Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 36: And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side by James Tiptree, Jr.

Tiptree, Jr., James. "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side." Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March 1972.

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 hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   8.83/10
My Rating:        8/10

"He was standing absolutely still by a service port, staring out at the belly of the Orion docking above us."

In the distant future, humans have expanded into space and interact with a variety of alien species. A reporter is at Big Junction waiting for alien ships to dock, hoping to encounter his first alien, when he begins a conversation with a station engineer. The engineer tells him of his own obsession with aliens, and his life-long pursuit of a subservient sexual relationship with a member of another species. This desire led him to abandon a career in medicine and return to school to instead pursue a career that would eventually allow him into space. He soon discovered that while aliens want nothing to do with humans, his obsession drives him to continue seeking what he can never have. This obsession, it turns out, is common for humans, and the engineer believes that it is our natural sex drive and need to seek out new experiences that is the root cause. He tells the reporter his story in the hopes of dissuading the other from further pursuing contact with aliens.

A surprisingly sad story in the way it relegates some species, not just humans, to the bottom of a many-tiered social ladder, and the desire for recognition while barely existing in the eyes of most other species. But what is ultimately sad is that humans are presented as chasing the impossible in the most pathetic, unabashed way. Stay away, we warn each other, but we are destined to take on this pursuit as it is fundamentally in our nature. The engineer is a representation of humanity, and we know the route that the curious reporter will take, now child-like beside the older, deeply depressed engineer. Short and with a straightforward point, the story nonetheless gives us many fine moments, such as the appearance of the engineer's wife and the treatment of a baser alien species by the engineer himself.

While I do not agree with Tiptree's thesis, I do find it compelling and well presented. We can interpret the story as a case of interracial sex, or even simply the complexities of sexual relationship as a whole. I don't think this was Tiptree's intention, though, since within the text it is clear that she has created both a complex and detailed universe, and strong character elements that are reflected in the story's individual moments.

A master of storytelling, it is difficult not to engage with the story, and to re-read as there is so much in even this short piece that we can infer. There are the more obvious moments, such as the engineering looking at his wrist, clearly indicating that he had sold his watch as part of the expensive pursuit of alien love. Then there are the more subtle moments. We learn the engineer's marriage is loveless, one of convenience as space stations hire only couples. This rule of couple hiring was likely implemented in a doomed attempt to ensure that employees would not pursue relations with aliens as they would have sexual partners alongside them. The rule is easily skirted, however, as the engineer and his wife, it turns out, have conspired in their roles as each is on the quest for alien love.

The reporter mentions briefly that he catches the scent of tallow. This is in reference to the engineer's body odour, a mixture of unwashed flesh as his obsession precedes even basic hygiene, and also infers the animal desire of which he cannot be rid. Adding to this baseness, we learn that aliens who agree sleep with humans are referred to as perverts. Human sex, or sex with a human, is universally considered unnatural, heightening the notion that the pursuit for alien sex is unattainable. As humans are being debased by the most noble of aliens (noble from a human perspective), humans in turn attempt to debase those aliens in lesser regards (as we see the engineer's treatment of the station's helpful alien). This pattern, we learn, began with the engineer early in his career, as when describing his first meeting with an alien in a bar, he refers to the bartender as a "snotty spade," as derogatory as it is racist.

This scene at the bar invokes much of the latter part of the story, and of the engineer's fruitless quest. The obsessed human woman in the bar is covered in bruises, we learn from sexual acts with aliens. This woman is likened to the engineer's wife, but we know these are not the same women as the one in the bar kills herself, but the obsessiveness is shared by the two women, as the engineer's wife too is described as having similar sexual scars. At the bar the engineer mentions seeing an expensively dressed man with "something wrecked about his face." This is how the reported first describes the engineer, who indicates that the description "fits." The scene in the bar is a foreshadowing of the engineer and his wife; he essentially sees his fate from the outset, sees his future in these two characters: the bruised woman and the wrecked man.

The fact that the characters are nameless indicates that the affliction discussed is not individual, as argued by the engineer, but that these characters merely reflect all of humanity. In addition, we learn that the engineer is from Nebraska whereas the reporter is an Aussie, indicating that the affliction is global.

Finally, the reporter is not good at his job. He complains that no one will talk to him, and his comments and opening questions are elementary, not learned on journalism school but by watching generic newscasts. His generic remarks while "greedily" trying to have a peek at a docking ship reveal that he is not there for a story, but driven by his desire. Like the engineer, he probably chose a profession that would allow him to visit a space station in order to pursue his desire. This is the story's greatest irony: the engineer reveals what would be unique and fascinating story about humanity's desires and the sharp drop in today's birthrate, yet the person in a position to bring this story to the world, and thereby potentially bringing journalistic glory upon himself, is like a child stuck to the station glass, and finally a puppy dashing off to catch sight of an alien.

For more of this week's Wednesday's Short Stories, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.


TracyK said...

There are so many older science fiction writers that I have not read at all. I will look out for stories by this writer.

pattinase (abbott) said...

What a great review.

Casual Debris said...

Tracy, I find Tiptree to be among the best. Her work is always thought-provoking and manages to also include a nice twist. Her writing is challenging and in a good way.

Casual Debris said...

Patti, Thanks so much! Sorry I missed your comment initially, just a busy time...

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