Not having been around in the Sixties and Seventies, my only experience of literature from that time is with a few decades of hindsight. Plenty of it has aged badly, especially those attempting to deal with gender relations and sexual politics of the era.
But there are some exceptions, like today’s story, that remain powerful.
Not long from now, three astronauts are making a close approach to the sun. Dr Lorimer is our point of view, and he sees both of his crewmates as alpha males: Bud the jock, who dreams of the beer and women waiting for him back home; and Dave the pilot, religious and paternal in his demand for absolute obedience.
After losing contact with Earth thanks to a solar flare, they try re-establishing communications. But the voices they hear on the radio are all female, and none of them have heard of Houston or the United States. Ultimately the astronauts realize they have slipped forward in time by three hundred years. And things have changed:
When Dave understood that they had no concept of prayer and had never seen a Christian Bible there had been a heavy silence.
“So you have lost all faith,” he said finally.
“We have faith,” Judy Paris protested.
“May I ask in what?”
“We have faith in ourselves, of course,” she told him.
“Young lady, if you were my daughter I’d tan your britches,” Dave said, not joking. The subject was not raised again.
Short on fuel, the astronauts are met by a nearby ship, also entirely crewed by women. From this point on there’s a steady drip-feed of information about the future; the women are happy to share many things, and the future society they describe is a utopia in many ways, but it’s clear they’re not sharing everything. And while Bud fantasises about the future conquests due his fame, and Dave plans to reintroduce Christianity, Dr Lorimer begins to wonder whether men still exist.
While I enjoy many aspects of this story, I want to highlight something rarely seen in fiction: a genuinely benevolent utopia. Almost all utopias in fiction turn out to be fake, or achieved by suppression or exploitation, or require huge sacrifices to achieve (e.g. loss of free will). While the future society in this story does have its secrets withheld from the astronauts until the end, they are ultimately none of these things.
The tension in the story therefore comes not from the flaws of this society, but whether there is any place for these men from the past, men ingrained with a very different social system. The ending lines are particularly poignant, and show how the author has used a lighter touch than others might have done.
Houston, Houston, Do You Read? By James Tiptree, Jr
Word count: 21,100
Awards: Hugo Award winner, Nebula Award winner
First published: Aurora: Beyond Equality, edited by Susan Janice Anderson & Vonda McIntyre, 1976, Fawcett Gold Medal
Where to find it: It was published as a stand-alone volume in 1996 by the Science Fiction Book Club
Worlds Apart: An Anthology of Lesbian and Gay Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Camilla Decarnin, Eric Garber & Lyn Paleo, 1994, Alyson Publications
The Best of the Nebulas, edited by Ben Bova, 1989, Tor
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, collection, 2005, Science Fiction Book Club
Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Treasury, edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Isaac Asimov & Joseph Olander, 2006, Gramercy Books