12 March 2004

"The Screwfly Solution" by Raccoona Sheldon

Whether using her primary pseudonym of "James Tiptree, Jr." or the occasional "Raccoona Sheldon", Alice Sheldon was a woman who wasn't afraid of looking big philosophical and speculative questions in the face ... sometimes to deliver a knockout punch.

Mortality and the fragility of the human body (and human society) was one of her favorite topics. Just look at the titles: "Love is the Plan the Plan is Death", "Painwise", "On the Last Afternooon", "In Midst of Life". At her best, she confronted some of the most basic human emotions and fears, and the results of these confrontations were seldom comforting.

"The Screwfly Solution", which won the Nebula Award, is one of those stories I'd always meant to get around to reading, but hadn't. Now that I have, it stands for me as a summation of so much that was great about Sheldon/Tiptree's work -- as well as some of the perils of trying to write seriously within the commercial science fiction market.

As much a horror story as science fiction, "The Screwfly Solution" explores a remarkable number of meaty themes within a short story: love, gender, violence, aliens, mass death, religion, and entomology. The logic of the central premise is carried to its stark conclusion, with no deus ex machina descending to save the good-at-heart humans. The premise is a cynical, even nihilistic one: people are the sum of their biological impulses, slaves to genes, pheromones, and the archipallium.

Over the course of the story, the suspense builds. Many great horror stories start the way "The Screwfly Solution" does: slowly. The reader settles in, gets, perhaps, complacent. And then one by one, events unsettle the world. The pacing of this story is almost perfect, with languorous moments placed in just the right spots to move us back into our analytical, objective mind, before then bringing in the full horror of the tale.

One of the great triumphs of this story is its narrative structure. If Sheldon had constructed "The Screwfly Solution" in the standard way of, for instance, a 1950s alien-invaders tale, with an objective third-person narrator or a harried (but heroic, of course) first-person narrator, she would have had a good story, perhaps even an effective one, but she would not have been able to cover as much ground. By starting us off with a third-person narrative interspersed with various first-person documents, we are quickly given a wide view of the central situation. The real genius happens later, though, when Sheldon surrenders the story to Anne's first-person voice. This happens after we have read part of her daughter's diary, thinking it has been put in like the other documents, and that we're about to return to Alan's point of view. But the paragraph immediately after it shows this clipping is different: "I ripped that page out of Amy's diary when I heard the squad car coming. I never opened her diary before but when I found she'd gone I looked ... Oh, my darling little girl. She went to him, my little girl, my poor little fool child. Maybe if I'd taken time to explain, maybe--" The narrative, then, is a kind of Russian-doll structure of discrete voices and points of view embedded within one another, for the next sentence ("Excuse me, Barney.") cues us to Anne's imagined audience. Except for the third-person narrative at the beginning, every voice here is embodied and aimed at someone else. (Sheldon has some fun with the names, too, the alphabetical positions at the very least signalling the relationships: Alan [husband], Amy [daughter], Anne [wife/mother], with the friend -- close to them, important, but not of the family -- Barney.)

The wonder of the story's structure is that it isn't the least bit confusing, even on a first reading. It is also emotionally affecting, which is a real accomplishment when so much information is conveyed and so many points of view are thrown together. Sheldon does this partially by appealing to an inherently emotional situation: a man driven to kill his family. Only the clumsiest writer could fail to find some emotion in that scenario, so perhaps the real accomplishment of "The Screwfly Solution" is that it manages to avoid collapsing into soggy sentimentality.

There are some large flaws in the story, though, almost fatal ones. It may be an irresponsible guess on my part, but it seems the problems with "The Screwfly Solution" come not as much from the author's lack of skill (this was an author of profound skill and intelligence), but from the pressures and assumptions of the market she was writing for.

I see one minor problem and one major one with the story. The minor problem is that the entomological subplot is too obvious, it gives away too much information too soon, so that by the time the cause of the mayhem in the story is revealed to the characters, an aware reader has figured it out already. The writer has pandered to the reader, has written to a lower common denominator than is necessary.

A far larger problem with the story is the ending, particularly the last sentence, which doesn't match the tone of the story, and tries to add a kind of "gotcha" effect so beloved of pulp writers. Instead of ending on a somewhat ambiguous, resonant note, Sheldon ties up all the loose ends, makes sure we've figured out the connections between plots and subplots (as well as the title), and then hammers us over the head with a lame attempt at cleverness.

Think I'm splitting hairs, defaming a great work of art? Let me go from defaming to defacing. Consider the effect of a rewritten ending:
I guess nobody will ever read this, unless I get the nerve and energy to take it to Barney's. Probably I won't. Leave it in a Baggie, I have one here; maybe Barney will come and look. I'm up on the big rock now. The moon is going to rise soon, I'll do it then. Mosquitoes, be patient. You'll have all you want.

The thing I have to write down is that I saw an angel too. This morning. It was big and sparkly, like the man said; like a Christmas tree without the tree. But I knew it was real because the frogs stopped croaking and two bluejays gave alarm calls. That's important; it was really there.

I watched it, sitting under my rock. It didn't move much. It sort of bent over and picked up something, leaves or twigs, I couldn't see.

Let me repeat--it was there. Barney, if you're reading this, THERE ARE THINGS HERE. And I think they've done whatever it is to us. Made us kill ourselves off.

Barney dear, good-bye. I saw it. It was there.

But it wasn't an angel.
Would the effect be the one Sheldon wanted? Maybe, maybe not. The effect, though, is a far more profound one, because it leaves the reader something to think about, ideas to construct, connections to make. It respects the reader's intelligence. It doesn't go for gimmicky effects.

One of the problems of most commercial fiction is that, in aiming for a large audience, it insults that audience. SF does this all the time, even, as with "The Screwfly Solution", with some of its best work. Readers are treated as intelligent if there's a discussion of scientific speculation in the story, but when it comes to the narrative itself, we get spoon fed everything the writer wants to us to know and think and (god help us) feel.

Sheldon avoids the trap of sentimentality while falling flat on her face into the quicksand of overexplanation. Better tie up those loose ends before somebody, somewhere doesn't get the point. This is the literature of ideas, with the ideas scrawled on the two-by-four that slams into your forehead. That's how we like it in our sci-fi mags, ayuck.

The virtues of "The Screwfly Solution", though, are many enough to overcome the flaws, flaws present in most of the Tiptree/Sheldon stories. The tragedy of Alice Sheldon may be that she was a great writer who didn't escape the pitfalls of the genre in which she was writing.

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