Everyone knows what they say about the work of James Tiptree, Jr: that the longer his stories, and the later written, the weaker. So that is what was in my mind when I started reading Tiptree’s penultimate story, “The Color of Neanderthal Eyes” (written 1986, published in the May 1988 F&SF; page numbers here come from 2000’s this-and-that book Meet Me At Infinity). It was, they say, the revelation of his true identity that marked the change. After all, only a few stories written after made it into Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, and though one of them (“Slow Music”) is a favourite of mine, another is perhaps the least satisfactory Tiptree I’ve read, being a story that does indeed seem to be weaker because it is longer. The pace of “With Delicate Mad Hands” is uneven, sagging in the middle, and the content seems stretched thin over the page count. They say that Tiptree’s stories are intense, but “With Delicate Mad Hands” is not.
And neither, by and large, is “The Color of Neanderthal Eyes”, although it is much more evenly constructed. It starts as, more or less, an idyll. A telepath by the name of Tom Jared, whose job is (for obvious reasons) alien contact missions, is enjoying (for obvious reasons) the solitude of shore leave on a nearly empty waterworld called Wet. He encounters one of Wet’s inhabitants, Kamir, who seems entirely too good to be true: a natural telepath, friendly, childlike in her innocence, and beautiful. As in “And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side”, Tiptree’s evocation of alien beauty is skillful; there is no doubt that Kamir, with her green skin and flat, non-mammalian body, is alien, but there is no doubt either that Tom is entranced by her. And so they end up on an island together, in a storm, and Tom breaks Rule One of alien contact: “There is a feeling of clasping. [...] It isn’t Human, but exciting beyond words, and finally, somehow, fulfilling” (116).
But although the story is told with present-tense uncertainty, we know that something has gone wrong. A note at the start warns us that “It’s my fault, all of it and Kamir is dead. [...] I am too torn up and tired to make a formal report. I am simply talking out what happened so you will see that something must be done” (112). And though Tom and Kamir spend some happy days together, travelling between various islands — indeed, Tom tells us they are the happiest days of his life — before too long Tiptree starts unweaving her paradise. The first shadow to fall over the map is Kamir’s prediction for the future: “When you love, you die,” she says. “The woman dies. The man lives, to feed the babies” (129). (Because this is a Tiptree story, we take her entirely literally.) The second shadow is Tom’s growing suspicion that Kamir has, in fact, miraculously, become pregnant: and that he has therefore caused her death. The third — after Kamir’s brother catches up with the couple, and leads them back to their peoples’ nearest camp — is the revelation that there is another people on Wet, golden-skinned, who have attacked others of Kamir’s kind. “A dreadful parallel” comes into Tom’s mind. Thanks to the story’s title, we already know what it is, and we watch as Tom resolves first to explain the situation to the Mnerrin (they are a people with no word for “peace”, because they do not know war), and then to help them.
“The point is this. You and your people are very different from the great majority of races. In my life of traveling and learning of travels, I have never encountered a race who so hated killing. You have not even the words for what is the daily occupation of many peoples — war, aggression, fighting, invasion, attack. Here, let me show you.” And I send out horrible images, to him and the other men who were leaning to hear. I saw their faces change. (143)
This is all, more or less, Tiptree stuff. But it’s true that there is something different about it, and I think it’s in the languid landscape of Wet. With the possible exception of “Slow Music”, I don’t think any of the stories in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever take place in such a peaceful environment; Wet seems independent from the convulsions of the story taking place on its surface in a way that Earth (or what we see of it) is explicitly not in stories like “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” and “On The Last Afternoon”. Or to put it another way, Tiptree’s earlier stories feel more intense because either everything hangs in the balance, or the things that hang in the balance are made to feel as big as the world. “The Color of Neanderthal Eyes” steps back a little. It has, perhaps, more room for detail — and for tenderness. You suspect that the early Tiptree would have spent much less time establishing Tom and Kamir’s contentment. According to the endnotes in Meet Me At Infinity there is actually an earlier draft which is somewhat compressed along these lines.
Which is not to say that the story as it currently exists is bad. The ending, which makes the Neanderthal comparison explicit, is massively unnecessary (like the awkward final sentence of “The Screwfly Solution” to the nth degree), but the journey is memorable. Tom succeeds in arming and leading the Mnerrin; and if Tom never quite seems to feel the qualms about involving himself in the struggles of aliens that we are told (and feel) he ought to, the unease that comes from watching his deliberate removal of the Mnerrin’s innocence is some compensation. Most striking of all is the scene where Kamir gives birth, in which the full alienness of Mnerrin physiology is revealed:
Kamir puts her hands with mine up on her great belly. It is hot, hot. Then she pushes at it again.
Suddenly, with a dreadful caving-in feeling, her whole belly, containing the fetuses, starts to separate from the rest of her body! It tips forward, away from her, as the scarlike “lips” open. Agna is furiously working at this line, pushing his hands under her. She whimpers again. I see that the lips are actually a deep separation line, circling her whole belly, from ribs to pelvis. Oh gods, what is happening here?
But I have a horrifying look at the shell of her body left after the fetal mass tore loose. From diaphragm to hips it is empty, covered by a rapidly thickening gel membrane. Through it I can see, under her ribs, a dark mass pulsing: her heart. Below that, by her spine, I can see the great cords of nerve and blood vessel running along her backbone, inside her empty flanks, to her hips and pelvis. Nothing more. (166)
It is, to put it mildly, a contrast to the initial romanticised descriptions of Kamir. It’s not really surprising that the one mention of “The Color of Neanderthal Eyes” in Julie Phillips’ biography highlights this scene, putting it in a context of Alice Sheldon’s ongoing engagement with the concept of motherhood: “In it a mother dies happily in childbirth, knowing that her children will go on. This time Alli seemed almost wiling to accept instinct as an explanation” (390). And perhaps the scene is, in fact, the scene my hypothetical early Tiptree would have structured the story around, because it seems to me the sort of unflinching image we associate with Tiptree. But in the story as written it’s part of a larger whole, a more general exploration of the limits of biology, the in-built frameworks of weakness and strength that shape a culture.
“The Color of Neanderthal Eyes” isn’t unique in the way that early Tiptree is, there isn’t the sense that only Tiptree could have written it — but it is a good story, and makes me interested in seeking out that final collection, Crown of Stars. The value of the story, I think, is in that step back, in the way it portrays a broader situation. It ends with death, but not with the death of hope. One of the Mnerrin puts it best, as Tom is preparing to leave, to return to the Federation and petition for the people he has fallen in love with to be saved from their attackers. “It has been for you a happy time, out of your real life, which we cannot imagine,” he says. “But for us this is real life, with all its good and evil.”