The Girl Who Was Plugged In: James Tiptree, Jr.’s 19th Century Monster in 20th Century Science Fiction

Terry Weyna, a FanLit staffer since December 2010, has often wished she had pursued a Ph.D. in English rather than a J.D., but recognizes that she’d have the same feeling, but in reverse, had she done so. As a hobby, she occasionally commits literary criticism, as the following close textual analysis of The Girl Who Was Plugged In by James Tiptree, Jr. demonstrates. You can read The Girl Who Was Plugged In here. We’d love to hear your thoughts on Tiptree’s work.


The Girl Who Was Plugged In: James Tiptree, Jr.’s 19th Century Monster in 20th Century Science Fiction
by Terry Weyna

Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar hypothesize in their ground-breaking work of feminist literary criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, that sexism has caused women who write to see themselves, in a sense, as monsters. These women give voice to this vision by writing of their heroines’ doubles, of second selves living in attics or basements, the monstrousness that no one else – that no man — sees:

From a male point of view, women who reject the submissive silences of domesticity have been seen as terrible objects — Gorgons, Sirens, Scyllas, serpent-Lamias, Mothers of Death or Goddesses of Night. But from a female point of view the monster woman is simply a woman who seeks the power of self-articulation, and therefore, … she presents this figure for the first time from the inside out. Such a radical misreading of patriarchal poetics frees the woman artist to imply her criticism of the literary conventions she has inherited even as it allows her to express her ambiguous relationship to a culture that has not only defined her gender but shaped her mind (Gilbert & Gubar, 79).

The notion is a powerful one, which resonates with texts like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. But does it have any force beyond the time claimed for it by Gilbert & Gubar? Is the hidden monster still a force in twentieth-century literature by women?

It is when the woman is Alice Sheldon. Sheldon, born in 1915, did not begin writing fiction until 1968 (Clute & Nichols, 1230). When she did, she wrote as James Tiptree, Jr., an “innocuous name” she picked off “a marmalade jar in the Giant supermarket and added a ‘Junior” to… for confusion’s sake” (Sheldon, 51). For most of the next decade, in which she wrote some of the genre’s most provocative – and feminist – science fiction, she was believed to be a man. Robert Silverberg, one of the genre’s most revered figures, wrote:

It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing. I don’t think the novels of Jane Austen could have been written by a man nor the stories of Ernest Hemingway by a woman, and in the same way I believe the author of the James Tiptree stories is male… And there is, too, that prevailing masculinity about both of them – 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 (Silverberg, xii, xv).

The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary Imagination (Yale Nota Bene) by Sandra GilbertTiptree took great delight in this masquerade, and went to considerable pains to preserve it, even taking the second pseudonym of “Racoona Sheldon” for those stories that she considered too “violently pro-woman” to pass off as having been written by a male (Sheldon, 51). It was only when her mother died, and the published obituary matched details she’d offered in various bits of correspondence regarding her parents, that her gender was discovered (Sheldon, 52). Tiptree, therefore, had her very own monster hidden in her attic: her own female identity.

Oddly enough, that [the discovery by her readers and peers that she was female] shattered me. I felt I could never write again. My secret world had been invaded and the attractive figure of Tiptree – he did strike several people as attractive – was revealed as nothing but an old lady in Virginia (Sheldon, 52).

 

It shocked the world, too.

Before 1977, all we knew of James Tiptree Jr was that he was no longer young, because he had told us that he was middle-aged; he also claimed to be Chicago-born, often abroad in his youth, involved in intelligence work in World War Two; and postal evidence suggested that he lived somewhere near Washington, D.C. All the same, many of us found it extremely hard to imagine that James Tiptree Jr. was not, in fact, a person perhaps rather younger than he claimed, and certainly in the very peak of condition. I myself thought of him as a wiry sharp man whose colour was the colour of marmalade, like a tiger out of Blake. Whether or not I was ever induced to think of him as a woman I cannot remember; but I know I was not prepared to think of him as a 60-year-old woman whose health was precarious, whose first serious heart attack would quite possibly mark the end of any hope she might have to launch herself again, like a tightrope-walker across the void, like a man who walked home, burning energy like a tiger in the night, giving us the tale still taut from the young muscle of her hands, the touch of her secret breath (Clute, 449-50).

Things changed for Tiptree after her “outing.” Male writers she had thought her friends suddenly “found it necessary to adopt a condescending, patronizing tone, or break of our correspondence altogether, as if I no longer interested them. (I can only conclude that I didn’t.)” (Sheldon, 52-53). The awards stopped coming (though some critics contend that was because the declining quality of her work) (Clute, 448). The end of her masquerade was, in many ways, the end of her career, though she continued to write.

Tiptree wrote of masquerade, and of the monster, in her 1973 novella, The Girl Who Was Plugged In. The story is written in an aggressive, intrusive style, as if the author has grabbed the reader by the collar and is shouting into his face, spittle flying: “Listen, zombie. Believe me. What I could tell you… you doubleknit dummy, how I’d love to show you something.” It is full of anger and pity, and deserved the Hugo award it won that year (Clute & Nichols, 1230).

The Girl Who Was Plugged In is about P. Burke, a hideous, lonely woman:

[S]he’s the ugly of the world. A tall monument to pituitary dystrophy. No surgeon would touch her. When she smiles, her jaw – it’s half purple – almost bites her left eye out. She’s also quite young, but who could care?

She has a “jumbled torso,” “mismatched legs.” She is a “girl-brute” with “body-parts you’d pay not to see.” She has a “big rancid girl-body” and a humpback. In short, she is a monster.

At the tender age of 17, P. Burke decides that, rather than live with her hideousness, she will commit suicide. She fails. While she is recovering in the hospital, she is approached by GTX – Global Transmissions Corporation, a meaningless name for a corporation that does futuristic sorts of things. GTX offers to give her a job in which she will meet her idols, the gods, the beautiful people whom the holocams follow and whom she adores. She will never again see anyone she knows, warns the GTX representative, and she will be legally dead. The work is hard. Without hesitation, she signs up.

P. Burke has just agreed to become Delphi. Delphi is a beautiful, 15-year-old girl body that has no consciousness; she is a waldo that P. Burke will operate. P. Burke is jacked into a full-body computer system that allows her, in a sense, to inhabit Delphi, to be Delphi, while she is herself encased in “a sauna cabinet like a big clamshell.” Delphi is everything that P. Burke is in her heart, but not in her body. She is “the darlingest girl child you’ve EVER seen.” When she quivers, it’s “porno for angels.” She is graceful, charming, delicious, but she is still, at heart, P. Burke: “Somewhere in that horrible body is a gazelle, a houri, who would have been buried forever without this crazy chance. See the ugly duckling go!”

“Delphi” is a name that comes from the shortening of P. Burke’s first name – Philadelphia. Although the story doesn’t discuss the mythological resonance, one cannot miss that “Delphi” was a city built on the slopes of Parnassus which housed an oracle. A long, deep cleft in the side of the mountain (a very female image) issued a peculiar vapor, which, when inhaled, imbued the inhaler with the gift of prophecy. It was the job of a priestess of the Delphic temple to inhale the hallowed air and speak the divine words, which were interpreted by priests (Bullfinch, 304). P. Burke is the air; Delphi is the priestess.

James Tiptree Jr / Alice Sheldon

James Tiptree Jr / Alice Sheldon

In comparison, P. Burke’s given name is that of one of the birthplaces of democracy. “The semantics girl references brotherly love, Liberty Bell, main line, low teratogenesis, blah-blah.” More tellingly, but never mentioned in the story, “burke” means “to suppress quietly or indirectly; bypass, avoid” (Webster’s, 146). P. Burke gains her true freedom only when she is suppressed, bypassed, when she becomes a beautiful flibbertygibbet rather than the woman she is; when the freedom of “Philadelphia” is reduced to the silence of “burke.”

And so, in true oracular manner, it is Delphi’s job to advertise consumer products. But “advertising” is an obscenity, for it has been outlawed by the Huckster Act. Now manufacturers and sellers are limited to “displays in or on the product itself, visible during its legitimate use or in on-premise sales.” Delphi is to wear and use products that GTX provides for her, so that others will use them. GTX tells her that she does this for the good of the world, to help others determine what products to buy, to help the poor inventor who otherwise would not have a chance to get out the word about his amazing, beneficial product: “It’s our duty, Delphi. Our solemn social duty.”

Delphi is loosed on the world, and she is an instant success. She begins to live a life that P. Burke never dreamed possible. Soon she is married to an 81 year old Infante, and has literally become a princess. At her wedding, she is startled when she finally gets to see some of her old idols up close. “They’ve changed! … They’re so dreary. I’m so happy now!” And she promptly faints dead away.

Delphi has fainted because P. Burke has not been taking care of her hulk of a body. She isn’t eating, sleeping or exercising; she wants only to be Delphi, to forget that P. Burke exists. But the monster must be maintained in order for the beautiful Other to survive. The Infante dimly sees through the façade, and dismisses his notions of the pleasures of the wedding night: “He has no idea what she is … but he had been a falconer in his youth. There comes to his mind the small pinioned birds which were flung up to stimulate the hawks.”

Delphi resumes her life after P. Burke learns that her failure to care for herself, for her ugly monster self, endangers Delphi. The one cannot live without the other. The monster brain must animate the beautiful body. Or are they truly linked? P. Burke exercises, eats, is out of her cabinet when Delphi “sleeps,” and when Delphi “sleeps” she doesn’t exist. Except that Delphi has started stirring in her sleep, or smiling; once she even breathed, “Yes.” These things should not happen. “Because Delphi is TURNED OFF.”

Delphi proves to be so adept at showing off new products that GTX decides to raise her profile by turning her into a holocam star. She is apt at that, too, and there are more and more things for her to display, to wear, to use. She begins to complain about some of the products – this gives her a rash, that makes her dizzy – and she is flagged as something of a troublemaker, whose complaints will be endured only so long as her “Pop Response” stays above a particular level.

But real trouble only starts when she meets Paul. Paul is a rebel who is, at first, determined to despise her, but who falls in love with her. “He’s bright and articulate and tender-souled and incessantly active, and he and his friends are choking with appallment at the world their fathers made.” Paul is the son of one of the board members of GTX, and, as such, might be expected to know what Delphi is; but he does not. Instead, he sees an innocent being despoiled by his father in order to sell products.

Delphi, too, is in love:

Really you can skip all this, when the loving little girl on the yellow-brick road meets a Man. A real human male burning with angry compassion and grandly concerned with human justice, who reaches for her with real male arms and – boom! She loves him back with all her heart.

 

A happy trip, see?

 

Except.

 

Except that it’s really P. Burke five thousand miles away who loves Paul. P. Burke the monster down in a dungeon smelling of electrode paste. A caricature of a woman burning, melting, obsessed with true love. Trying over twenty-double-thousand miles of hard vacuum to reach her beloved through girlflesh numbed by an invisible film. Feeling his arms around the body he thinks is hers, fighting through shadows to give herself to him. Trying to taste and smell him through beautiful dead nostrils, to love him back with a body that goes dead in the heart of the fire.

P. Burke feels shame, that she is not Delphi, that it is not Delphi Paul loves, but the monster P. Burke, whom he would never love if he but knew.

Hope and desire do strange things to P. Burke and Delphi. Delphi nuzzles Paul in her sleep, when she is supposed to be turned off. Hope grows when Paul tells Delphi that she called his name in her sleep. She gains courage, begins to miss dates – and is punished. A clever technician fiddles with “standwaves and lashback and skiffle of all sorts,” “delicately unbalanc[ing]” the precise energy modulations that allow P. Burke to control Delphi, and she has a seizure. She is in Paul’s arm when this happens, and he discovers the implants hidden by her hair.

But Paul reaches the wrong conclusion. He thinks that GTX is controlling Delphi, but does not understand that she is a waldo. To him, she is “a wired-up slave! Spikes in her brain, electronic shackles in his bird’s heart.” He is determined to free her.

Delphi is determined, too. “I will die and be born again in Delphi.” It is, of course, “Garbage, electronically speaking. No way.”

Paul takes Delphi away, in a patrol courier “built for nothing but speed.” He has brought with him a “silvery scrambler-mesh” that will cut off the field that is causing her pain, that allows GTX to control her. He does not understand that, by cutting off what controls Delphi, he cuts off Delphi’s existence.

GTX tries to call them back, but Paul and Delphi ignore the calls. One technician wants to “just turn her off… Pull that pig out of the controls!” Another technician reminds him that this would simply

“kill the Remote… Withdrawal has to be phased right, you have to fade over to the Remote’s own autonomics. Heart, breathing, cerebellum, would go blooey. If you pull Burke out, you’ll probably finish her too. It’s a fantastic cybersystem, you don’t want to do that.”

 

“The investment.” Mr. Cantle shudders.

The pretty girl needs the monster to survive. The sharp-faced technician who caused Delphi to seize before does it again, and Paul slaps the mesh over her head. On earth, medical technicians feed P. Burke sedatives and cut down on her oxygen, nearly to the point of killing her; “a drugged, ugly madwoman fights for consciousness, fights to hold Delphi’s eyes open.”

Paul and Delphi land at GTX. Paul demands that the implants be removed from Delphi, not understanding that “there’ll be nothing left.” He sees that there is something special in one particular room, and he pushes his way inside. He sees a cabinet:

And inside that cabinet is a poisoned carcass to whom something wonderful, unspeakable, is happening. Inside is P. Burke, the real living woman who knows that HE is there, coming closer – Paul whom she had fought to reach through forty thousand miles of ice – PAUL is here!” – is yanking at the waldo doors –

 

The doors tear open and a monster rises up.

 

“Paul darling!” croaks the voice of love, and the arms of love reach for him.

 

And he responds.

 

Wouldn’t you, if a gaunt she-golem flab-naked and spouting wires and blood came at you clawing with metal-studded paws —

Paul knocks at P. Burke, knocks wires away. She dies. “Now, of course Delphi is dead, too.”

Paul refuses to believe, does not understand that he has killed the woman he loves, thinking he has only killed her control. “[T]he thought of that monster fastened into little Delphi’s brain nauseates him.” He turns to Delphi and holds out his arms.

Impossibly, she comes to him. He continues to believe she is alive, he demands that they fix her. She, animated by “the ghost of P. Burke or whatever,” continues to call Paul’s name. But it cannot last, and she returns to “nothing but a warm little bundle of vegetative functions hitched to some expensive hardware.”

Delphi survives. In a year, she’s back on a yacht, “getting sympathy for her tragic breakdown.” Paul has moved into the GTX boardroom, working for change from within.

And P. Burke? The monster is dead. She is unmourned by everyone except Joe, her trainer.

Joe is also crying a little; he alone had truly loved P. Burke. P. Burke, now a dead pile on a table, was the greatest cybersystem he has ever known, and he never forgets her.

The monster dies; the beauty lives on. In the usual tale, this would be counted a happy ending. In Tiptree’s story, however, we know that it is a tragedy. The real person was the monster, and the beautiful girl was only a doll, a piece of meat. Tiptree thus takes Gilbert and Gubar’s theory one step further, or, more precisely, she outdoes her nineteenth-century predecessors. While, in Gilman, Bronte and the like, the defeat of the monster was necessary to the survival of the true heroine, in Tiptree the true heroine is the monster. For the nineteenth-century woman writer, the monster was the horrible aspect of the woman, the uncontrollable urges, the rebellious one who could not conform, in Tiptree the monster is the true self, the whole self.

Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women Kindle Edition by Susan Faludi How much of the true self is the appearance? P. Burke is the embodiment of society’s demand that women be beautiful or be dismissed as worthless. Susan Faludi explained the phenomenon in Backlash in her account of “The Makeover of the 5 Percent Woman.” This woman, referred to by Faludi as “Diana Doe,” had, at the tender age of 35, published three children’s books. She had a dozen free-lance writing projects in the works, and had just been asked to teach gifted students for a program sponsored by a top university. But the woman counted herself a failure because she was 35 and not yet married. When Newsweek published its famous 1986 study finding that single woman aged 35 or older had only a 5% chance of getting married, Diana undertook to “correct” her single status.

Despite the fact that Diana had been a model briefly while in her twenties, the first thing she felt it necessary to do was remodel her appearance. She had $20,000 worth of plastic surgery performed, including a face-lift and face-peel, eyelid lifts on both top and bottom lids, a nose job, a breast augmentation operation, a tummy tuck, and liposuction on her hips and thighs. She enrolled in a health club and beauty spa, and retained a wardrobe consultant. But it wasn’t enough; the man of her dreams still dismissed her as “too old,” and went on to marry a woman 10 years his junior (Faludi, 224-26).

The masquerade is all; the true self is rejected, in real life, just as Paul rejected, in horror, P. Burke, the true object of his affection. Is it any wonder that women feel compelled to hide their monstrosity, to show only their pretty selves and chain their true being in the attic? Consider how a male critic sees The Girl Who Was Plugged In, and ask why monsters exist:

The science fiction love story has become the stuff of high art in modern classics such as Tiptree’s The Girl Who Was Plugged In (1973). Reality and illusion are more than metaphors in the tale of a man with knightly impulses who seeks to rescue a seeming damsel in distress, never realizing that “she” is only a beautiful simulacrum, used to promote products… and operated from a remote-control board by a horribly deformed woman who has no life beyond her media fantasy (Pierce, 26).

Suddenly, the story is transformed from a story about her to a story about him. P. Burke is no longer a character, but a tool. The monster is not just hidden from view metaphorically for this writer, but from his consciousness, and he misses the point of the story entirely.

And then, finally, the question must become: who is the true monster? Is it the woman who hides her essential self, or the man who forces her to hide? In one of Tiptree’s most famous stories, “The Women Men Don’t See,” two women choose to depart with aliens rather than remain in the world with men, who are at least as alien to them. “Please take us. We don’t mind what your planet is like; we’ll learn – we’ll do anything! We won’t cause any trouble. Please. Oh, please.” One of the characters explains:

“Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us. Men are more aggressive and powerful, and they run the world. When the next real crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish like – like that smoke. We’ll be back where we always were: property. And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom, like the fall of Rome was. You’ll see.”

“Men and women aren’t different species, Ruth. Women do everything men do.”

 

“Do they?” Our eyes meet, but she seems to be seeing ghosts between us in the rain. She mutters something that could be “My Lai” and looks away.

When Don tries to dissuade Ruth from accompanying the aliens with the cry, “For Christ’s sake, Ruth, they’re aliens!” Ruth responds, “I’m used to it,” absently. It is Man who is alien to Woman, and Ruth chooses to accompany the aliens who, for all she knows, have nothing of the monster about them.

The lesson is even more pointed in Houston, Houston, Do You Read? In that tale, three astronauts return to earth to find it populated entirely by women. The first reaction of one of the rescued astronauts is to beat up and rape one of the women, all the while fantasizing about all of the women just waiting for him with their legs spread: “Nobody home, nothing but pussy everywhere. I can do anything I want, anytime… They’ll be spread out for miles begging for it.” The women, who have allowed the rape as a sort of experiment, conclude that they cannot allow the men to invade their planet, even though there are only three of them. “[W]e simply have no facilities for people with your emotional problems.” To the astronauts, the women are monsters, but when asked, they have come full circle from that categorization:

“Just tell me,” he says to Lady Blue, who is looking at the bullet gashes, “what do you call yourselves? Women’s World? Liberation? Amazonia?”

 

“Why, we call ourselves human beings.” Her eyes twinkle absently at him, go back to the bullet marks. “Humanity, mankind.” She shrugs. “The human race.”

Women and men have changed places. It is the women who are in charge, and the men who have finally been caged – and exterminated – as monsters.

Tiptree was a fine writer, with a finely honed feminist sensibility that had a lot to do with being so often the “only woman”: “I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation; even when I wasn’t the first woman, I was part of a group of first women” (Lefanu, 121). In that position, she well knew what it was like to be the monster. She rejected the role, and wrote her rejection in science fiction that has shaped the field.

In May 1987, Tiptree’s husband was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, and her own health was precarious. She shot him dead, and then turned the gun on herself (Lefanu, 129). We are the poorer for it.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Age of Fable. Reprint. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1968.
  • Clute, John. Look At the Evidence: Essays & Reviews. Brooklyn: Serconia Press, 1995.
  • Clute, John and Peter Nicholls. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
  • Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1991.
  • Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. Reprint. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.
  • Lefanu, Sarah. In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism & Science Fiction. London: The Women’s Press, 1988.
  • Pierce, John J. Odd Genre: A Study in Imagination and Evolution. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994.
  • Sheldon, Alice. “A Woman Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy.” In Women of Vision, ed. Denise Du Pont, pp. 43-56. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.
  • Silverberg, Robert. “Who Is Tiptree, What Is He?” In Warm Worlds and Otherwise, James Tiptree, Jr., pp. ix-xviii. Reprint. New York: Ballantine Books, 1979.
  • Tiptree, James Jr. “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.” In Her Smoke Rose Up Forever: The Great Years of James Tiptree, Jr., pp. 44-79. Sauk City: Arkham House Publishers, Inc., 1990.
  • _____________. “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” In Her Smoke Rose Up Forever: The Great Years of James Tiptree, Jr., pp. 168-222. Sauk City: Arkham House Publishers, Inc., 1990.
  • _____________. “The Women Men Don’t See.” In Her Smoke Rose Up Forever: The Great Years of James Tiptree, Jr., pp. 121-148. Sauk City: Arkham House Publishers, Inc., 1990.
  • Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield: G. & C. Merriam Company, 1979.

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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She longs to be a full-time reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, but nonetheless continues to practice law as a civil litigator in California. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, the imperious but aging Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a forever-growing personal library that presently exceeds 15,000 volumes.

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4 comments

  1. Wow. What did Robert Silverberg say when he found out?

  2. Excellent, excellent essay, Terry. Thank you. I hope this inspires people to read Tiptree’s work and to question how they read it (and other works).

  3. It’s great to see this excellent essay, Terry!

    I don’t KNOW what Silverberg said, but I’d guess he harumphed and huffed and puffed and then announced, “Of course I knew it the whole time! I was merely playing along.”

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