Note: this is a detailed discussion of a short story, not a review, so expect spoilers.
And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side was never one of my favourite James Tiptree jr. stories, which is to say that it’s a great story but she has even better ones. This very short tale about human beings’ fateful obsession with aliens was just a little too weird for me. But one of the things I love about Tiptree is that the more you read her stories, the more you discover about them, the more you come to appreciate and love them. So in re-reading and re-reading And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side for The Women of Science Fiction Bookclub, I found the story more and more impressive. In addition, the bookclub discussion revealed a few important details I hadn’t known about, namely the origin of the story’s title, and the parallel Tiptree draws with the faery mythos.
The title of the story comes from a John Keats poem – “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (The Beautiful Lady without Pity). It’s a ballad about the seductive danger of faeries. A knight is found “Alone and palely loitering”, “haggard and woe-begone”. He explains his sorry state – he met a beautiful woman, “a faery’s child” who enchants him, tells him she loves him and takes him to her “elfin grot” where she lulls him to sleep. He dreams of starved, pale kings, princes and warriors, who have presumably succumbed to their longing for the beautiful faeries. The knight awakens alone, “on the cold hill’s side”. His pale, haggard state is an effect of his experience with the faery, but you also get the sense that he’s “woe-begone” because he he loves or is obsessed with the faery even though he realises how dangerous she is. When I first read And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side, I’d assumed the title was painting an image of abandoned lover, and that certainly comes across in the poem.
In Tiptree’s story, the knight is replaced by a station engineer at a space port and instead of faeries we have aliens. Having made contact with other sentient species, humans are now hopelessly, desperately attracted to them. As Julie Philips puts it in her biography of Tiptree, “[h]umans meet aliens – and abandon their very souls for the chance to sleep with them” (2).
The station engineer recounts his first visit to an alien bar. He’d been “craving it, dreaming about it, feeding on every hint and clue about it” (35) and he sees his first ‘Sellice’ perform an exotic dance that is both intensely arousing and a “personal introduction to hell” (37):
“She was fantastically marked and the markings were writhing. Not like body paint – alive. Smiling, that’s a good word. As if her whole body was smiling sexually, beckoning, winking, urging, pouting, speaking to me… Her arms went up and those blazing lemon-colored curves pulsed, waved, everted, contracted, throbbed, evolved unbelievably welcoming, inciting permutations. Come do it to me, do it, do it, here and here and here and now… Every human male in the room was aching to ram himself into that incredible body. I mean it was pain.” (38)
The engineer’s experience with the Sellice characterises the human experience with aliens – it evokes intense, unbearable desire that’s constantly frustrated because almost every alien is as disinterested and distant from humans as the Sellice is from her audience. The Sellice’s movements aren’t even intentionally sexual – it’s just their normal movement. None of the aliens make any attempt to entice humans; the simple fact that they’re alien is enticing enough.
Sexual relationships in Tiptree’s stories often have this dark, complex mix of love, lust and obsession and here she conflates those things in a particularly haunting way. Throughout the story, the station engineer mocks the idea of love – every time he uses the word he twists it into something sick. “My loving wife” (34, 35) is how he refers to his spouse, who he doesn’t want to have sex with and who flinches when he touches her. There is no love or pleasure in their relationship, only (perhaps) a modicum of comfort in the face of their shared pathology. “The station only employs happily wedded couples” (41) precisely because they can provide support for each other, and it’s quite possible that the station engineer and his wife married just to be close to the aliens. He refers to the aliens as “those lovely, loveable aliens we all love so much” (35), but the humans’ pathological attraction can hardly be called ‘love’, and the aliens certainly do not love them or even care about them. It’s only the most perverted, degraded aliens who are willing to stoop so low as to have sexual contact with humans – it’s akin to beastiality, perhaps. And yet the station engineer has traded “everything Earth offered me for just that chance. To see them. To speak to them. Once in a while to touch one. Once in a great while to find one low enough, perverted enough to want to touch me” (40).
In the same way that Keats’s knight is left “haggard and woe-begone” by the faery, so human beings are physically and emotionally damaged by their lust. Sexual encounters with aliens – when physically possible – leave humans wounded, scarred. Sex with a pair of Sirians is supposed to be “the total sexual thing for a woman, if she can stand the damage from those two beaks” (39). When the station engineer’s wife appears, she has a limp and one of her shoulders is “grotesquely scarred” (41). The humans who chase after aliens are disgustingly pathetic: a girl in the alien bar behaves like “a goddamn dog that wants you to follow it” (37); when the station engineer spots a rare alien he “dropped everything and started walking after it like a starved hound” (38); an old woman cleans up a defective alien’s vomit “as if it were holy water” (40).
The journalist assumes that this is merely some kind of fetish, but it’s not that simple: “Sex is only part of it – there’s more… Man, it’s deep… some cargo-cult of the soul.” (40). Cargo cults are religious practices that sprang up in many pre-industrial societies when they first encountered technologically advanced societies. The cult was an attempt to obtain the material wealth (cargo) of the advanced societies through magic and ritual. During World War II, the Japanese and the Americans used islands in the Pacific as military bases, and in the cargo cults that arose there, the followers made crude imitations of landing strips, aircraft and radio equipment to use in their religious practices. In rituals, followers mimicked the military personnel’s use of the equipment, believing that this would get the gods and ancestors to send the valuable cargo to them, rather than to the foreigners.
In Tiptree’s “cargo cult of the soul”, humans want alien sex so badly they’re sacrificing themselves for it: “Our soul is leaking out. We’re bleeding to death!” (40). They’re “[l]ike the poor damned Polynesians… gutting Earth… [s]wapping raw resources for junk. Alien status symbols” (39). The Polynesians, besides having their own cargo cults, were also the people who created the famous statues on Easter Island, but to erect those statues they cut down every tree on the island, wrecking the ecosystem and wiping out most of their population as a result. The human race in And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side seems to be on the verge of doing the same blindly destructive thing, not for a religious cult as the Polynesians did, but for an uncontrollable sexual obsession.
It’s notable that we get the story from the journalist’s perspective – he’s naive, excited to meet aliens, and, most importantly, dismissive of the station engineer’s warnings. He occupies the position the reader would have, in this story. The journalist assumes the engineer is a xenophobe, bitter, self-pitying, drunk, drugged, and thus can avoid taking him seriously. He takes absolutely nothing away from the engineer’s anecdotes and when he spots an alien at the end of the story he rushes after it. The horror is that the station engineer’s warnings are always going to be pointless – humans are doomed by their very nature to be fall into this trap:
“Man is exogamous – all our history is one long drive to find and impregnate the stranger. Or get impregnated by him; it works for women too. Anything different-colored, different nose, ass, anything, man has to fuck it or die trying. That’s a drive, y’know, it’s built in. Because it works fine as long as the stranger is human. For millions of years that kept the genes circulating. But now we’ve met aliens we can’t screw and we’re about to die trying… Do you think I can touch my wife?” (40).
So making contact with aliens might actually cause the extinction of the human race, although not in the ways typically feared. The aliens couldn’t care less about humans and aren’t interested in colonising or destroying humanity. But they’re going to do it anyway because once humans catch sight of aliens they’re so hooked they lose interest in their own species. “Go home” the station engineer warns the unheeding journalist, “Go home and make babies. While you still can” (34). But he doesn’t resist his fateful curiosity; he can’t, and we’re doomed.