With impeccable timing, Showtime's Masters of Horror anthology series chose this last friday to air an adaptation of James Tiptree Jr.'s short story "The Screwfly Solution". I say impeccable not only because Julie Phillips's extremely well-received biography, James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, has brought Tiptree back into the limelight in recent months (Niall at Torque Control has an excellent list of Tiptree-related links, including several stories), but because it was only this last week that I finally got around to reading Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, which collects eighteen of Tiptree's short stories, including, yes, "The Screwfly Solution". With the eerie, disturbing piece still fresh in my mind, I was quite curious to see what writer Sam Hamm (interviewed here about the task of adapting the story) and director Joe Dante would make of it, and the adaptation, in turn, gives me a chance to discuss some of my reactions to Tiptree's story.
You should read "The Screwfly Solution"--in fact, you should read Her Smoke Rose Up Forever--it's not long and it's quite scary. If you get a chance, you should also watch Hamm and Dante's adaptation, which is faithful both in the sense that it follows the story's plot and replicates its themes, and in the sense that it creates a similar sense of menace, one that lingers even after the last page is turned or the credits have finished rolling. "The Screwfly Solution" posits a world in which misogyny has suddenly become viral--as wind currents carry air particles around the planet, previously normal men begin to murder women, claiming to be acting on God's commands but actually motivated, the story tells us, by biological imperative run amok--the aggressive impulses at the root of male sexual response overtaking the sexual component, so that men become driven to murder rather than mate.
At a first glance, it's tempting to conclude that Tiptree is positing a male imperative towards misogyny. Sam Hamm seems to think so, as his adaptation on several occasions draws connections between the viral form of misogyny and real world instances of it--"Women nurture; men destroy," the protagonist's loudly-feminist friend announces near the beginning of the episode; when attacks on women intensify to the point that survivors are placed in refugee camps for their own protection, an abused wife calmly tells the protagonist's wife "all those months, I thought you were normal and I was odd. But now you see, don't you? I'm the normal one. I was the normal one all along"; a deliberate attempt is made to tie the religious attitudes of affected men to Sharia law* and other forms of misogyny rooted in religion.
To my mind, this interpretation is slightly to the left of what "The Screwfly Solution" is actually saying, albeit no less problematic. The question of intelligence at war with biological determinism recurs quite frequently in Tiptree's stories (most particularly the sublime "Love is the Plan the Plan is Death"): can a sentient being overcome the dictates of their biological nature--be they natural and necessary to the survival and continuity of the organism such as the urge to eat, defend oneself and one's family, or procreate, or perverted by outside forces as in "The Screwfly Solution"--or are we merely animals who think? "The Screwfly Solution" draws a comparison between humanity and the titular bug, which was all but exterminated in the 1950s through an interruption of its reproductive cycle, and the story's protagonist is a scientist who devises another sort of pesticide that compels male cane-flies to mate with the females' heads rather than the right way around, just as human males are compelled--by a 'pesticide' of extraterrestrial origin--to kill potential sexual partners rather than procreate with them. The victims, in other words, aren't just the women, but the entire human race--it's just that the women's destruction is overt and violent, whereas the men's will come through natural attrition a generation or two down the line.
The problem with this premise is that humans can, and do, overcome their biological urges on a daily basis. We feel the urge to propagate, but many of us choose to defer having children or not have them at all. We can ignore hunger or thirst, and yes, we can overcome our sexual urges. The average man may become aroused dozens of times a day, but the overwhelming majority of men do not try to have sex with every women they're attracted to. And yet, once they're afflicted, the men in Tiptree's story attack nearly every women they see. Why should the urge to kill be so much more powerful than the urge to mate? The only conclusion is that Tiptree is arguing that men, rather than being biologically hardwired for misogyny, are biologically hardwired for violence**.
Alongside the viral misogyny at the heart of the story's premise, Tiptree also posits an institutionalized misogyny. When attacks on women begin happening in the States, afflicted settlements cordon themselves off and defend their actions under their right to religious freedom. This argument is, for some inexplicable reason, accepted by authorities, who treat refugees coming out of the outbreak zones but don't attempt to curtail the violence. Media reports on the scope of the epidemic are suppressed in order to avoid causing a panic. Women protesting the government's inaction are arrested--"They seemed to have started a fire in an oil drum, which was considered particularly heinous." The Vatican refuses to condemn the murders of women, and only goes so far as to repudiate the murderers' conviction that they are acting on God's commands. For the most part, these are meant to be the actions of unaffected men, and the only reasonable conclusion is that the men at the top simply don't care about mass murders so long as the victims are women. This is the first of two instances in which it becomes glaringly obvious that "The Screwfly Solution" is a product of its own time, and that its attitudes have been belied by history. I don't mean to say that clearly the still male-dominated institutions of our culture would leap to the defense of women, but that it's not misogyny that is at the heart of their indifference. The women of Afghanistan didn't get any less attention from the Western world than the men and women of Rwanda or Darfur. The problem isn't that the victims are women--it's that they're far away and don't look like us.
Hamm's screenplay goes some way towards bringing the story into the 21st century by having the protagonist explain his theory of an epidemiological root cause to a room full of Old White Men--generals, politicians, and other people interested in doing something, even if they don't comprehend the severity of the situation--whereas in the original story the epidemiological theory is dismissed and the UN's solution to the problem of 'femicide' is half-hearted at best. Hamm even has his characters suggest that all law enforcement personnel dealing with refugee women be chemically castrated, which is a neat addition to the story in that it creates another point of conflict between the male characters' intellectual understanding of their predicament, and of the danger they pose to their loved ones, and their biological nature--ultimately, only the most conscientious and clear-eyed male character chooses the treatment***.
Another, and far more problematic, point at which Tiptree's story bumps up against the realities of modern life is the question of women's response to the attacks on them. Or rather, the lack of same. "Isn't it strange how we do nothing? Just get killed by ones and twos. ... Like hypnotized rabbits. We're a toothless race" the protagonist's wife concludes in the story's final segment, and by 'we' she means women. Even taking into the account the fact that the trend towards tales of female physical empowerment in popular culture is, to a certain extent, unrealistic and not representative of the realities of our society, this is tough one to swallow, especially when we take into account that there are female members of the armed forces, there are policewomen and firewomen. Maybe not enough to prevent every murder, but certainly enough to create some sort of female militia, a safe zone for women. Whether or not the girl power trend is realistic, modern viewers expect to see it, but this is obviously the one point on which Hamm can't diverge from his source material, or he risks losing the very horrifying tone that makes "The Screwfly Solution" compelling in spite of its problematic assumptions about gender and gendered behavior.
By this point I've raised several meaningful objections to the underlying assumptions of "The Screwfly Solution"'s premise, and if you haven't read the story (but clearly you have, right?) you might be forgiven for wondering why you should. The picture I've painted is of a piece that makes vile, insupportable generalizations about male behavior, and isn't too kind to women either. What sustains the story, however, is its unwavering commitment to this very premise, and the unrelenting grimness with which it advances towards that premise's logical conclusion. The power of Tiptree's storytelling overwhelms the reader's logical and ideological objections, and I can offer Sam Hamm no greater praise than to say that his adaptation of the story is similarly compelling****. It is precisely because of the significant problems in its premise that "The Screwfly Solution" is a perfect illustration of why Tiptree deserves to be read--an author who can so thoroughly convince her readers to believe in something they know to be untrue, even if it's only for as long as they're turning the pages, should be on every devoted reader's reading list.
* 'So-called Sharia law,' according to a news anchor who shows up on screen near the episode's beginning, and I've got no more love than the next person for people who think women should be stoned for adultery or have to cover themselves from head to toe in order to be allowed outside, but can we at least use the terms correctly? Sharia is a real code of laws. The question isn't whether it exists but whether it should be applied.
** Something that Tiptree never bothers to explain, and which Hamm's adaptation wisely downplays, is that from day one, attacks on women come hand in hand with attacks on children of all sexes. Towards the end of the story, young boys are also being targeted. Both story and TV episode briefly acknowledge that afflicted homosexuals are likely to target men rather than women, but nothing in Tiptree's premise explains the attacks on children.
*** On the whole, however, it was probably a mistake to introduce this wrinkle. There are, after all, impermanent ways of suppressing the male libido--hell, dumping Prozac into the water supply might have worked as a stopgap measure--and Hamm makes his characters look stupid by drawing attention to this fact.
**** Although I think he fudges the story's very last scene by allowing us to believe that the aliens who orchestrated the demise of the human race were motivated by ecological concerns instead of, as Tiptree concludes, a desire to have our pretty planet for themselves. The moralistic tone of Hamm's ending is, in my opinion, far less affecting than the last twist of the knife that is Tiptree's final sentence.