Saturday, May 12, 2007

Beam Us Home

by James Tiptree, Jr.

I th0ught "Beam Us Home" (collected in The Science Fiction Century, ed. by David G. Hartwell) did a wonderful job evoking an archetypal feeling I suspect many of us have had at one time or another--the feeling of being from somewhere else, of not belonging--and then showing how that archetypal feeling might manifest itself within a very specific time period and cultural mileu--the United States in the late 60s. Hobie, the protagonist, feels he is an alien, and meant for something different and better. Tiptree gives us this Hobie not just through the events of his life, the details about how he relates with his parents, or even through sharing the thoughts he has about those things, but also in the prose itself--Hobie seems strangely not present in the story. We never get a full sense of his internal life. We see him in a teen relationship with a girl, but never get a strong sense of what she means to him--Hobie often feels like he is going through the motions of life, without engaging in them, both to himself and to the reader.

What we do know, from the very beginning, is that Hobie is a fan of Star Trek. The show is never named, but it is placed in that Friday evening time slot (that those of us old enough to have watched it when it first came out well remember), and the characters on the show are referred to. The importance Tiptree saw in Star Trek as a cultural milestone is particularly prescient when we note that Tiptree wrote this story in 1969, before the word Trekkie, or any of the conventions, existed.

And so, in Hobie, we find both that ageless sense of not belonging, and a very specific depiction of an alienated teen of the 60s, grasping on to Star Trek as that message from somewhere better.

When Hobie leaves home, he joins the Air Force. This is against the desires of his family--here Tipree paints a marvelous picture of the sort of affluent family that would look down on the Armed Services as a career. (These little highlights of an aspect American society, or class consciousness, at the end of the 60s, which Tiptree gives us almost in passing add to the richness of the story.) However, we find that Hobie hasn't joined the Air Force as a rebellion, but because he wants to become an astronaut, and eventually fly away to the life he believes he came from, and is meant to return to, beyond the planet Earth. Unfortuantely, the US goes to war, the space program is put on hold, and Hobie is deployed to the battlefront. And so even US policy echoes Hobie's internal struggle--striving to rise to exploration of space, it is pulled into the struggle here on Earth.

Even though there is a "spoilers allowed" policy on the site, I won't talk about the ending, so you can go read the story if you haven't already. For me, this story is an excellent example of the kind of piece that can seem like less than it is on first reading. There is a surface simplicity to it. It has a leisurely pace--it doesn't pull one into a "my god what's going to happen next" rush to the end. However, it is a very expansive story, and I find my experience of the story increases as I spend more time with it.


Steve said...

Nice to comment upon someone else's posting of a story analysis, instead of always being the one to post and then have to wait for replies. Thanks for serving this mug, Jim.

Alas, I didn't like this story much. It was, I thought, an NYD ("New Yorker Dreadful," to all you ships at sea, which is a term Jim and I cooked up to mean a story in which nothing much really happens, usually presenting a gloomy situation of some kind, depressed people in dead-end situations, or some other dreary mood piece that seeks to illustrate The Pointlessness of It All; we don't like them).

There were distracting references to events that put this one into the "alternate reality" sub-genre, but they don't make any difference I could see to the story. Perhaps they were there to avoid the story's being mistaken for a bit of Star Trek fanfic or other tie-in. I felt this was not needed and broke the rule about the gun on the wall.

The writing was masterful, as is Updike's in, say, "The Man Who Became a Soprano." I wish I could write like this. But I didn't feel like the story told a story. It presents a detached fellow living a lonely, misunderstood life (one he does not seem really to understand very well himself).

From the point of view of "why did this sell?" I would suggest that it tapped into a reliable sf trope: the lonely person who feels, deep down, that they really belong somewhere else (and that "somewhere else" involves outer space). IMHO, you will never lose a sale by going into that domain. Of course, it takes more than that, and I'm kind of stumped as to what it was in this case. Jim's comments are convincing, but not the sort of thing I would expect to be as well suited to an sf story as they are. Perhaps the editor had aspirations of rising (or shifting) to another literary dimension. Perhaps the times were different then. Perhaps I just love rockets and rayguns too much to know a good bit of fiction when I see it.

A very impressive bit of writing which I could never equal, myself. Alas, also one that bored me, and which I would not try to equal if I could. But I am a broader being for having read it.

Jim said...

To be honest, this story wasn't really to my taste, either. I thought the writing was beautiful. However, while I think she did a great job with the themes she picked (as I tried to outline in my initial post, where I really wanted to focus on why this story was chosen to be representative of the best sf of the 20th century, not my personal taste) they aren't really themes that speak to me. In terms of work I enjoy, I find extreme cynicism about the life we have here on Earth, combined with the desire to just disengage from that life and go off to someplace where everything will finally be better, not particularly interesting themes to explore.

That said, I do think those are valid themes, and certainly established themes in sf, and this story did seem to develop those themes very well, with the added bonuses of beautiful writing and a prescience about the importance Star Trek would come to have for many.

One technical point on genre. Steve, you mentioned this seemed like an example of an alternative reality story. It felt like that, but given that this story was written in 1969 (according to what I found on Wikipedia--one of the annoying aspects of Science Fiction Century is that it doesn't give the dates for the stories it includes), I would say her vision of the 70s was near future sf, in which she was painting what she thought the 70s and 80s might bring, not offering an alternative to what actually happened.

Steve said...

Hmmm... my copy of "Century" does list the publication dates in a table starting on the first page after the title page, so I knew the story was written in 1969. The set-up makes it clear that Hobie is watching the original broadcasts of TOS (that's what all that stuff about the Friday-night battles over the TV is about, I think; true believers often say that the move to 10pm is what killed TOS in its third season). We don't know how many years pass before the move to "an executive bedroom suburb," but Hobie is still in secondary school, so it's not many. There we get the reference to "the installation of an armed patrol around the school enclave," which is unexplained and, to me, felt very much like a tease from an alternate history. The bizarre (I thought) reference to the maid being "cut up by the suburban peacekeeper squad" and "crawling on her handbones" likewise had me thinking this was a story set in another world. Granted, a really big change in social trends, starting in 1970, could have lead to this sort of thing before Hobie was out of high school, but the references are so dismissive and casual that they made me feel as though they are describing things that are ho-hum/everyday in Hobie's reality. A cut-up maid, "crawling on her handbones" just didn't fit into any reasonable extrapolation of the 1969 I remember, particularly when none of the characters evidence any sense that this is as out-of-the-ordinary as it ought to have seemed to them.

So, you're quite right that the story was set in the relative future of the writer's actual time of writing, but it was set in a future so near and so different to that time that I simply couldn't buy it as a valid near-future prediction. Like I said, the inclusions that produced this effect don't seem to matter much to the story, though, so whether or not it belongs in or out of the alternate-reality sub-genre is probably purely academic. (Best guess I have to offer on why these odd bits are in there is that Harlan Ellison was seriously rocking science fiction's boat at this time--his "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," which is included in "Century" is from 1965--and other writers were sometimes seen to add similarly toned touches that, imho, weren't always good for their stories.)

Jim said...

Ah. Missed that table. I was just reading the intro to the story, and was surprised the publication date wasn't include there.

I see what you mean about the changes being so extreme, and so soon, that it implies an alternate timeline. But then, as late as the early 80s I had friends back in University who honestly seemed to think Reagan might introduce concentration camps for anyone who disagreed with him into the US. So I chalked the casual references to societal horros up to that weird 60s melding of the belief that they were creating utopia in the here and now with the belief that everyone was doomed. But I do see your point.

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