Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is going to be a long review because this book took me two months to finish! I had this anthology for several years before I cracked it. My podcast co-host mentioned one story from it and I decided to thumb through it too, and I was hooked. These stories command attention in a way hardly anything I read does. I had to read several of them multiple times. I couldn't skim. I had to ask questions and think about them, and several are still swirling in my head. I had to take breaks in between to think and reflect, and I couldn't read more than one at a time. These are the best kinds of stories, and I have a lot to say!
But first, a line from the last page of the last story:
"You carry despair as your gift."
The Girl Who Was Plugged In is my favorite story of the entire anthology. I know it won a bunch of awards, and for good reason. It is thought provoking and terribly sad and I can't get the ending out of my head. It is about a girl who is plugged into a virtual reality, with her brain and emotions running a physical avatar. She falls in love but it's impossible. So gut wrenching! I say a bit more about it on the Reading Envy podcast, Episode 2.
"She loves him back with her whole heart... Except. Except that it's really P. Burke five thousand miles away who loves Paul. P. Burke the monster down in a dungeon smelling of electrode paste. A caricature of a woman burning, melting, obsessed with true love. Trying over twenty-double-thousand miles of hard vacuum to reach her beloved through girl-flesh numbed by an invisible film. Feeling his arms around the body he thinks is hers, fighting through shadows to give herself to him. Trying to taste and smell him through beautiful dead nostrils, to love him back with a body that goes dead in the heart of the fire."Houston, Houston, Do You Read? was probably the most disturbing story in the anthology, especially the idea of the "night side" of people. Phew. I'd like to forget it, actually. I suppose that points to the ability Tiptree has to create such a visceral reaction.
With Delicate Mad Hands is a story that keeps getting more intense and more strange. I kept thinking we'd hit the limit and on it would go, until you're talking about Pig Empires. I read this one another time because I was convinced I had dreamed it, that surely there wasn't such a weird story in the universe. No, there it was. This was probably my second favorite. Tiptree (aka Alice Sheldon) takes the revenge fantasy where it has never gone before.
We Who Stole the Dream probably has the most imaginative world-building. I think I like Tiptree best when her stories are in space or virtual space. This is a great example of a space story, with themes of oppression, war, slavery, genocide. Another good one is A Momentary Taste of Being.
On the Last Afternoon, on the other hand, seems to be set maybe in Florida (although it could be another planet) and these sea cow like creatures are wiping out humanity with their mating cycles (not by mating with them, they just have this enormous size... hard to explain)... It was a good example of humanity being minimized by uncontrollable nature, another theme she seems to use a lot. I wanted to skim this story because the creatures made me uncomfortable, especially the Nonion head that the patriarch is always talking to.
"Man is an animal whose dreams come true and kill him."
I don't even know what to say about some of the stories that end so perfectly or magically or sorrowfully that to describe them at all would ruin the experience. These should be savored and read and then re-read. Highly, highly recommended.