01 June 2009

Up the Walls of the World by James Tiptree, Jr.

Much of reading, particularly fiction, is a matter of faith -- ye olde "willing suspension of disbelief". Science fiction, when it is more than an adventure story outfitted with spaceships and Bug-Eyed Monsters, often requires a more specific type of suspension of disbelief, a type that can create a paradox: fiction that is markedly more imaginative than most suffers from a failure of imagination. This failure occurs when the reader focuses on the story's extrapolations, but decides that they are incomplete, or simplistic, or ridiculous. If the reader perceived the story as surrealist fantasy, this wouldn't be a problem, and might even be a virtue. If the reader didn't place much emphasis (in terms of having faith in the imagined circumstances of the story) on the story's probabilities and extrapolations, then the problem would be, at best, minor (thus, stories about alien canals on Mars are perfectly readable if we haven't invested our willingness to surrender to the story on the likelihood of there being alien canals on Mars).

This was the problem for me in reading James Tiptree, Jr.'s first novel, Up Walls of the World, a book full of visionary potential that never communicated as visionary actuality to me because I could not get myself to buy into its basic premises about cognition or language. (This may have been exacerbated by my knowledge that Tiptree, who was Dr. Alice Sheldon, had a Ph.D. in experimental psychology, and so I expected more nuanced presentations of consciousness.) I was interested in the novel partly because I've read and enjoyed much of Tiptree's short fiction (and think a handful of her stories are among the true gems of the science fictional jewelry shop), and partly because I've been reading Istvan Csicsery-Ronay's thoughtful new book The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, wherein Up the Walls of the World is called "an inexplicably neglected masterpiece of recent sf" that is "unparalleled in its use of the sublime mode" described by Patricia Yeager ("Toward a Female Sublime" in Kaufman, ed. Gender and Theory: Dialogues on Feminist Criticism).

Beware critics wielding inexplicably neglected masterpieces! I read John Brunner's Total Eclipse a few years ago because Fredric Jameson, whose criticism I often find interestingly provocative, proclaimed it unjustly neglected. Like Up the Walls of the World, it offered some good stuff to think about, but ... masterpiece? Oh dear no.

I can see why Csicsery-Ronay sees Up the Walls of the World as an exemplar of certain types of what he calls "the sf sublime", a concept I do not have time to get into here because it would take a lot of words (to touch on some of what Csicsery-Ronay means by the concept, see Adam Roberts's excellent review of the book at Strange Horizons). Think vastness and sense of wonder. Tiptree's tale tells of two worlds: a late-'70s/early-'80s U.S. and a planet of ever-blowing winds and people composed partly of energy, who live in the winds and not on the surface of the planet. There's also a planet-destroying space monster looming. The protagonists in the late-'70s/early-'80s U.S. are all involved with a military-funded psionics research project. The protagonists on the wind planet are trying to figure out how to escape the planet-destroying space monster. The two worlds connect via a beam the partly-energy people send through space into the brains of the people involved with the psi project, and their consciousnesses are exchanged. Then, eventually, all their consciousnesses are uploaded into the planet-destroying space monster, which has become a sort of interstellar lifeboat for minds.

From this reductive summary, you can perhaps begin to see why if you have doubts about Tiptree's assumptions about cognition and consciousness the novel might not be able to make you suspend your disbelief. My problem was that once beings started exchanging consciousnesses, I couldn't repress some doubts, and once those consciousnesses were uploaded into the space-monster lifeboat my entire reading experience became one of doubt. Sensory words no longer made, well, sense to me, and yet Tiptree employs them (mostly) unproblematically -- beings without any corporeal body are still receiving sensory information. That was a minor doubt, though; my major ones centered around emotion. How, I wondered, could beings that have been divorced from their bodies be governed by the same emotions they would have in their bodies -- love and fear, for instance, which are preserved in exactly the same form (according to the narrative) as they take in the embodied beings. This makes no sense. Removed from a nervous system and an endocrine system, emotions would, surely, at least be less predictable, stable, and familiar, wouldn't they? I mean, if an iron rod shot into the frontal lobe can cause a personality to become nearly unrecognizable, surely a consciousness beamed across thousands of light-years into a giant space-monster lifeboat wouldn't be exactly the same as it was back when it was in a body in a familiar environment...

And that's not to mention the entrenched ideas about gender roles each of the characters brings with them -- but those are challenged, at least, though the challenges seemed to me simplistic and, again, less imaginative than they needed to be to be convincing.

More significantly, the language of the book in the second half of the novel seemed inadequate. Tiptree ignored a problem many science fiction writers, quite understandably, ignore: by definition, the indescribable is indescribable. (As annoying as some of Lovecraft's narrators' pleas of the limits of language to describe horror can be, at least those narrators rarely, if ever, seem to think they've described the indescribable ... they just go on and on about how indescribable it is.) A science fiction writer who wants to describe something that is beyond or alien to human conception is stuck, because the tool the writer has to do such a thing is the tool of language -- human language, rife with human assumptions and limitations. The writer must create metaphors and images based on what the reader (presumably a human) knows, but therein lies the paradox: the indescribably alien is not describable in familiar language. Somewhere I read that Tiptree said she would have liked to revise the novel to make the space monster's consciousness seem more intelligent, since she understood what someone (I think Gardner Dozois) was getting at when he said the sections of the book devoted to that consciousness reminded him of, as much as anything, Cookie Monster. This is, yes, a problem. But it's only the most obvious iteration of a problem that plagues the entire book -- many theorists would say that consciousness and language are inextricable, but even if you don't go that far, it is, I would posit, self-evident that language and consciousness are deeply related, having at least the ability to reflect and influence each other. (Unless you view language and consciousness as utterly [and unutterably] separate ... but if this is your deepest belief, writing and reading novels is probably not the best activity for you...)

Up the Walls of the World is written in a mix of direct, indirect, and (occasionally) free indirect discourse, but this approach is too simplistic and clunky (not to mention familiar) to help a reader like me, plagued by doubts about the novel's representation of consciousness, suspend disbelief. Virginia Woolf needed a complex representation of consciousness just to represent a day of Mrs. Dalloway's life in London, but representing consciousnesses traveling thousands of light years into utterly unfamiliar circumstances doesn't cause language to bend, burst, or bust?

One facet of the problem here is that the story is presented so rationally. Rational presentations encourage readers to read rationally. It's an obvious statement, but sometimes needs to be stated nonetheless. Part of the brilliance of Philip K. Dick was his ability to add enough irrationality into otherwise rational story structures to prevent readers from being able to reason with the narrative -- you cannot read Eye in the Sky or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch or Ubik or A Maze Death and connect all the dots to plausibility. Such novels make problems of perception a part of their entire raison d'etre. Tiptree seems to have learned a bit from Dick -- at different points of Up the Walls of the World, I thought of all four of those PKD novels -- but she wasn't able to reach his heights because she clung too tightly to a narrative structure that encouraged a kind of reading that the book has trouble satisfying.

Until the last 100 pages or so, I was actually enjoying my argument with the book, but another of the problems with the novel is that it is too long; some of Tiptree's best work is at the novella length, and it is not difficult to imagine that Up the Walls of the World would have been more powerful and effective if she had cut it down by a third or half. Certainly, a doubtful and disbelieving reader such as I probably finds the novel more tedious than a reader willing to doubt less and believe more, but "A Momentary Taste of Being" this is not.

I noted above the paradox of a tremendously imaginative book suffering from a failure of imagination, and as I was wrestling with questions of why I found it impossible to suspend disbelief for this particular narrative, when I have happily entered into other narratives that are equally or less plausible, I began to think about familiarity and formulas -- for instance, in reading a basic space opera, I am perfectly willing to suspend disbelief about the possibility of faster-than-light travel, about the simplicity of the cultural representations, the implausibility of the economics, etc. and simply go along for the ride. Partly, this is because there are certain SF tropes that, handled in familiar ways, become almost as invisible as repeated speech tags in dialogue. But there's something else, too -- something having to do with the ways a writer manipulates expectations and, partly, how the writer guides our perception of plausibilities -- Csicsery-Ronay notes, for instance, that "[Hal] Clement's Mission of Gravity is so famous for the plausibility of its heavy planet Mesklin that few readers remark on the absurdity of its centipede-like alien protagonists behaving like buccaneer capitalists communicating with human beings with no information loss." The emphases within Mission of Gravity make clear that the book is very much about its speculations and science rather than the plausibility of its characters' behaviors. Up the Walls of the World, though, seemed to me to be about its character's psychological and emotional states as they encounter (and merge with) what is alien to them, and so no amount of imaginative power in other elements of the novel allowed me to overcome my perception of the book's psychological and emotional imaginings as faulty.

I also want to note one other curious element of the book -- one of the main protagonists (the one, in fact, who basically saves everyone's lives*), Margaret Omali, is the daughter of a Kenyan man who "went crazy" and performed genital mutilation on her when he brought her and her mother back to Kenya. The viewpoint protagonist, Dr. Daniel Dann, fell in love with Margaret the moment he saw her, idealizing her as an Egyptian princess with "Nefertiti lips" and "a long blue-black arm of aching elegance" that "when he wraps the [blood pressure] cuff onto it he feels he is touching the limb of some uncanny wild thing." (One could speculate about the influence of Alice Sheldon's childhood on these items, but I won't.) It's entirely plausible for a 50ish white guy in late-'70s/early-'80s America to exoticize a woman in this way -- heck, it's unfortunately still plausible today -- and it's also plausible that a certain sort of Kenyan father might want his daughter to be "circumcised" in the traditional way -- but I am a little bit queasy about the reason Tiptree seems to have chosen to include these details. For the plot, she needed to make Margaret "cold" so that her greatest desire would be for her consciousness to emulate a computer program, and she needed Daniel Dann to find her astoundingly attractive and also a bit alien. This unfortunately just strengthens the stereotype of Africans as "wild", "alien", and either hypersexual or frigid -- themselves problematic concepts, regardless of geographic stereotypes. These choices, too, seem to me to be failures of imagination. Imagine, for instance, an alternative: What if Margaret's mother had been made "crazy" by her allegiance to the patriarchal idea that a wife should do anything to live up to her husband's expectations. Also, because of received stereotypes of Africa she'd had no motivation to question, what if she decided that her husband wanted her to perform a traditional ritual on her daughter -- and so what if she was the one to mutilate (or have mutilated) her daughter -- and, furthermore, when she presented him to her husband, her husband (a modern man with a complex relationship to the traditions of his ancestors) was aghast and deeply, irrevocably saddened. It wouldn't have solved all the problems, but it would have preserved the necessary plot points and added some complexity to the situation and to the characters.

We could say that the limitations of Up the Walls of the World are limitations of its era and genre, but even recognizing that, it's important to imagine other possibilities than the ones Tiptree chose, or else we will accept the limitations when we should challenge them and let them spur us toward deeper imaginings of our own.

*or, rather, consciousnesses, because what meaning is there to the word "life" without some sort of embodiment


  1. Coincidentally, I recently tried to read Total Eclipse, and after forty or so pages of all tell, no show I gave up. Maybe I should have persevered.

    It's probably been thirty years since I read Walls, but I remember being as disappointed as you.

  2. Matt, wonderful post. But… aren’t you assuming that there’s some sort of ideal sf-reading filter that cleans out all the “insufficiently imaginative” claims on a reader’s suspensions of disbelief, leaving only the ones really worthy of an ideal reader? I read Snow Crash as a cynical, romping comic book with no heart, but my students adore it and believe it. I believed Neuromancer enough to have nightmares from it, but many intelligent reviewers considered it to be a quilt of clichés. How can there be one standard for what engages a reader? For me, SF is unusual as a genre because folks come to it for many different reasons, and they are open to entertaining many different “angles.” I have no trouble seeing Up the Walls of the World from your perspective. But Tiptree’s novel is a “masterpiece” (a really bad term, but what else are you going to say when you want the novel to be regarded really highly?) for me, because I’m fascinated by her premises. Folks are so used to her misanthropy and pinpointed pain, that it’s easy to miss that she wanted to do something that would truly ease that pain. She wanted to write a dynamic utopia of struggling difference. It was an ambitious goal, especially for someone who had become the definer of pessimism in sf. If you want the normal Tiptree, Up the Walls will seem shallow. She wanted to create an abnormal Tiptree.
    I also don’t get some of your critical points. There aren’t any disembodied beings in the novel, except when they are in the beam. (Is that what you are referring to?) The Tyrenneians have fleshy mantles; the Destroyer is thick in the middle, and gradually thins out at the edges into void. The point of making Omali the victim of a real infibulation is to have her suffering physical suffering that drives her nearly (?) into autism. Tiptree is fascinated with autism as defense against cruel social reality. As for language, isn’t the language of Fire Upon the Deep, one of the best recent space-operas, also lame at times? (The tynes talk as if they are in a medieval canine fantasy novel.) Language that captures what it’s like to be conscious at the limits of consciousness either has to be nearly incomprehensible (maybe like McElroy’s Plus) or a simulation. Is the Omega-goo’s language in Blood Music “realistic?” For that matter, if you’re praising Dick, doesn’t his language lapse into painful banality and/or pretentiousness sometimes precisely when his characters achieve their highest illuminations.
    Even after reading your post, I still think Up the Walls is a spectacular sf book. Maybe if it had appeared under another pseudonym, we wouldn’t make inappropriate demands on it.

  3. Oh, you're right Istvan -- I was trying hard through the post to somehow wheedle my way around exactly the assumption you mention, but decided it was more or less futile, so I should just make sure my own subjectivity was absolutely clear (the problem of any sort of review, although I'd say this is more a "reading report" than a review proper, but...) I absolutely wouldn't say there's one standard, and I hope that such an idea didn't come across in the post as a whole -- a failure on my part if it did, because what I was trying to get at was why the book's particular way of imagining failed for me; I found much of that failure interesting, so wrote about it, but I'm more than aware that it is a failure only for readers of my particular prejudices, and that, in fact, "failure" is perhaps too strong a word, though I haven't come up with a better one.

    And I would feel terribly guilty if what I had written ruined the novel for you -- I don't want that power! -- so I'm glad you still read it with pleasure despite my assault!

  4. I just came across this debate while looking for something else Tiptree related and I want to thank all the participants; I'm rather in between Matthew and Istvan myself in my attachment to, or suspension of disbelief on behalf of, Walls. (In Matthew's defense, I find it impossible to think about the last section of Walls without considering the consciousnesses as paradoxically disembodied [and thus quite hard to represent] at the end. I don't think Matthew was talking about the flying Tyrenneians, who are great, and whose aerial lives represent without actually being the freedom that the consciousness later get-- their bodies are like the leaves in Shelley's "West Wind."

    But what I really want to know is what you both think about Brightness Falls from the Air. I fear I'm the only person on Earth who considers it superior to Up the Walls... It's her most sustained attempt to deal with the conventions of sf as conventions-- and it's another attempt to do something that can't come across as grimly fatalist, while staying true to her tragic sense, and to her sense (inextricable from tragedy) of the nature and purpose of art. (But of course you have to get through all the Star Trek stuff in the middle in order to see those attempts, clear only near the end.)

    1. It's been too long since I read Brightness for me to say really much about it -- my memory is that I thought it was fine, but a bit overwritten. That was quite a while ago, though, so I don't trust that I'd have the same reaction were I to read it today. I remember somebody writing positively about it (which is, indeed, relatively rare, as most people seem to think it shows the falling off in quality that much of Tiptree's post-pseudonym-revealed work does), but I haven't the faintest idea where it was that I encountered that positivity! So I'm pretty useless to you, alas!