“If you can’t change the world with chocolate chip cookies, how can you change the world?” – Pat Murphy
The James Tiptree, Jr. Award is presented annually to a work of fiction that “expands or explores our understanding of gender.” It may be the only literary award partially funded by bake sales, or to include chocolate as part of the prize! Past winners and nominees have been collected in several volumes of The James Tiptree Award Anthology.
The award is named for science fiction author James Tiptree, Jr., a pseudonym of Alice B. Sheldon. Sheldon began publishing short stories under the Tiptree name in the late 1960s. Corresponding with fans and other authors only in writing, she gave ‘Tiptree’s’ biography true details from her own life, changing only her name and gender. For almost a decade, ‘James Tiptree’ was widely believed to be a man.
In James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon, Julie Phillips explores her fascinating life. As a child Alice accompanied her parents on their travels to Africa. She was an artist, but joined the army during World War II to work in photo-intelligence. After the war she was invited to join the CIA, but eventually left to get her PhD in experimental psychology.
When she began writing science fiction, Sheldon chose to use a male pseudonym both to separate her fiction from her academic career, and because she felt that using a man’s name gave her the freedom to produce the sort of stories she wanted to write. Many of Tiptree’s best work is collected in the anthology Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.
Though the Tiptree award is typically given to only one work, so much great writing was published last year that the judges decided on a tie!
The first winner is Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne. Set in the near future, it follows two women on parallel journeys. As the story progresses, their lives become linked in interesting ways. A young woman in India is attacked and flees her pursuers. She sets off to cross the Trail, a bridge stretching across the Arabian Sea used to harvest hydro power. In Africa, an orphan girl joins a trade caravan traveling to Ethiopia, where she hopes to start a new life. Byrne’s vivid characters and her descriptions of Africa and India kept me hooked until the very end!
The second recipient was My Real Children by Jo Walton. An elderly woman has trouble remembering the details of her present. Her past is another problem – she remembers different versions of her own life. Her childhood and life during the war are clear enough, but afterwards her life splits in two paths. She is confused about whether or not she was married, how many children she had, and what she did for her career. In each of these alternate pasts, her own history and the history of the world are changed by the choices she makes.
Along with the winners, several other fantastic works were nominated for the award.
Memory of Water by Finnish author Emmi Itäranta takes place in a totalitarian future where water is a scarce resource. A seventeen-year-old girl and her father are ‘tea masters’, with special knowledge of local water sources. When her father dies, this girl must decide which secrets are worth keeping.
Jacqueline Koyanagi’s space opera Ascension is a fast paced adventure with a few twists. A mechanic stows away on a spaceship that came looking for her sister. But this is not your typical ship, and the crew has some quirks, to say the least! While continuing to search for her sister, they may just end up saving the galaxy along the way.
In Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett, a computer program tells a love story as it occurred during an alien invasion. But the program has been damaged, and the narrative is fragmented. As we piece together events, a complex story of love and identity emerges.
Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon is another story of alien contact. Three strangers witness a meteor strike on a beach in Lagos, Nigeria. Together they encounter a woman who is not what she appears. By helping her, they may find a way to save not only themselves, but also the rest of humanity.
If you’re looking for something a little different in your science fiction this summer, give one of these titles a try!