Sunday, December 4, 2022
Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #7: The Women Men Don't See by James Tiptree Jr
Tiptree, Jr., James. "The Women Men Don't See." The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, December 1973.
This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories here. I am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.
ISFdb Rating: 9.50/10
My Rating: 8/10
"I see her first while the Mexicana 727 is barreling down to Cozumel Island."
American Don Fenton is in Mexico, hoping to catch a flight to Belize where he is scheduled to do some "serious" fishing. The Cessna he was expecting to board has grounded, so he gets onto a plane heading to Chetumal in the Yucatán Peninsula. He shares the plane with its Mayan pilot, Captain Esteban, and a pair of American women, Ruth Parsons and her daughter, Althea. Unfortunately, the plane crash lands in an isolated marsh, and due to their isolation, the four do not expect to be rescued quickly. Fenton heads out to a clearing he noticed from the plane, where he believes is fresh water, and Mrs. Parsons volunteers to join him.
The story is told through the point of view of Fenton, a hard and cynical man with traditional values. Ruth Parsons, on the other hand, is a secretive woman who slowly opens up to Fenton's persistent questioning, and reveals herself to be an outsider, uncomfortable with the current social makeup, and unconventional in her views of women's place in the world, particularly the notions of marriage and child rearing. As she grows more anxious following a mysterious late-night encounter on the beach, we realize she is carrying an additional secret.
Tiptree conveys her ideas via a not-too-likeable narrator. Fenton is outgoing but gruff, a committed bachelor with traditional views of women's roles and needs, such as the need for middle-aged women to be married in order to be secure. Ruth, a single mother, clashes respectfully with Fenton, and her own views on independence and its challenges against the forces of conventional western society come across as odd in Fenton's ears. It is possible that Fenton, though a specific character rather than an everyman, takes on the role of the standard male reader, whose traditional understanding of women is being challenged by this modern outlook. Whatever Fenton's role, the reader is sympathetic to Ruth Parsons.
Parsons is a generic western family name, possibly alluding to the fact that the sentiments expressed by Ruth are common among women. The name Ruth is Hebrew for "friend," and the biblical Ruth is also a widowed woman. However, the biblical Ruth does re-marry, whereas Mrs. Parsons has no desire whatsoever for a husband, and had not even married her daughter's father. In the Book of Ruth, she sacrifices everything for her belief in God, and will follow God anywhere she is told to go, and do whatever is his bidding. This last point is very much raised in Ruth Parsons at the end of the story, but of course not in the religious sense. Adding more detail here would be spoiling the story.
Published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction when the general public still believed that Tiptree was a man. Alice Sheldon (aka Tiptree) captures the male voice with such accuracy that it is not surprising that so few people correctly guessed the author's true gender.