James Tiptree, Jr.’s writing style can be summed up in the following phrase: to the point. Tiptree does not waste her time with airy words and flowing descriptions, preferring to cut to the meat of the matter. Few words are wasted on figurative language; it’s merely used as a device to set up the rest of the story. Rather than spend a lot of time focusing on the descriptive language, Tiptree chooses her words carefully to depict visceral, “human” actions and emotions that really cut deep into the human experience and forces me to question the flowery writing conceptions I’ve been drilled into appreciating since a young age.
These curt and succinct descriptions also lend to the thematic approaches of her story, which create a sense of intrigue on the surface, but is ultimately much darker and deeper at its depths. Reading stories like “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side,” one can see the initial fascination with the alien species, characterized using one or two descriptors at most, leaving us to fill in the blanks with our own imagination. This evokes a sense of wonder and mysticism that is inherent in science-fiction. However, on further exploration, the themes of her stories are grim and bleak, warning us of alien threats that might be closer to home than we realize. By the end of “And I Awoke,” we learn how dangerous sexual attraction towards alien species is. This acts as an allegory, prompting us to take caution against unregulated, addictive hedonism. Indulgence can be okay and harmless, but when uncontrolled, can lead to disastrous consequences, which, in the story, potentially lead to the decimation and conquering of humanity.
Tiptree’s initially-simplistic style is far more complex upon analysis, and her stories create a sense of desolate wonder unlike any other science-fiction writer I’ve experienced.
And From Across a Black Ocean, He Called to Me
A cold mist swirled around my feet as I stepped into the black shop. My footsteps were light as I crossed into the largest section of the store. This was strange. Indoor stores were uncommon in Bhimra, especially ones of such reputation. Still, I had to find what I was looking for.
A red sphere on a shelf caught my attention. I picked it up. An apple, glistening crimson as if light were emanating from within. I placed it back to its original position and read the label next to it.
I sneered at it. “Impossible,” I said mockingly.
“Why would you think that?”
I spun around as my eyes bulged out of my head. Standing in front of me was a man, with lanky arms and a beard which pooled at his feet like the fog in the shop. He stood, tilting his head, expectantly waiting for a response.
“Well, i–it’s just that…um…Syntheria…”
“Speak up.” His voice was like a dagger.
“Syn–Syntheria was razed to the ground two centuries ago.”
And? I tried to explain how Gorot and his warband salted the earth around the ancient elven city, that nothing grew there anymore, that everyone knew that.
The man smiled, a wide and toothy smile. “Young man, you’ll find that here, many things are possible.” He tapped his fingers together. “But I don’t think it is magical apples that you’re looking for. No, you’ve come for something quite special.”
I stared, watching as he glided around the black store.
“Tell me what it is that you’re searching for. Samsaran texts, a Sigil blade, one of the Amarant Stars. I can assure you, we most certainly have it.”
My hands shook violently as I took the slip of parchment from my pocket and handed it to him, describing how I was to bring that item to my patron.
The man chuckled. “The box…he would ask for the box. My boy, do you have any idea for what your benefactor asks? No, of course you don’t. This box is a particular treasure of mine, one I would not normally pass on to a simple messenger as yourself, but I can make an exception given the circumstances.”
I suddenly recognized his voice. He was the one calling to me in my dreams, the one plaguing my waking moments. He must be the Antiquarian.
He turned with an unexpected swiftness and disappeared behind a bookcase, rustling about for something, throwing rolls of parchment and gemstones behind him. He strode back to me, holding in his hands a small wooden chest.
“Your benefactor does not yet understand the gravity of what he desires. This,” he tapped the lid of the box, “is ancient. Far more so than I am, and its contents are even a mystery to myself. However, I extracted it from the Xaranthines and kept it hidden. I never dared peak inside, oh no. What lies inside here is far to great a temptation even for myself.”
He pushed the box into my chest, until I took it from him. Holding it in one arm, I tried to reach for the bag of coins on my side.
The man chuckled again. “Your master has already paid for it, boy. Everything’s been taken care of.” He leaned in close. “I could barely resist the enticement to open it myself, and I’m far less curious than any man. I wonder if you’ll fare any better.” He shook his head as he turned once more and disappeared into the blackness of the shop. I choked out an attempt to make him wait, but as I walked around, I could not find any trace of the man.
I looked back down at the box. Its clasp was undone and the rough wood was split slightly. I held the lid with a firm hand.