The Tiptree Awards: Star Songs of an Old Primate (1978)

Star Songs of an Old Primate was the first collection of short stories published by James Tiptree, Jr. after the unmasking of Alice B. Sheldon in 1978. It remains out of print today, but five of its seven stories — “And So On, and So On” (1971), “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” (1974), “A Momentary Taste of Being” (1975), “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” (1976), and “She Waits for All Men Born” (1976) — are currently available in the best-of anthology, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.

I just want to focus on the two unique stories to this collection. For my responses to the five other stories, see my review of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.

tiptree-starsongs-cover“Your Haploid Heart” (1969) and “The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats” (1976) remain out of print — and wrongly so. The latter, in particular, belongs with the best of her work.

"Your Haploid Heart" (1969) 

     ★★★☆☆

One of Sheldon’s earliest published stories, ‘Your Haploid Heart’ covers much of the same thematic ground as her more mature ‘a Momentary Taste of Being’ (1976). It’s also one of the more fantastical of her stories, reveling in alien civilizations and galactic empires, using a 1950s view of alien civilizations to observe how fears of sexuality have led to cultural self-immolation.

‘Your Haploid Heart’ is a tale of two scientists on a diplomatic mission across the stars — they’re touring an alien planet, anticipating a judgment on whether the alien species is ready to join a galactic federation. In so doing, they’re struck by the aliens’ eagerness to hide parts of their culture, to cover up an apparent genocide targeting what appears to be another race of their own. The scientists can scarcely mention the issue or try to understand it without threats and intimidation.

The twist is one of sexuality, and is, keeping with Sheldon’s style, infinitely clever and dark and cynical, full of self-loathing; a dark look at the denial and hatred in modern American politics, for sure. It’s a fun tale, but certainly rough around the edges compared to her later work, and the reliance on the fantastical dates this 1969 story.

"The Psychologist Who Wouldn't Do Awful Things to Rats" (1976) 

     ★★★★★

A scathing look at not just laboratory use of animals, but the academic sciences in general, “the Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats” is both brilliantly subversive and, well, a bit on-the-nose. On the one hand, this 1976 story offers a close look at the animal abuse that was commonplace in university research labs, observing, even before the disastrous Nim Chimpsky experiments, that the abuse and stress test animals were subjected to would, by default, bias any results of psychological research. This fault is addressed quietly and quickly, and, like in real life, it’s forgotten just as quickly.

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Fact: Sheldon was unparalleled in her skill and vision by any from them there boys’ clubs.

That’s where this story hits such a brilliant, scathing note: That the quest for scientific objectivity was destroying itself with blatant errors and human arrogance; that many case studies — the shape studies, where animals are raised in environments with very limited shapes and thus become blind to other shapes, are referenced — built on animal abuse have their so-called objectively tainted by that same abuse. This abuse extends itself to the scientists themselves, who are often bullied and pushed into following publishable standards, even if those standards exist by dubious means. Whatever the cost, the goal is to be published by prestigious journals like Nature or Science no matter what.

And that’s what “the Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats” is about: An associate professor trying to make a name for himself. He recognizes the errors in his co-workers’ research, and shows empathy to his lab animals by playing with, feeding, and recreating natural environments for them. Unfortunately, he’s unable to effectively argue how animal abuse injects gross biases into his coworkers’ results, and his department chair certainly has no enthusiasm for any methods not determined by clinical pseudo-objectivity and statistical significance. “Psychology is not a field for people with emotional problems,” the condescending department chair says, overcompensating for Freud’s execrable influence.

Within a few pages, I shifted from thinking this story was understandably left out of Alice Sheldon’s 1990 best-of collection, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, to counting it among her best work, desperately in need of being republished. Unlike the broken protagonist of this story, Alice Sheldon herself clearly wasn’t succumbing to the vanities of academia and research — think of the department chair as the founders of hard sci-fi: As Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov, two writers who wrote with a detached clinicism of stereotypical academics — as she reached out to understand the humanity in everyone, even if that humanity is almost always nasty.

While “Your Haploid Heart” is an entertaining, if wildly fantastical tale by Sheldon’s standards, the latter exclusive with its brilliant and accurate attack on academia and the ethical blindspots in scientific research, makes this out-of-print collection sorely missed.

★★★★☆

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