Recommend

Recommendations are open for the 2015 James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award.

James Tiptree, Jr. Award 1996 Winners

Winners Short List Long List Jurors

“Mountain Ways”
Ursula K. Le Guin
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This is a fuller and, for Tiptree purposes alone, more satisfying exploration of the marital customs on the planet O, set up in earlier Le Guin work. In some ways, the story suggests that every society’s sexual norms and taboos are arbitrary and this is an interesting idea to bring back to our own world. In other ways, the marriages on O seem, as opposed to arbitrary, more rational and reasonable than our own simple twosomes. In the end, even on the world of O, it is the twosomes who finally dominate the story, and that, too, is interesting to think about. Le Guin never falls an inch short of brilliance. [KJF]

A lovely story and yet another of Le Guin’s thorough and heartfelt explorations of new configurations of desire and belonging, both on a personal and a cultural level. [RK]

On rereading this story I was struck by its second paragraph, which says that mountain people “pride themselves on doing things the way they’ve always been done, but in fact they are a willful, stubborn lot who change the rules to suit themselves….” This story is partly about the gap between ideals and practice, and about the way that people make new traditions for themselves or change the old ones to fit their needs. The story takes place on the planet O (a place Le Guin has visited before), which has a system of marriage based on norms of bisexuality and polyfidelity. Le Guin portrays this culture with depth and subtlety, so that the story’s events and the characters’ development have a naturalness and inevitability. She’s also managed to create a story in which an act of cross-dressing has a whole different set of meanings than it would in our society. As usual, Le Guin’s sense of place is impeccable. [JML]

A gentle, spare and beautiful story. Le Guin first introduced us to the marriage customs of O in “Another Story, or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea.” In that story the system of marriage was another detail of an alien world in a story centred around a time paradox. In “Mountain Ways” the implications and potential tragedies of these four-person marriages are explicated in exquisite detail. Like all fine science fiction and fantasy, particularly that of Le Guin, there is a double process at work; the alien is rendered knowable and familiar, and the taboos and normalities of our own worlds start to seem as “unnatural” as those within the story. Raising questions like why is marriage between two, and not three, four or five? Why is heterosexual union privileged over homosexual? Why formalise sexual relations at all? The story grew with each new reading so that many months after my initial reading I still find myself thinking about it and wondering about the deliberately ambiguous ending. One of my biggest pleasures in reading Le Guin’s work is its cumulative power and the way she takes up and reshapes elements of her vast invented universe so that you are forced to look at them in an entirely different way. [JL]

The emotional effect of “Mountain Ways” is strengthened by its being about characters and relationships as well as about sexuality and morality. I like the way complexity of desire overwhelms the relative simplicity of the characters and the fact that no matter how flexible a social system seems, human beings can find new ways of making themselves feel guilty and sinful. As always with Le Guin, the writing is crystalline and the background much more lively and present than the number of words used to convey it would seem to warrant. [DS]

The Sparrow
Mary Doria Russell
, Random House 1996
Loved this novel-great old-fashioned science fiction in some indefinable way, but with a modern sensibility. A very smart and passionate book. I was initially concerned that the sexual content was slight, but my enthusiasm finally swept these doubts away. Although never quite defined as such, the transformation of the protagonist takes place largely through sexual experience, from his initial celibacy, to the middle of the book with his longings, to his final climactic and terrifying journey offworld. [KJF]

A fine first contact novel and a subtle exploration of the choices people make in their lives, especially those concerning self-definition, which always includes sexuality and gender roles. [RK]

This novel haunted me for months; I kept thinking about it and mulling it over, and the more I did, the more I found to think about. The story centers on the spiritual crisis of Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest who has had his view of God (and, not incidentally, his masculinity and his sexuality) challenged by his experiences on the planet Rakhat. The story of this crisis is counterbalanced by the stories of other priests, each with his own accommodation to sexuality and celibacy. On a different level, in her portrayal of the inhabitants of Rakhat, Russell makes fascinating connections among the binary oppositions of male/female, person/animal, ruling class/laboring class, pushing these connections in new directions. To say more about this would be to give away spoilers-and this book is so suspenseful that it wouldn’t be fair to do that. Suffice it to say that The Sparrow is rich and complex and provides a lot of food for thought about power, gender, sexuality, and the connection between body and spirit. [JML]

The Sparrow is one of most haunting evocations of first contact I have read in recent years-on this occasion the contact is between a Jesuit-led team of scientists and some of the inhabitants of the planet Rakhat. How does the novel explore and expand gender? Central to The Sparrow is the examination of the importance of sexuality to gender identity, specifically masculinity. Can you be celibate and still be a man? At the same time the understandings of human masculinity and femininity that dominate the thinking of the Jesuit landing party make little sense in the face of the entirely different gender models of the two alien races. I read this not unduly small book in one sitting. I could not put the book down even though this Australian judge was somewhat put out by an entirely unconvincing (though mercifully brief) attempt at characterizing a ‘typical’ Aussie bloke (pp. 122-123). [JL]

Profoundly moving and upsetting and very much about cultural constructions and difficult questions, including those of gender. Russell’s subjects are faith, religion, the structure and purpose of the Catholic Church (or maybe just the Society of Jesus), and saintliness. There’s a gay Father Superior and a woman who (although beautiful and petite) reads more male than many of the male characters. There is an alien race whose genders are ambiguous to humans, mostly because the females are larger than the males and the males raise the children. The center of the book is the hero’s struggle to reconcile the fact that the aliens he had moved heaven and earth to study have abused him terribly, with God’s Plan, celibacy, and his own macho upbringing. [DS]

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