Friday, November 25, 2022

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction #5: The Screwfly Solution by James Tiptree Jr

Tiptree, Jr., James. "The Screwfly Solution." Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, June 1977.

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:   9.50/10
My Rating:        8/10

"The young man sitting at 2° N, 75° W sent a casually venomous glance up at the nonfunctional shoofly ventilador and went on reading his letter."

"The Screwfly Solution" refers to a method of reducing the population of screwflies by introducing sterile males into the swarm. The population can diminish quickly, and if repeated season after season, their numbers can border extinction. This method of pest control is used to protect the nearby human population, since screwflies feed on, and lay their eggs in, warm living flesh, leaving their hosts drastically ill.

Alan is in Colombia working on the procedure, and he learns through correspondence from his wife, and notes from a colleague, that the global female population is also being reduced. It appears that a virus is causing men to act violently towards women, and mass murder of women has become commonplace. Eventually Alan flees Colombia in an attempt to rejoin his wife and daughter, but is afraid of infection and makes plans to remain nearby, but not actually with them, for his family's safety.

We learn that the virus confuses the urge to mate with the urge to kill, so that the erotic impulse fills men not with the urge to have sex, but with the urge to commit murder. There is a little confusion here, since men are globally murdering women at an incredible rate, and yet the need for sex does not drive men to blindly copulate on the spot, so there seems to be something more driving men to murder than the confusion of impulse, but that is not explained. Regardless of this, the concept is fascinating and the results quite disturbing.

The story reads with the implication that women exist as a kind of virus infecting men, the way a screwfly would infect its host, and that the solution to eliminate this virus is to eliminate the entire female population--femicide. This is the belief that many infected men hold true, and as a result a religion is born, carrying the tenet that it is man's duty to cleanse the world by killing its women. Disturbing also because it is written with realism, as the events unfold through a mostly epistolary narrative, including a cult member's dry account of his experience in accepting this duty, believing the message to be delivered to him by God, or rather by the religious party's pamphlet.

There are brief accounts of women rebelling or simply demonstrating, but I would have liked some more detail on the development of the virus and the international crisis, and especially women's response, as they sometimes appear to be accepting of their fate. A novel on this subject would have been great, but unfortunately Tiptree seemed satisfied with keeping it short.

A minor spoiler here. I am still not too certain how I feel about the ending. We eventually discover that the virus is caused by external factors, whereas had it been the result of some scientific method, the aftereffects of some pesticide perhaps, derived by Alan or one of his colleagues while dealing in pest control, there would be a darker, more sinister, not to mention more "real" cause for our demise. However, it being external conveys the idea that men are receiving the kind of treatment that they, in their elimination of insects, are releasing onto other life. While men kill off screwflies without a second thought, by sterilizing the males, so here is man's sexual drive the target for this particular virus.

I have always liked Alice Sheldon's work as I find it thought-provoking, and that is enhanced after with "The Screwfly Solution," read for the first time. The story was first published in a special "Women's Issue" of Analog under pen name Raccoona Sheldon, and later reprinted under pen name James Tiptree, Jr. Since it was published in a Women's Issue, Sheldon could not use the masculine Tiptree name. The Raccoona pseudonym was not, however, created for this publication, as she had used it previously. This was among the last stories published before Dr. Alive B. Sheldon's identity became public knowledge; it was only months following its publication that the public discovered Tiptree's identity via her mother's obituary, which linked Alice Sheldon with the Raccoona name.

While her fiction is consistently excellent, Sheldon's life is also quite fascinating.


tarbandu said...

Tiptree's stuff from the New Wave era could be hit-or-miss, and often was over-praised by the sf establishment. But it sounds like this story is worthwhile and worth looking out for.

Todd Mason said...

"Racoona" was a nickname she used in fandom before using it as a byline. She did love to hide to some extent.

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