Science fiction embraces seduction. Alice Bradley Sheldon, writing under the pen name of James Tiptree, Jr. is adept at taking on this concept. With “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side,” first contact is mystical and mysterious. Every action of the Sirians is perceived as sexualized, even when the actions remain normal to the aliens. This is the same kind of enticement and curiosity that drives men and women to pursue ideas and fantastical dreams. At the same time, as a woman writing in a vastly patriarchal field, Sheldon described the plight of women in science fiction, and how essential they would be to the field.
Sheldon was no stranger to being publicized. Sheldon was promoted to the rank of Major by the United States Army Air Force in 1942, one of the highest ranks a woman could hold during that time. She was also outspoken regarding her complex sexual orientation, claiming interest in both genders with a preference towards women. But when it came to writing science fiction, she chose to sidestep the public eye and adopted the pen name of James Tiptree, Jr.. The idea protected her from stigmatization in what was considered a man’s field and allowed Sheldon the chance to solidify herself as a science fiction author without the burden of previous accomplishments and rejection based on gender. “Birth of a Salesman,” her first published short story in 1968, came through Analog Science Fiction. Three other publications followed, but the truth quickly revealed itself: Her male persona pulled more weight in the wake of authors like Bradbury, Heinlein, Asimov, and Simak. However, the authority that came with having a male pseudonym gave Sheldon the chance to continue exploring feminism alongside hard and soft science fiction techniques and psychological anxieties like the ones present in “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side.”
This story derives its name from “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” by John Keats. Keats wrote about the lustful danger related to another world—a faery seducing a knight amidst the connotations that many other knights and wanderers had come before. Kings, princes, warriors—all have fallen to the thrall of the faery. But science fiction proves the world evolves. We withdraw from the throne and move through centuries of oppression, liberation, life, love, and adoration until we reach the present, where we’ve become engaged in an affair with the stars. But this time, it is the women of science fiction who have become the knights. They see the dangers of the world surrounding them, knowing that sexualized discrimination is something worth fighting against. This alien force oppresses, unbeknownst to its enticement.
As a dominant force in science fiction, Sheldon understood and used this to create a dichotomy between reader and story, writer and genre. While we were looking up at the stars, wondering about the curiosities that could come our way and getting lost in the possibilities, Sheldon wrote about an alien environment that could easily destroy the world, one that was uncaring and existed in tandem with—not in spite of—what surrounded it. As a metaphor for the environment of the 1960s and ’70s, she offered a modern parallel for the struggle continuing today. Grasping the idea that humanity would be safe provided we not upset the fragile balance is a constant source of consideration in “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side.” The engineer’s interaction with the alien is intense and agonizing, just like fighting a constant struggle to maintain equality. Even when we’re given the chance to see the effects of mingling with this temptation, the relationship remains.
Humanity will always speculate. However, as Sheldon illustrates, the constant threat of a male-dominated genre could have easily cast her aside and wiped away any trace of progression. Instead of writing through fear, Sheldon stole the chance to progress and speculate on humanity’s future. We were, and are, on a dangerous path. If anything is learned from “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side,” it remains that our knights must be given the chance to shine and embrace the moment of seduction, even if it means we are led on a path that we won’t understand. Sheldon was aware of the dangers of the world, careful not to upset the balance, and cognizant enough to continue dreaming under the very core belief that science fiction idolizes: To dream amongst danger is to dream of progress.
Spread the word!