Feminist Separatist Utopia in “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”

From The Lecture Series: Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature

By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D.University of Connecticut

Houston, Houston, Do You Read? sets up the potentials of utopia within feminist science fiction writing. Written by Alice Sheldon under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr., it weaves a feminist separatist utopia, a society without men. It clearly seeks to expands our thinking about gender.

Three astronauts in spacesuits walking on another planet which looks like a desert.
Houston, Houston, Do You Read? is a story about three astronauts lost in space, who end up finding an all-female society. (Image: Design Projects/Shutterstock)

It’s very easy to imagine that Houston, Houston was written by a man. One gets a hint in the opening paragraph itself:

Lorimer gazes around the big crowded cabin, trying to listen to the voices, trying also to ignore the twitch in his insides that means he is about to remember something bad. No help; he lives it again, that long-ago moment. Himself running blindly—or was he pushed?—into the strange toilet at Evanston Junior High. His fly open, he can still see the gray zipper edge of his jeans around his pale exposed pecker. The hush. The sickening wrongness of shapes, faces turning. The first blaring giggle. Girls. He was in the girls’ can.

The Male Narrative

Obviously, Lorimer’s voice here feels like a male astronaut rather than a female writer. It’s appealing to men. And that goes on throughout the story. There’s lots of gender critique, but it’s easy to believe it’s being done by a male writer, which is why the James Tiptree Jr. persona lasted as long as it did.

Tiptree’s story is a clear updating of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, starting with the three male visitors to an all-female society. The context is perfect for the 1970s. Instead of exploring some unnamed jungle area in the early 20th century, these men are exploring a new frontier.

Three female clones being watched by a woman.
Tiptree’s all-female society procreates through cloning. (Image: Esteban De Armas/Shutterstock)

Lost in Space

They’re astronauts, and they find themselves lost in space, their equipment damaged after they have gone through a solar flare.

When they try to contact NASA headquarters, as suggested by the title, they get no response. And then suddenly, there’s a voice. “Judy?” asks a girl’s voice. “Judy, what are you doing on this band?”

The men are stunned. Where’s Houston? Who in the world is Judy? Dave responds, and there’s some confusion. There are multiple women on the band, and none of them seem to be from Headquarters.

This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Sunbird’s Historical Record

Finally, Dave pulls rank. He radios:

This is Major Davis commanding United States Mission Sunbird on course for Earth. You are intercepting official traffic from the United States Space Mission to Houston Control. If you cannot relay to Houston get off the air, you are committing a federal offense.

The women are confused. They say the Sunbird isn’t heading toward Earth at all. And then the men overhear some communications among the women, who have found something in the historical record. Centuries ago, there was a Sunbird space flight, commanded by a Major Norman Davis, but it was lost in space during a sun flare.

The Rendezvous

Finally, the two spaceships coordinate a rendezvous, and the men go onto the women’s ship, which seems to them totally disorganized, with plants and animals and none of the uniforms and command structures that they are used to. There are also a lot of sisters among the astronauts on board.

Finally, the women decide the men are ready for the truth. A major pandemic has wiped out most of Earth’s population, and all of the men, so they have stepped into an all-female society that procreates through cloning.

Learn more about negotiation between utopian and dystopian impulses.

Different Brands of Masculinity

Just as in Gilman’s feminist separatist utopian novel Herland, the three male visitors represent different brands of masculinity, and thus three different approaches to gender relations. Lorimer is the guy who really sees what’s going on, who has an objective perspective in the face of the all-woman society, as opposed to Dave, who sees the women as lost souls and himself as a kind of Christian missionary.

Bud is the update to Terry, seeing the women in purely sexual terms. And Tiptree gets way more graphic than Gilman, perhaps under the guise of her male writer name.

The Problem of Evolution

Also as in Herland, the men aren’t quite sure what to make of the all-female utopia. For the men, it feels like evolution has ended. Not so for the cloned women. They live longer, they go slower. But they have no new genotypes, the men say. However, the women explain, they have new techniques for gene recombination.

And Tiptree never solves the problem of what we are to make of this all-female society. Gilman set up Herland as deeply utopian, suggesting that women without men would be able to solve social problems, to find balance with their environment and with each other. And Gilman’s women treat the men with kindness and respect, unlike Tiptree’s.

Learn more about Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Male Contribution in an All-Female Utopia

But in both stories, even with Tiptree’s less ethical female society, it’s the men who introduce an element of violence, which is previously unknown to the women.

Signatures of Alice Sheldon, James Tiptree, Jr., and Racoona Sheldon.
Alice Sheldon wrote under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr. and Raccoona Sheldon. (Image: Alice Sheldon/Public domain)

At one point, Lorimer says that the women don’t understand the male contribution to history, the way men have traditionally protected women.

As the female captain says, “But you must see there’s a problem. As I understand it, what you protected people from was largely other males, wasn’t it?” Lorimer doesn’t have a really good answer to that.

The final conversation is poignant.

“Your problem is,” Lorimer says, “if you take the risk of giving us equal rights, what could we possibly contribute?” “Precisely,” says Lady Blue. They all smile at him relievedly, not understanding that he isn’t.

“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.”

The drink tastes cool going down, something like peace and freedom, he thinks. Or death.

It’s a wonderfully ambiguous ending. Lorimer has, of course, been shot by one of his fellow astronauts, by a man. The women wouldn’t even think of having firearms. And he, like all the women, realize that men cannot survive in this society. The society cannot survive the threat that the men represent.

But does that make the spacefaring cloned female society a utopia? Or does a complete inability for men and women to move past their differences represent a dystopia?

Common Questions about Feminist Separatist Utopia in Houston, Houston, Do You Read?

Q: What was James Tiptree Jr.’s real name?

James Tiptree Jr. was the pseudonym used by Alice Sheldon, the author of the novella Houston, Houston, Do You Read?

Q: How is Houston, Houston, Do You Read? similar to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland?

Just as in Gilman’s feminist separatist utopian novel Herland, the three male visitors in Houston, Houston, Do You Read?, represent different brands of masculinity, and thus three different approaches to gender relations.

Q: What do the men find on the women’s ship?

The men in Houston, Houston, Do You Read? find that the women’s ship is totally disorganized, with plants and animals and none of the uniforms and command structures that they are used to.

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