claimed, is it truly even the fault of men?

The wikipedia links below include a couple more descriptions of Tiptree/Sheldon’s science fiction treatment of gender conflict:

The Women Men Don’t See

The Girl Who Was Plugged In

Published in: on December 12, 2017 at 11:53 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. Peter,
    Trying to contact you for an interview on the KBOO radio Bike show.
    Please respond to
    Thank you and all the best in the new year- health, joy, peace, justice and wonderful cycling and writing.

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