Houston, Houston, Do You Read?
|"Houston, Houston, Do You Read?"|
Cover of the 1989 Tor Double mass market paperback
|Author||James Tiptree Jr.|
|Published in||Aurora: Beyond Equality|
|Publication date||May 1976|
The novella first appeared in the anthology Aurora: Beyond Equality, edited by Vonda N. McIntyre and Susan J. Anderson, published by Fawcett in May 1976. It was subsequently reprinted several times (amongst others in the James Tiptree collections Star Songs of an Old Primate in 1978 and Her Smoke Rose Up Forever in 1990) and in 1989 was published in a Tor Doubles mass market paperback (number eleven in that series) with the flipside novella "Souls" by Joanna Russ (ISBN 0-8125-5962-2). It remains Tiptree's most famous and most reprinted story.
The story portrays a crew of three male astronauts launched in the near future on a circumsolar mission in the spaceship Sunbird. A large solar flare damages their craft and leaves them drifting and lost in space. They make repeated attempts to contact NASA in Houston, to no avail. Soon, however, they begin to pick up strange radio communications.
They are puzzled that almost all of the voices are female, usually with a strong Australian accent. They overhear conversations about personal matters (including the birth of a cow) as well as unknown slang terms. Various theories are discussed by the perplexed astronauts: hallucinations? A hoax? A hostile power trying to trick them? They record and play back the conversations over and over, trying to figure out what is going on. Soon, they realize that these unknown people are aware of them and are offering to help.
At first, the Sunbird's commander refuses to communicate with them, suspicious of their motives. As they continue to plead with the astronauts to accept their rescue offer, the men are chilled to hear their mission referred to in historical terms. They come to realize that they were not only thrown off-course in space, but in time as well, and that their flight was lost centuries ago. They are given bare details of the current Earth: an undefined cataclysm has reduced the human population to a few million. Eventually, the Sunbird agrees to rendezvous with the spaceship Gloria to allow the astronauts to spacewalk to safety.
The Gloria is an enigma to them. Besides having an almost all-female crew, the ship is haphazard and cluttered with plants and animals on board. The technology used on the ship does not appear to them to be as advanced as they would have thought the world to be after such a long passage of time, and they think it odd that some of the ship's functions are powered by stationary bikes. Their culture shock is compounded by the cryptic and incomplete answers they are given concerning the Earth.
Little by little, the three gather clues from both observations and slips of the tongue. While crew members often refer to their "sisters," there is no mention of husbands, boyfriends, or families. There are twins on board (both named Judy), yet one seems older than the other. The one male, a teen named Andy, seems strangely feminine. Technology, and science and culture in general, seems to be relatively unadvanced considering the centuries that passed.
Eventually, they learn the truth. A plague wiped out most human life, including all males. Only about 11,000 women survived, mostly concentrated in Australasia and a few other areas. Until recently, they reproduced only by cloning, so most women are clones of the original 11,000 genotypes. Babies are raised communally in crèches, and all members of each genotype are encouraged to add their story to a book that is passed on for the inspiration and education of future "sisters." Certain genotypes are given early androgen treatments (hence, Andy, who the astronauts thought was male) to increase bulk and strength for physical tasks. The resulting communal male-free society has settled into a peaceful pattern — without major conflict and seemingly happy.
The Sunbird's crew react to these revelations in different ways. The commander considers this to be a great tragedy, and believes he was chosen by God to subjugate the women to their intended roles and lead them back to the true path with men as leaders of society and family. Another eagerly anticipates the prospect of millions of women who have not known a man's touch, believing that the women are all sexually unfulfilled without a man, and he engages in violent sexual fantasies of domination.
The third crew member — the narrator — differs from the other two in that he is an intellectual man without much physical development — the other two men look down upon him for his nerdy qualities, and he thinks back to all of the abuse and bullying he has been the victim of over the years by men like them. He realizes that their feelings of superiority and importance are blinding them to what is really going on: he and his crewmates have been given a mind-altering drug — it disinhibits them and causes them to show their "true selves" and voice their thoughts. He realizes that the traits they have exhibited of violence and domination are unacceptable in the new world of women, and they are all going to be killed, even himself. He tries to explain to them that though he expressed sexual thoughts in aggressive, violent words, he would never act on such thoughts. The women explain that they do not even have such thoughts. They are content to live in a world of women, and they don't want for leadership or sexual fulfillment without men. Their study of these three astronauts has shown that allowing men on Earth will pose unacceptable risks, so they are now merely studying the men and obtaining useful information and (in the case of the over-amorous astronaut) sperm samples, presumably to introduce fresh genetic material and create new genotypes.
"Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" is referenced in the dialogue of the first issue of the post-apocalyptic comic Y: The Last Man, which also depicts a plague that kills off all men, three astronauts who survived the plague in orbit, and a new female society that survives by cloning.
- Clute and Nicholls 1995, p. 1230.
- Von Ruf, Al. "Publication Listing "Aurora: Beyond Equality"". Internet Speculative Fiction Data Base. Retrieved 23 March 2011.
- Clute, John and Peter Nicholls. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York City: St. Martin's Griffin, 1993 (2nd edition 1995). ISBN 0-312-13486-X.
- Phillips, Julie. James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2006. ISBN 0-312-20385-3. A thorough biography, with insight into Sheldon's life and work. Extensive quotation from her correspondence, journals, and other papers. Times Literary Supplement review 
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