by Michael K. Iwoleit
Yes, I know. There is no such thing as the world’s greatest science fiction story. There is no single greatest novel, no greatest opera, no greatest painting, no greatest sculpture, no greatest movie, no greatest whatsoever. It would be foolish and almost impossible to name even the hundred greatest in any field without stretching your frame of judgment to the breaking point. It can’t be done. It’s pure idiocy, not worth any serious consideration. We all know that.
And still it’s done time and again. The Swiss composer and publisher Hans Georg Nägeli once called Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor the “greatest artwork of all times and all people” and he may not have been too far off from the truth – if there is any truth in artistic judgments at all. Jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, on the other hand, claimed that there is nothing better in music than Bach’s The Art of the Fugue. Da Vinci’s most famous paintings The Last Supper and Mona Lisa are so overshadowed by their reputation as two of the greatest artworks in history that it has become difficult to make any statements about them at all. James Joyce’s “The Dead”, the closing tale of his 1914 collection Dubliners, has more frequently than any other work been called the greatest short story ever in the English language, if not in the whole of world literature (as a devoted short fiction reader I would nominate Leo Tolstoi’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” from 1886 as perhaps its closest contender). Greatful Dead drummer Mikey Hart called tabla player Alla Rakha “the highest form of rhythmic development on this planet.” Orson Welles’ screen debut Citizen Kane (1941) has crowned almost every list of the greatest movies ever made for half a century until the late recognition of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo (1959) toppled it from the top spot of the British Film Institute’s famous poll (for my own part, though being a fan of Vertigo, I have always been puzzled why Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise from 1947, a movie like a great piece of 19th century literature, has never quite gained a similar reputation). Exuberant praises such as these are no real judgments. They are claims, if not confessions. And as such, if not taken too serious, they can even be insightful – provided that the judge manages to verbalize the reasons for his over-the-top eulogy.
Maybe there’s an inherent strive toward greatness in practitioners and aficionados of art. We who can’t help but to wade through the shallows of averageness and mediocrity for most of our lifes tend to be overwhelmed when confronted with one of those rare peaks of achievement that define or re-define what is humanly possible. The fugal compositions of Bach, the plays of Shakespeare, the prose of James Joyce, the rare supremacy of mind over matter evident in Michelangelo’s sculptures such as the Roman Pietà, the incomparable blend of simplicity and refinement of the zen stone garden in Kyoto’s Ryoanji temple, the seemingly effortless ease of Art Tatum’s piano improvisations or, to name a few more recent examples, the rhythmic intricacies and almost inhuman performance skills of Zakir Hussain, the transcendental intensity of Minoru Miki’s main koto theme for the movie Ai no corrida (1976), the sublime expressiveness of Hozan Yamamoto’s shakuhachi or Wayne Shorter’s soprano saxophone – all these are so far beyond anything that can usually be achieved by a human being that they tell us something about the potentials of our species we culpably neglect in our day-to-day affairs. This may explain the deep emotional reactions, the feeling of being out of ourselves as we experience a human peak performance, be it in art, in science or even in sports.
So here I am, about to join a parade of foolishness by making a bold claim about a limited field. I dare to call James Tiptree jr.’s “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever”, first published 1974 in Ferman’s/Malzberg’s anthology Final Stage, the greatest science fiction short story ever written.
Let me try to explain…
In a statement that I contributed to a German science fiction convention in 2015 I talked about a “new convergence of science fiction and literature”. What Kurt Vonnegut has called “genre-ism”, the out of hand dismissal of certain cultural practices, styles and genres that has kept writers such as Theodore Sturgeon (the inspiration for Vonnegut’s fictional rundown science fiction writer Kilgore Trout) from gaining the recognition they deserved, is far from being a matter of the past. As I tried to show, however, things have relaxed somewhat in the past twenty to thirty years and science fiction has been relieved of its former reputation as an inferior and trivial kind of literature, at least to some degree. The influence of the two most important Anglo-American science fiction writers of the post WWII era – Philip K. Dick in the USA and J.G. Ballard in England – has extended far beyond the science fiction field. The ever growing reputation of Ursula K. Le Guin has turned her, by the end of her life, into the first serious aspirant for a Nobel Prize in Literature coming out of science fiction. “Mainstream” writers (as science fictioners call them) are more at ease incorporating themes and techniques of science fiction into their works and have generally become much more competent with regards to genre literature. Science fiction veteran Samuel R. Delany, on the other hand, has grown into one of the great insider tips of contemporary American letters and some reviewers have speculated that coming generations may regard his novel Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (2012) as one of the new century’s best novels written in English. One major drawback of this convergence, however, is that as an ambitious writer you better should refrain from calling your works science fiction at all. The aversion against the very term, a kind of Pavlovian conditioning in the world of literature, seems not to have diminished but grown.
James Tiptree, jr. – the pen name of Alice B. Sheldon (1915-1987) – is well on her way to become the next science fiction writer who has gained a late recognition outside of the science fiction field and raised into the general canon of modern literature, not the least due to the efforts of her biographer Julie Phillips whose James Tiptree jr. – The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (2006) made new readers aware of her remarkable life and career. Alice Sheldon is, along with the likes of Alice Munro or Andre Dubus, one of the very few contemporary writers whose international fame is almost exclusively based on short stories (she has written only two above-average but peripheral novels). The story of her appearance on the American science fiction scene has become the stuff of legends and been told so often that I can keep it short here: The elusive writer James Tiptree, jr. who began to publish witty and original science fiction stories in the late 1960ies – full of hints that their author may have insider knowledge of the confused and frantic world of secret services – was a complete unknown in the usually densely networked American science fiction scene where many professional writers started out as fandom activists. “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain” from March 1969, Tiptree’s first story that gained some wider recognition, introduced a strange impersonal notion of love that was to become one of the trademarks of his work: an aging scientist is on a mission to relieve his imaginary lover – no other than Gaia, Earth herself – from her worst plague, humanity. Two other trademarks that came to be associated with Tiptree’s name were, most remarkable for a man, his scathing fictional comments on the power relationships between the sexes and his stories about exotic forms of sexuality and reproduction that explored the fatal connections between love and its biological foundations. It may have been these topics, approached in a way never before seen in science fiction, that caused a critic to claim that Tiptree was the only new male writer who could keep up with the onrush of female science fiction writers that made a stir in a formerly male-dominated field around the turn into the 1970ies. Science fiction legend Robert Silverberg famously dismissed speculations that Tiptree might actually be a woman himself in his introduction to Tiptree’s second short story collection Warm Worlds and Otherwise (1975) “[…] a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.” He draw parallels with Ernest Hemingway: “[…] that preoccupation with questions of courage, with absolute values, with the mysteries and passions of life and death as revealed by extreme physical tests, by pain and suffering and loss.”
Although Tiptree didn’t attend any science fiction conventions, the notorious family gatherings mandatory for most science fictioners, and never personally accepted one of his growing number of major science fiction awards, he kept a steady correspondence with fans and fellow writers. What little he disclosed about his personal life made him seem like a distinguished mature gentleman with experiences as a government agency professional and a strong pro-feminist disposition. His true identity was not revealed before 1976 when he apologized in the fanzine Khatru for not having responded to letters for some time and mentioned that his mother, a noted writer herself, had just died in Chicago. Some fans started to research in the local press and drew a connection between Tiptree and Alice Sheldon, the only surviving child of children and travel writer Mary Hastings Bradley (1882-1976).
Born as Alice Hastings Bradley in Chicago in 1915, she was initially a talented visual artist but gave up painting in 1941, after a number of promising sole and group exhibitions. The outbreak of World War II had a major impact on her life and caused her to join the US Army in 1941 where she became a pioneering woman in several recon and intelligence services. Her second husband Huntington Sheldon, who she met during a deployment in Paris shortly before the end of the war, occupied a high rank in the European section of the US secret service at that time. Based on her experiences, she was invited to join the buildup of the recently founded CIA in 1952 where she was again one of the first women in a labyrinthine, male-dominated bureaucratic institution. She left a few years later and turned to study psychology in 1956. Her interest in science fiction and fantasy had already been wakened in her teen years by an uncle who gave her pulp magazines to read. She began to write her first own science fiction stories to relieve the stress of her dissertation work.
As Alice Sheldon’s friend Jeffrey D. Smith compiled the voluminous retrospective short story collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, published by Arkham House in 1990, he seemed to be well aware that the lasting impact of her work is mostly based on a creative period that spanned just a few years of her life, starting in 1969 and already concluding with her award winning story “The Screwfly Solution” in 1977. Everything else was either a promising prelude or a rather disappointing aftermath. Some of her later works, such as the colorful, yet comparatively shallow space operas in The Starry Rift (1986), read like tributes of a lesser talented writer who tried to imitate the hallmarks of the classical Tiptree. It seems that with the revelation of her true identity Alice Sheldon had forfeited most of the freedom and daringness that a male alias gave her. “A male name seemed like good camouflage”, she wrote in a writer profile in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1983. “I had the feeling that a man would slip by less observed. I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation.” And elsewhere: “[…] a woman writing about the joy and terror of furious combat, or of the lust of torture and killing, or of the violent forms of evil – isn’t taken quite seriously.” Alice Sheldon is significant as the personification of a transition area: on the one hand skilled and motivated enough to advance into spheres of life formerly inaccessible to women, on the other hand still disrespected or eyed skeptically as a woman and unsure about her own gender and sexuality. Her whole work is driven by the tension between two almost irreconcilable antipodes: the biological constraints of male-female relationships, of sexuality as such, and the urge to escape into new roles and identities, into impersonal kinds of love and desire and into boundary experiences that transcend the banalities of material existence. This tension, reflected in her tales, was very much her own and seems to be responsible for her long-term depressions that aggravated in the last years of her life. When her husband became seriously impaired following several strokes, the couple agreed on a suicide pact. Stricken by severe health problems, she shot him and herself with a rifle in May 1987.
To tell you a secret: that we science fiction writers never completely got rid of our reputation as nerdy nitwits is partly due to our willingness to cultivate that image. We’re like court jesters who dream of becoming serious actors but appreciate any chance to show the world our outstretched middle fingers (and at times even our bared behinds). We like to dive into the lowest cesspools of pop culture and pick up whatever we can use for whatever dubious purposes. We regard any invitation to the bountiful tables of high culture as a prompt to burp and fart and tell dirty jokes. We will never really grow up and we’re proud of it. Philip K. Dick explained one of the main requirements for being a science fiction writer in the moving introduction to his story collection The Golden Man (1980): to have a bad attitude. We like to ask in the most inappropriate of situations: Why? Who says that? Why should I do this? Why shouldn’t I do that? That’s why we’re not ashamed to make fools of ourselves. To play stupid games. To praise and condemn each other at the top of our lungs. Compiling top-ten lists has thus become a pastime with a long tradition in the science fiction field, more than in any other genre. We love to explain how great we are and to suppress how small we sometimes feel.
As Barry N. Malzberg writes in his essay collection The Engines of the Night (1982) which should be required reading for anybody seriously interested in science fiction: “Science fiction, at the cutting edge, has always flourished in the short story. Perhaps the genre by definition will sustain its best work in that form; here a speculative premise and a protagonist upon whose life that premise is brought to bear can be dramatically fused with intensity. (…) While science fiction in its modern inception has produced possibly ten novels that might be called masterpieces, it has given no less than several hundred short stories that would justify that difficult and presumptuous label.” There’s a peculiar quality gained in the maturation of science fiction short prose from the 1950ies to the 1970ies that I have elsewhere tried to pinpoint with a term coined by the American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970): “peak experiences”, moments of insight and catharsis when basic aspects of human existence, sometimes of life and reality themselves – especially such as were never made explicit before – are revealed, put into question or contrasted with other modes of being. As a classic example I have referred to Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “Nine Lives” about a clone who, after being part of a tenfold individual that was intellectually, emotionally and sexually self-sufficient, is suddenly confronted with the need to build connections to other human beings who are not like him. In its best moments this potential of “cognitive estrangement” in science fiction (as Croatian born academic Darko Suvin, who wrote several important critical works about the genre, put it) has been advanced to an unsettling way of fictionally approaching the world that for a long time had hardly any counterparts in general literature, most closely maybe in the works of such unique fabulists as J.L. Borges, Julio Cortázar or Italo Calvino.
Malzberg apologizes for including a tale that he initially commissioned himself in his own personal selection of the ten best science fiction stories of all time. In 1974 he compiled, in collaboration with Edward L. Ferman, the voluminous original anthology Final Stage for which a number of prominent science fiction authors were invited to write stories about the great topics of science fiction. Sheldon/Tiptree was asked to write an end-of-the-world story and delivered with “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever”, as Malzberg notes, “one of the very few masterpieces that did not originate with the writer. (Editorial involvement or the assignment of theme often results in good stories and sometimes improves good stories to better-than-good, but masterpieces almost necessarily have to self-generate and will themselves through.)” Malzberg later called Tiptree’s novelette the greatest post-doomsday story ever written and, as the last section of this essay is trying to show, the unique conception of this tale – a completely new take on the end-of-the-world topic -. its dramatic twists, focused psychological insights, nuanced poetic style and shattering existential message provide lots of arguments in his favor.
The 1970ies have been, as Malzberg points out, science fiction’s richest decade in the short story (Malzberg himself contributed one of the highlights of this era with his metafictional masterpiece “A Galaxy Called Rome” from 1975). It may even be argued that the time between the late sixties and mid-seventies was, in terms of literary quality, the most prolific era in the overall history of the genre, still unsurpassed until today with its swift succession of classics produced by a generation of influential, groundbreaking science fiction writers not only in the Anglo-American world but in continental Europe as well. (A generation that, one by one, is passing away in recent years.) Philip K. Dick published his enigmatic novel Ubik in 1969. Brian W. Aldiss’s early production of short witty novels culminated the same year with Barefoot in the Head, a convoluted, linguistically inventive novel that could be called the Finnegans Wake of science fiction. Ursula K. Le Guin’s most praised novels The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed came out in 1969 and 1974. The recently deceased Gene Wolfe left his first major impact on the genre with his novella cycle The Fifth Head of Cerberus in 1972. Some of the best non-English science fiction novels – such as the brothers Strugatzky’s Roadside Picknick (1971) or Pallas ou la tribulation (1967) by Frenchman Edward de Capoulet-Junac – were published around the same time.
Even in this rich era, however, very few science fiction story writers – J.G. Ballard comes to mind, the British eccentric Barrington J. Bayley, science fiction veteran Robert Silverberg in his literary most ambitious phase, outsiders such as Scotsman David I. Masson or writer and composer Carter Scholz during their brief detours into science fiction – came close to Alice Sheldon’s quality density in her eight most prolific years. Taken together her best stories are justly regarded as something like the Holy Grail of science fiction story writing today and each one would justify a place on any list of the greatest science fiction short stories: “The Man Who Walked Home” (1972) could be mentioned, one of the most original time travel stories ever conceived, “The Women Men Don’t See” (1973), despite its subdued manner of story telling a feminist story of a radicality never before seen in science fiction, “The Screwfly Solution” (1977), a story about alien invaders who exploit a fatal flaw of human sexuality to get rid of the human species, or “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” (1974), one of the most visionary achievements in the history of science fiction which anticipated all major elements of a postmodern and transhuman subgenre that came to be known as cyberpunk – consciousness transfers, extensions of the human body, transnational corporations as anonymous background powers etc. -, ten years prior to William Gibson’s style-forming short stories. I see reasons, however, to regard “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” as the apotheosis of her art, the culmination of a theme that can be tracked through her whole work: pain as a defining boundary experience of human existence.
Like James Joyce’s “The Dead”, that unattainable hallmark of short story writing in general literature, it all begins rather mundanely. The reader meets the story’s hero Peter first as a 14 year old boy who has worked the whole summer to acquire his first rifle and is eager to open the duck hunting season on his own. Just as he is approaching a swarm of ducks on a frozen lake at the Great Divide his careful preparations fail and he gets into life-threatening trouble. At the end, angered and disappointed, he fires helplessly into the sky as the startled ducks pass above him and he imagines that all the birds in the world have gathered here in one huge swarm to mock his efforts.
The narrator’s focus blurs and the reader is transported to another episode of Peter’s life. This time he is 16 and deeply devoted to Pilar, one year older and daughter of a affluent family (her father obviously a scientist involved in the Manhatten project) that he is only allowed to meet because of his good performances in polo. His naive, romantic notion of her, who he thinks is a virgin and about to let him be her first lover, is brutally shattered as she tells him of a threesome with two older men and her resolve never to have sex with a single man again. Like at the end of all four episodes that comprise the main part of the story, Peter’s consciousness blurs again, blends over to another period of his life and it is with this third episode that the story’s ingenious conception becomes apparent to the attentive reader: Peter’s whole life is exemplified by its most lasting emotional shock moments. This time the reader meets him, plagued by memories of serving as a medic in the Korea war, at a picnic with nurse Molly, an intimate friend who he hopes to marry after starting with a research fellowship at Baltimore. Molly, who has expected his declaration of love, is forced to admit that she awaits the return of another man and is determined to marry him.
It’s an old discussion whether science fiction is a literature of ideas, focusing more on thought experiments than on psychology and social commentary, or if it has, quite the contrary, exhausted itself in endless variations and remixes of a limited number of fictional devices and backdrop gadgets. In his introduction to David I. Masson’s landmark story collection The Caltraps of Time (1968) Harry Harrison locates science fiction in a tradition of short story writing, pioneered by Edgar Allen Poe and perfected by H.G. Wells, that favors an idea and not a person as the true protagonist of a story. Whatever the reader’s position in this discussion may be – Tiptree/Sheldon has centered “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” on an idea that, as far as I can see, has never before and never again been explored in science fiction. Molly hints in her conversation with Pete at a theory of British parapsychologist Whately Carington (1892 – 1947) who hypothesized an explanation for non-physical communication in his book Telepathy (1945), received by the scientific community of his time with some reserved praise as a thought-provoking, though highly speculative work. Carington speculated, among others, about what he called K-objects, traces of a human consciousness that take on a life of their own due to their sheer emotional intensity and remain forever connected to the places where they were experienced. While Molly thinks that moments of love should be a human’s most lasting experiences, she mocks Pete as someone who will leave behind what has caused him most grief and anger.
Throughout the story Pete is plagued by short, flashback-like visions of a barren, lifeless landscape which in this third episode might at first be interpreted as memories of the Korean war. As the scene blends over into a final painful episode, this time in Pete’s later life, and the reader for the first time encounters his desperate outcry “But I did love!”, a romantic’s revolt against what really has determined his life, it seems more likely that we are presented with glimpses of a future Earth after an unnamed disaster in the early years of the 21st century. While Pete begins to suspect that he may not be a human being anymore but actually a collection of K-objects himself, reliving past experiences, he is transported into a phase of his life when everything seems to have turned in his favor. Molly has, as it later turns out, lost her lover in a car crash. She has married Pete instead, they lead a satisfied life and Pete is about to submit a scientific paper that concludes many years of painstaking research and may turn him into the star of the medical profession. In this moment of near triumph he is made aware of a paper just published by a younger colleague in Asia who has preempted him, with even stronger evidence and more far-reaching conclusions. It’s his deep shattering feeling of shock and disappointment in this moment that makes Pete’s consciousness finally awake into the present of a devastated future Earth that has been in the backdrop of the story from the very beginning.
The last section of the story is perhaps science fiction’s closest equivalent to the famous ending epiphany of James Joyce’s “The Dead”, a showcase of Alice Sheldon on a dazzling peak of her writing powers and one of the greatest prose passages in the history of the genre. Pete feels an onrush of energy that may be responsible for his resurrection and witnesses the approach and retreat of what may be alien visitors, organic or mechanical beings, scientists or maybe just idle sightseers, aware of the ghosts that they raise from the ruins of human civilization. As Pete feels traces of other human minds awoken around him to relive past tragedies, he struggles with the conclusion that all what is left of the human species are not moments of love and happiness, but the sum of its most painful and traumatic experiences: “All the agonies of Earth, uncanceled? Are broken ghosts limping forever from Stalingrad and Salamis, from Gettysburg and Thebes and Dunkirk and Khartoum? (…) Is every nameless slave still feeling the iron bite, is every bomb, every bullet and arrow and stone that ever flew, still finding its screaming mark – atrocity without end or comfort, forever?” Pete suspects that his and his fellow human’s resurrection has happened before and may be caused again by new delegations of visitors, possibly countless times, and all that is left, before he is no longer able to sustain his identity, is to implore the strangers to let them die, to not force them to experience all their pain and suffering again.
In its very last section the story returns to the initial scene at the Great Divide. If there is any mercy in Pete’s ghostly resurrection it’s in this short moment when his mind, about to be engulfed by an indeterminate oblivion, is reset into a state of child-like innocence, young, healthy and confident, unaware of the torments to come.
The evolution of science fiction short prose has continued, though perhaps never with the same intensity as in the 1970ies again, and produced further masterpieces such as William Gibson’s “Hinterlands” (1981), Ted Chiang’s first contact novella “Story of Your Life” (1998) or some of the early short stories of Australian Greg Egan. “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” may, however, always stand out as one of the most poetic and emotionally intense achievements in the history of the genre and a lasting testimony that a science fiction story can be a fully realized work of art of the highest order.
 Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s last theorem is among those scientific endeavors that deserve to be considered as on a par with the greatest achievements in the arts, a triumph of the human mind that has long been regarded as unattainable. David Foster Wallace made it a point to describe the playing of the Swiss tennis professional Roger Federer (more and more acknowledged as one of the finest athletes in sports history) as a “religious experience”. If you’re not into sports usually and like to be convinced that physical skills are sometimes advanced to a level that is akin to highest art, have a look at golfer Tiger Woods, footballer Lionel Messi, pool billiard player Efren Reyes or the mind-blowing performances of the original US basketball Dream Team of 1992, without the trace of a doubt the greatest team ever assembled in any team sports.
 James Tiptree, jr.: Warm Worlds and Otherwise, Ballentine Books, New York 1975, p. XII/XV.
 Barry N. Malzberg: The Engines of the Night. Science Fiction in the Eighties, Doubleday, Garden City/NY 1982, p. 136.
 Barry N. Malzberg: The Engines of the Night. Science Fiction in the Eighties, p. 138.
 James Tiptree, jr.: Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, Tachyon Publications, San Francisco 2004, p. 400.
 Filmed as Arrival by Denis Villeneuve, based on a script by Eric Heisserer, in 2016.
Copyright (c) 2020 by Michael Iwoleit