Houston, Houston, Do You Read?

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"Houston, Houston, Do You Read?"
Houstonhouston.jpg
Cover of the 1989 Tor Double mass market paperback
AuthorJames Tiptree Jr.
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Genre(s)Science fiction
Published inAurora: Beyond Equality
Publication typeAnthology
PublisherFawcett
Media typePrint
Publication dateMay 1976

Houston, Houston, Do You Read? is a novella by James Tiptree Jr. (pseudonym of Alice Sheldon). It won a Nebula Award for Best Novella in 1976 and a Hugo Award for Best Novella in 1977.[1]

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.[2] 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.

Plot summary[edit]

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 playback 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 physical tasks' bulk and strength.

The Sunbird's crew reacts 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.

Characters[edit]

Norman 'Dave' Davis: Commander Major Astronaut. Dave is the commander of the teams mission. He is a strong believer in the Christian faith and this drives his actions in the novella. Dave believes that these clone women have been led astray and that they are living in darkness. He sees himself as a messiah, sent by God to deliver these women out of their sins. He wants to be their leader and to show the women how they should act (according to his biblical faith). Dave believes women should be subservient to men, and that they are uncapable of running their own government, society, and economic systems.

Bud Geirr: Astronaut, Violent "alpha" male. Bud is cocky, masculine, and violent. He sees himself as a "god" that the women clones should worship. He gets off to the idea of dominating women and controlling them as their leader. He holds the opinion that men are better, stronger and smarter than women.

Dr. Orren Lorimer: Astronaut, Scientist. While the novel is written in 3rd person, it is filtered through the "eyes" of Lorimer. Readers can see his thoughts and emotions throughout the story. He sees himself (and is seen by others) as a beta male, who desperately wants to be "alpha" like his co-astronauts Bud and Dave. Lorimer struggles with his masculine identity and what it means to be a man. Even Bud and Dave see him as more similar to the women clones on the ship, than as one of their male team members.

Lady Blue: Lady Blue acts as the captain of the ship, although she does not claim the title "captain". She is the oldest of the clones on the ship and, thus, tends to take the lead.

Connie: Connie is fairly quiet and does not want to divulge the information of their world to Lorimer. She is the one who speaks and interacts most with Lorimer. It is clear that she, as well as the other women, see these three men as interesting to observe, but ultimately dangerous to their way of life.

Andy: Andy is thought to be a male throughout a large portion of the novella. However, she is female and was given early androgen treatment to increase her physical strength for certain jobs. Other Andy's (or Kay's) also were given this treatment to make up for the lack of male physicality that is useful for manual labor work.

Judy Paris/Dakar: Both Judy's are very talkative and excitable. They enjoy walking in the gym and talking to each other and Lorimer. They are the ones who tell Lorimer that they are all clones and explain the way the world is run now.

Themes[edit]

Feminism[edit]

James Tiptree Jr. is a science fiction writer who rose to fame through her discussion of gender and nature in the 1970s.[3] Tiptree's novella Houston, Houston, Do you Read works to help readers understand the nature of inequality while promoting women's rights. Tiptree also tackled the nature of gender through (de)naturalizing male violence. [4] In the novella, Dave and Bud express the most hatred for women. Both men have strong masculine identities, and they think that they were sent to the future to “fulfill” the women's lives. Dave and Bud both believe that women are unfit to run a prosperous society on their own. Although Lorimer is also a man, he struggles with virility. He desperately wants to connect with Dave and Buck on a masculine level. Tiptree expresses each male character with disguised misogyny in order to show the realities of discrimination. Each man discriminates against the women in a different way. Dave uses his biblical Christianity as an excuse and explanation for why men are superior to women. He believes that God has ordained that women be subservient to men in all ways. Conversely, Bud is not Christian, but believes that he (and all men) are so desired by women that they cannot live without him. He believes that women are unintelligent and physically weak and, therefore, biologically inferior to men. He is quite openly misogynistic and this grows to physical abuse. Dave sees himself as a God who is sent to the future in order to conquer the women and overpower them because he is a man and the “ideal” ruler who knows best. Dave uses his religion as a valid explanation to subjugate the women. Finally, Lorimer does not want to admit that he believes women are inferior to men. He wrestles with his carnal desires to dominate women, to rape them, and to abuse them. However, Lorimer is aware of the unacceptability of these desires and tries to advocate for the women. It can be noted, though, that the only reason Lorimer is trying to appease these women and not dominate them is because they have the upper hand. If the situation were different, it is not unreasonable to assume that Lorimer would stand by Dave and Bud and physically, mentally, and emotionally dominate, control, and abuse these women. Although Lorimer is not an “alpha” male like his fellow astronauts, he desires to hold masculine qualities deep down. Lorimer follows Dave and Buck's lead regarding how they treat the women. Lorimer's traits affect the story because his actions prove that men tend to hold similar qualities. Although Lorimer is not a harsh character, deep down, he also expresses shades of misogyny. Tiptree uses Lorimer's character to show that all men express similar desires.

Male Violence[edit]

"Houston, Houston, Do you Ready is dominated by a theme of male violence. The drug that the male crew is given on the clone's ship causes them to verbally express every thought they have, but to do so unknowingly. This allows the female crew of the ship to have insight into what is going on in their minds. It can be inferred through the final paragraphs of the novella that the clones never truly intended to bring the men back to earth alive; it would cause to great a risk to their way of life. Lady Blue tells Lorimer, "...the fighting is long over. It ended when you (men) did, I believe. We can hardly turn you loose on Earth, and we simply have no facilities for people with your emotional problems".[5] The women of Earth are no longer accustomed to the violence that males perpetuated when they, too, inhabited Earth.[6] The display of male violence reaches a climax when Bud assaults Judy. His sexual violence is apparent, not caring about consent or safety. His only goal is his own satisfaction and hurting women in the process is of no concern to him. Bud is not the only of the three men who exhibit violent tendencies, however. Dave also shows his violence when he wields a gun, attempting to take command of the women through a threat of violence. The women are unfazed and they unarm and eliminate the threat he posed them. Lorimer is the least violent of the three, but this does not mean that he is without violent tendencies. He also has fantasies of rape and these he has spoken aloud (unknowingly) because of the drug he was administered. Lorimer is enthralled with watching Bud rape Judy. He doesn't want Bud to stop, yet knows that the situation is violent and unacceptable. All three men show their violent natures, particularly their violent sexual natures. The women see this, and suggest to the readers that this type of violence is no longer a problem for people on Earth.[7] They decide that allowing these men to live poses too great risk to their society and cannot allow the male violence that would certainly follow these three men into their world.

Environmentalism[edit]

The clone's ship is equipped with a greenhouse which acts as a waste management and oxygen-providing system. The waste fertilizes the plants which take in CO2 and sunlight when the windows are towards the sun, then they pump out oxygen.[8] The women also have animals aboard: crickets, chickens, and iguanas are a few of the animals named. The women have blended technology and nature to provide them with the best of both. The women of Earth seem to be quite environmentally conscious and this commitment to nature is not ignored, even in space. Author Murphy Graham suggests that these women also exhibit insect-like tendencies. The women are like a hive of bees or a colony of ants; they work together with a common goal and internal sabatage and violence from those of their own kind is rare if present at all.[9] Lorimer notes this hive-like mentality when he observes two of the women talking while exercising, "...like ants, he thinks. They twiddle their antennae together every time they meet".[10]

Religion as a Stronghold[edit]

Dave sees the women as sheep that are lost without some type of control under a male figurehead. However, it seems that Tiptree is taking ideals of religious oppressions that held true in the Patriarchal society and trying to implement them in this Matriarch.[11] Dave takes that figurehead place for himself despite aiming to realign women under God's control. However, just like many have done with the religion of the past, the higher power is not promoted in any form by Dave doing this; only Dave sees the benefit.

Adaptations and influences[edit]

"Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" was adapted as a radio drama for the National Public Radio series Sci-Fi Radio. It originally aired as two half-hour shows, February 4 & 11, 1990.

"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.

References[edit]

Notes
  1. ^ Clute and Nicholls 1995, p. 1230.
  2. ^ Von Ruf, Al. "Publication Listing "Aurora: Beyond Equality"". Internet Speculative Fiction Data Base. Retrieved 23 March 2011.
  3. ^ Evans, Rebecca (2015). "James Tiptree Jr.: Rereading Essentialism and Ecofeminism in the 1970s". Women's Studies Quarterly. 43 (3–4): 223-239. doi:10.1353/wsq.2015.0048. S2CID 85731794.
  4. ^ Evans, Rebecca (2015). "James Tiptree Jr.: Rereading Essentialism and Ecofeminism in the 1970s". Women's Studies Quarterly. 43 (3–4): 223-239. doi:10.1353/wsq.2015.0048. S2CID 85731794.
  5. ^ Triptree, James (1976). "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?". Aurora: Beyond Equality: 36-98.
  6. ^ Pearson, C. (1977). "Women's Fantasies and Feminist Utopias". A Journal of Women's Studies (2(3)): 50-61. doi:10.2307/3346349.
  7. ^ Pearson, C. (1977). "Women's Fantasies and Feminist Utopias". A Journal of Women's Studies (2(3)): 50-61. doi:10.2307/3346349.
  8. ^ Triptree, James (1976). "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?". Aurora: Beyond Equality: 36-98.
  9. ^ Murphy, Graham (2008). "Considering Her Ways: In(ter)secting Matriarchal Utopias". Science Fiction Studies. 35 (2). ISSN 0091-7729.
  10. ^ Triptree, James (1976). "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?". Aurora: Beyond Equality: 36-98.
  11. ^ Murphy, Graham (2008). "Considering Her Ways: In(ter)secting Matriarchal Utopias". Science Fiction Studies. 35 (2). ISSN 0091-7729.
Bibliography
  • 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.
  • Murphy, Graham J. Considering Her Ways: In(ter)secting Matriarchal Utopias. Science Fiction Studies, 00917729, July 2008, Vol. 35, Issue 2, Humanities Full Text (H.W. Wilson). In this work Murphy looks at the way utopian/dystopian literature blends humanity, society, nature, and technology. Murphy notes how Triptree, as well, combined these notions and took an almost "insect"-like approach to humanity, in which the mother is the primary care-taker of young and the males serve little to no purpose beyond providing DNA for reproduction.
  • Pearson, C. (1977). Women's Fantasies and Feminist Utopias. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 2(3), 50-61. doi:10.2307/3346349. In this article, Pearson notes how women authors perceive utopias. They, like Triptree, envision a world where male violence and sexual inequalities are not existent. In Triptree's case, she created a world in which men do not exist at all.
  • 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 [1]

External links[edit]