Up The Walls of the World

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When James Tiptree Jr. first sent Up the Walls of the World to his/her editor, Judy-Lynn Del Rey, the latter protested against the novel’s use of the present tense, dismissing it as a “pseudo-literary trick.” Tiptree refused to change it (railing, “Christ I worked over that thing like an engraver, it’s a machine, I can’t yank off a distributor cap here and run three wires there and turn the thing upside down for some reader’s whim”), and Del Rey, unbudging, eventually refused the book. Many in the SF world jibed with Del Rey’s call; even Tip’s long-standing supporter Frederick Pohl agreed, “I’m not all that keen on present-tense stories.”

I tell you this little morsel of publishing history because, honestly, I find it mystifying that anyone in the SF community could be so uptight about tense. After all, science fiction is about the transubstantiation of time and space; books about the future are a kind of time travel, so why insist they be written in an inherently dead voice? Why remove that seductive directness? Perhaps, in Del Rey’s mind, the past tense was a necessary anchor, a foothold for readers who might be too easily whirled around by Tiptree’s abstract worlds. In any case, it seems much too facile a dismissal; I’d have loved Up The Walls of the World even if it were written entirely in the future tense, or a wild tumble of tenses — or in no tense at all, with no verbs, or punctuation, if it were only pictures, or told to me in a whisper over the phone, or scrawled in shorthand on a table napkin.

This is because Up The Walls of The World is essentially about transcendence and the bliss of total obliteration: transcendence of mind, transcendence of the physical, transcendence of arbitrary divisions between human and extraterrestrial intelligence. Evidently, it should also transcend tense.

Three different intelligences populate the novel: humans, of course, and two other alien species described with empathy despite their oppugnant vibes. Their realities, which couldn’t be more antithetical, amalgamate in a circumstance which my book jacket lustily proclaims to be a “Mindstorm!” There’s a lot of dramatic body-swapping, and ultimately a whole lot of body-negating; all the characters finish up as blips of consciousness, undifferentiated from one another, inside an amorphous alien thing, a cavernous darkness traveling through space. Without body, without context, without culture, and without a sure sense of reality, human and alien can relate; “Mind is all.”

As far as utopias of sexual and racial indifferentiation go, Tiptree’s nightmarish alien blackness isn’t exactly Woodstock, but it is very Tiptree: both romantic and unforgivingly dark as hell, as though we can only overcome racism and sexism by completely obliterating race and gender (and everything else). It’s not surprising to me that this novel was written during one of Tiptree’s deep depressions; its characters all struggle to retain their identities against the prevailing forces of entropy, against the temptation to fall into a dream and never come out.

This is one of the central themes of Up The Walls: that the Other really exists. Experimenting with tenuous mind-contact in an infinity of blackness, characters discover one another; “Only here, forever removed from Earth in perishing monstrous form, could I have felt the reality of a different human world.” At the same time, the experience of encountering another is excruciating and shameful. It’s simply too much to empathize: the little blips (and Tip) only find joy in the nebulous neg-entropy of common purpose, merging eventually into one indefinable entity, “A PROTO-PRONOUN, AN IT BECOMING SHE BECOMING THEY, A WE BECOMING I WHICH IS BECOMING MYSTERY.”

Not became!

NEXT BOOK: ANDRE NORTON, SARGASSO OF SPACE

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3 Responses to Up The Walls of the World

  1. Matt Vollono says:

    Completely agree. Tiptree was ahead of his time. Great post.

  2. tricia says:

    You mean Tiptree was ahead of her time.

  3. Claire Evans says:

    I dunno, Tricia, I think one could argue in all kinds of directions on the Tiptree his/her point. Alice Sheldon was a damned incredible lady, but Tiptree was a man — as an identity, as a pseudonym, and as what eventually became an entirely separate narrative, a life’s work of masculine construction. When Tiptree “came out” as fiction, Sheldon was sad to lose the mask, and derailed creatively for the rest of her life. I think it’s pretty considerate to her memory to refer to her as he, since Tip is who she worked her whole career to invent.

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