Birthday Reviews: James Tiptree, Jr.’s “Please Don’t Play with the Time Machine”

Birthday Reviews: James Tiptree, Jr.’s “Please Don’t Play with the Time Machine”

Cover by Mark Zug
Cover by Mark Zug

Alice B. Sheldon was born on August 24, 1915 and died on May 19, 1987.  She published science fiction under the pen name James Tiptree, Jr. and when speculation began that Tiptree might be a woman, Robert Silverberg famously stated that such a theory was absurd, since he found “something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.” Shortly after Sheldon’s mother’s death, the truth came out about her identity, which she had hidden in part because of her position in academia. Sheldon also used the pen names Alice Hastings Bradley, Major Alice Davey, Alli B. Sheldon, and Raccona Sheldon, the last being her most famous pseudonym aside from Tiptree.

Tiptree won the Nebula Award in 1974 for the short story “Love Is the Plan, the Plan is Death” and won the Hugo Award for Best Novelette for “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” the same year.  Both stories were nominated for both awards. In 1977, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” won both awards in the Novella category as well as the Jupiter Award. In 1978, “The Screwfly Solution” won the Nebula for Best Novelette, but lost the Hugo Award. Her 1987 collection The Tales of the Quintana Roo earned Tiptree a World Fantasy Award. Tiptree has won the Seiun Award four times, for “The Only Neat Thing You Do,” “Out of the Everywhere,” Brightness Falls from the Air, and “Backward, Turn Backward.” She was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2012. In 1991, Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler created the James Tiptree Jr. Award for speculative fiction that explores or expands the understanding of gender.

Although initially written in the 1950s, well before Tiptree began writing for publication, “Please Don’t Play with the Time Machine” wasn’t published until 1998, when Kim Mohan purchased it to appear in the Fall issue of Amazing Stories, although it had previously sold in 1971 to a project that never saw print.  The story was reprinted with the variant title “Please Don’t Play with the Time Machine, or, I Screwed 15,924 Back Issues of Astounding for the F.B.I.” in Meet Me at Infinity. The story was also translated for the German James Tiptree collection Doktor Ain.

Despite the title of “Please Don’t Play with the Time Machine, or, I Screwed 15,924 Back Issues of Astounding for the F.B.I.,” the story is not specifically a time travel story, but rather a send up of bad writing in science fiction, made more effective, given its 1950s writing date, by the fact that numerous works of the type it is skewering were still being published in 1998 when the story eventually saw print.  The story within a story tells of spaceship Captain Herring, who, believing he was alone on his ship, finds a strange stowaway in a sequence which is reminiscent of Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” which was published shortly before Tiptree wrote this story.

Tiptree doesn’t only take on the common motifs of science fiction, but also has overwritten the story to take advantages of the worst excesses of bad science fiction.  Between the common themes and the bad writing, the story is only really beginning  when Tiptree abruptly ends it in media res to respond to her story with a rejection letter from an alien editor, making Captain Herring on the starship the construct of an alien mind and adding a depth to the story that lifts it from a weak parody of an easy target to a satirical work.

Reprint reviewed in the collection Meet Me at Infinity, by James Tiptree, Jr., Tor Books, 2000.


Steven H Silver-largeSteven H Silver is a sixteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW and NESFA Press. He began publishing short fiction in 2008 and his most recently published story is “Doing Business at Hodputt’s Emporium” in Galaxy’s Edge. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times, as well as serving as the Event Coordinator for SFWA. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7. He has been the news editor for SF Site since 2002.

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Rich Horton

Yeah, showing off, reviewing the most obscure Tiptree story ever. (Unless you wanted to review the Alice Hastings Bradley (I think that was the name she published it under) story that appeared in the New Yorker in the ’40s I think.

Rich Horton

Embarrassment of riches today, really. Borges. Byatt. Card. Chris Offutt. Lisa Barnett.

And of course the immortal poet, and Vance “mentor”, Stanton Coblentz.

Thomas Parker

One of her lesser works here, but for my money, Sheldon/Tiptree was the greatest writer of short sf of my lifetime.

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