The ED SF Project

The Ellen Datlow/SCI FICTION Project, that is. We're showing the love for five and a half years of great short fiction, and we need your help! We've got over 300 stories to cover, so if you're a person who loves short speculative fiction, we want you. Go here to read the list and add your voice.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

"Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death" by James Tiptree, Jr.: An Appreciation by Alex Saltman

It may seem to be taking the easy way out to write an appreciation of a story that everyone already appreciates. But the best stories mean something different to each reader, so by sharing my perspective, perhaps I can add to another's enjoyment.

When I read Tiptree, I am overwhelmed by her virtuosity, by the way things that should be hard to write about seem perfectly natural in her hands. As a general principle, most of us like to feel comfortable when we read. While we expect more oddity in our science fiction than in other literature, and sometimes we read it to make ourselves uncomfortable, we still need some familiar things to hold onto. As a corollary, it is exceptionally hard to write a story from the viewpoint of an alien. If the mind of the alien is too alien, cognitive dissonance overwhelms us, but if the mind of the alien is unremarkable, we feel like a man in a rubber suit. Luckily, Tiptree showed future generations of writers how to walk that tightrope. She was fascinated by the alien point of view and wrote several stories with memorable aliens—-"Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death" is one of the best. It begins:


Do you hear, my little red? Hold me softly. The cold grows.

I remember:

-—I am hugely black and hopeful, I bounce on six legs along the mountains in the new warm! . . . Sing the changer, Sing the stranger! Will the changes change forever? . . . All my hums have words now. Another change!

Eagerly I bound sunward following the tiny thrill in the air. The forests have been shrinking again. Then I see. It is me! Me--Myself, MOGGADEET—-I have grown bigger more in the winter cold! I astonish myself, Moggadeet-the-small!

Already we have a strange and somewhat insectile character with an immediately appealing voice. Moggadeet is excitable and inarticulate in a way that is reminiscent of a child; that similarity quickly engages our sympathy. Throughout the rest of the story, we remain remarkably comfortable with Moggadeet's voice, partly because Tiptree has respected our need for the familiar and made Moggadeet's story a coming-of-age tale. Even though Moggadeet's species does not get much of an adulthood, and his short life is dominated by biological imperatives, there is enough of the human condition here to empathize with. By the end, Tiptree has convinced us that this is precisely how it is to be him, to be something so strange that it walks on six legs, wraps it lovers up in silk, and sleeps the winter away. In understanding Moggadeet, we not only understand what it would be like to be different, but because of our rapport with him, we gain insight into how the conflict between self-awareness and biological determinism plays out in our own lives.

The writers who have tried and failed to communicate an alien perspective are legion (even Tiptree, in other works), but this story is a tour de force. I can only feel grateful that SCI FICTION gave us such triumphs weekly for more than five years.

(NOTE: This story is no longer archived at SCI FICTION, but it can be found in the collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since I read it upon its first publication, this has always been my favorite science fiction story. The main character recognizes precisely the problems he and his species face, and makes a grand but ultimately futile effort to solve those problems. The completely alien planet and creatures are vividly realized and the clues to why the main character's plan will fail are very clearly planted early on. In style and content, the tale is wonderfully constructed!

11:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm also a fan of this story; it's one of my favorites.

12:34 PM  

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