Sci-Fi Friday: ‘The Starry Rift’ by James Tiptree, Jr.

Heroes of space! Explorers of the starfields!

Reader, here is your problem:

Given one kid, yellow-head, snub-nose-freckles, green-eyes-that-stare-at-you-level, rich-brat, girl-type fifteen-year-old. And all she’s dreamed of, since she was old enough to push a hologram button, is the heroes of First Contacts, explorers of far stars, the great names of Humanity’s budding Star Age.

-the opening lines of “The Only Neat Thing to Do.”

I first came across the work of James Tiptree, Jr. a few years ago when I read “The Only Neat Thing to Do,” which was collected in The Locus Awards: Thirty Years of the Best in Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Charles N. Brown and Jonathan Strahan. I’ll admit, that’s pretty damn late to have discovered James Tiptree, Jr. Hey, if I did nothing else but read for the first thirty-eight years of my life – meaning no job, no social obligations, no sleep – there would still be things I never got around to reading. But I’m trying, goddamn it.

(The above-mentioned collection, by the way, also contains “Bears Discover Fire” by Terry Bisson. Find it and read it if you haven’t.)

Without giving too much away, when I first read it, “The Only Neat Thing to Do” wasn’t what I was expecting. And I surely don’t mean that in a bad way. Honestly, I’m not sure what I had been expecting. I knew nothing of the author, and I was reasonably sure it would be a good story, though not because it was an award-winner. I personally put very little stock in such things. No, the collection mentioned above came highly-recommended from a fellow science fiction fan. I was already expecting good things.

So I wasn’t surprised that it was a good story. But the journey on which “The Only Neat Thing to Do” takes the reader is unlike anything I’d ever read. The thrill of adventure and discovery, the gut-punch of sadness and loss. It takes a lot to make me feel things, and I felt that one for a long time after finishing it.

StarryRiftSome time later, I picked up The Starry Rift, which is a collection of three connected short stories, of which “The Only Neat Thing to Do” is the first entry. The stories are stitched together with short scenes that take place in a library, where the Chief Assistant Librarian is assisting a couple of students. The librarian provides for them the three stories, which all take place in and near the Rift, “the River Darkness, a starless standing wave of nothingness between galactic arms” (from the book jacket).

James Tiptree Jr., as I’m sure most of you already know, is a pen name used by Alice B. Sheldon for the sake of anonymity. She chose it, in her words “off a jar of marmalade, adding the “James” as one more bit of cover — and my husband threw in “Jr.” for whimsy’s sake.”1 She’s also published stuff under the name Raccoona Sheldon, so there’s a wealth of great stories out there for me to discover. There aren’t many reasons I would wish for immortality, but just having enough time to read everything – and I mean everything – would be worth the pain and aggravation of living forever.

A man can dream.

Anyway, mortality’s not so bad. And the way I see it, while our time here may be short, no time spent reading is time wasted. Our library’s got a bunch of stuff by Tiptree/Sheldon, so I’ll see you next week.

1 from “Everything but the Signature is Me” by James Tipree, Jr., originally published in Khatru #7, Feb. 1978.


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