"The Screwfly Solution" by James Tiptree Jr.

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.


Anonymous said…
They label boys and weaker men as 'crypto-women' and once all the women are dead the men start to focus their violent/sexual energies on other 'others'.

And obviously IRL some men turn violence onto those - male and female - whom they label as weak and sexual and non-spiritual.

In my opinion this is to do with psychological defence of the ego and the boundaries of the self against mortality and embodiment.

But in the 1970s a lot of women thought it was because men had something biologically wrong with them which couldn't be fixed. And of course nowadays a lot of male evolutionary psychologists think the same thing, only they present it positively.

I don't believe it myself. But I think the story still works because the behaviour which it exaggerates is so deeply familiar and yet not spoken about. Like 'The Shining' its about the unspoken vulnerability of women and children in our culture.
Actually, the only time the term 'crypto-women' is used is to describe a professional woman - one of the CDC doctors sent to investigate an early outbreak.

I agree that targeting the weak - male or female - makes sense if you're starting from the assumption that all men are at heart ruthless killers, but the story's SFnal premise only posits that the sexual impulse has been replaced by violent urges. I think the attacks on children and boys are an instance of Tiptree's political agenda peeking through the story's fabric.

I think the story still works because the behaviour which it exaggerates is so deeply familiar and yet not spoken about

Yes, I felt that too.
Anonymous said…
Hello there,

Great post! I'd like to read the book if possible:)

Since I haven't read the story, this is just an opinion, but the killing of children might be inspired by the fact lions kill cubs not sirred by themselves.


ca said…
Oh, I'm so glad you read these! I had the feeling that you would have really interesting things to say about them.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for your extraordinarily thoughtful analysis of both story and show. You are of course correct that certain of our narrative choices were cannier than others, but we assumed going in that many aspects of the story were going to prove intractable, and it's very gratifying to know that some viewers, at least, appreciate the difficulties we faced in porting Ms. Sheldon's paranoid, illogical, but nonetheless extraordinary vision to film.

By the way, remind me never to do another story about the collapse of human civilization on a 2- million-dollar budget.
Consider yourself reminded, Mr. Hamm, although I can't say that the constraints of your budget were noticeable in the final product.

Thanks for taking the time to post this comment, and once again, thanks for a fantastic hour of television.
Anonymous said…
You get the comments from the classy people Abigail.

I ask myself would a scenario where women are similarly influenced to kill men be equally plausible/frightening ? I don't think so. But one where women killed their children? Yes, oddly, I think that would be plausible.

So what is it that this speaks to?

Our knowledge of the forbearance of the strong over the weak, and that it is conditional and might be withdrawn? the way human frustration and powerlessness is then projected on to hurting the even more powerless?

I do think men kill women in a different (more 'enthusiastic') way from women killing men, but I don't think it's because men are genetically programmed to attack women. I suspect Tiptree thought they were.
Anonymous said…
In Hamm's story a few women actually are said to have done just what you said they didn't...in the story a few woman commandeer a bomber and blow up Dallas or some such city as retaliation, you made a large mistake when you attempted to say that Hamm allowed no strong women into her short story (The program, however, was as you said and I was quite dissapointed by the lack of feminine strength but somewhat pleased when a few hints of it appeared in the actual work of literature).
I think you mean Tiptree's story, not Hamm's.

You're right that there's an attack on Dallas by several women. However, the complete quote is this:

The first trip in I got a paper, I saw where they bombed the Apostle Islands refuge. And it had about those three women stealing the Air Force plane and bombing Dallas, too. Of course they shot them down, over the Gulf. Isn't it strange how we do nothing? Just get killed by ones and twos.

In other words, Tiptree views the ineffectual attack on Dallas as yet another demonstration of women's inability to band together in anything resembling the male-dominated institutions of our society, to mount a coherent and viable defense rather than scattered, and pointless, attacks.
Anonymous said…
I ask myself would a scenario where women are similarly influenced to kill men be equally plausible/frightening ? I don't think so. But one where women killed their children? Yes, oddly, I think that would be plausible.

We regard female-on-male violence less seriously than the reverse because the odds are assumed to favour the man.

By the same argument woman-on-child violence is perfectly possible.

So yes, I think woman-on-child violence would get to people.

Of course, both scenarios work because the assumption that people are less concerned about violence to women/ children is exactly wrong.

(BTW - I understand that women are 1/10th as likely to murder a person as men.

They are half as likely to murder their spouse as men.

They are slightly more likely to murder their children.

They are twice as likely to abuse their children.

I suppose it’s all a matter of means and opportunity.)
Unknown said…
Killing off the boys and children would also kill off potential future breeders, like what male lions do when they take over a new pride.

And any men left afterwards would die off in 20-60 years, leaving a nice place for the sparkly "Angels" to make a new home.
Anonymous said…
Unfortunate choice of words to describe Tiptree's point of view and writing "Paranoid" and "illogical". Perhaps one needs to read more than one, or even a few, short stories to get a realistic idea of an author's point of view. The most telling point here is that anyone would feel comfortable making such a description of either the story or the premise...that the person who does is pointedly male commenting on supposed female views...and that a major point in the analysis contending the present "belied" the story's basic ideas regarding gender is based in racism rather than gender"ism" or even biological reality.

Sorry about the anonymous. Just ran across this and have no particular idea how one signs in or up, nor do I particularly care to find out. :)
Bob Belson said…
Hmmm, I read the short story several times, and watched the Masters Of Horror episode several times on Hulu.Both were well executed. I found the concept intriguing. It resonated as the short story "Made of Meat" and the short story "Desertion" did with me. The overall tie in being that humans might not be the big shots of the universe that we seem to think we are at times.
Since you seem to be trying to get in the authors head with this review, and are wildly speculating while doing so, Ill throw some wild conjecture out there as well. It seems to me that the author had a subconscious-(or conscious) fear of men that she wrote into the Screwfly Solution. A story about men sadisticaly murding all the women on the planet, quickly- in ones and twos yada yada is a pretty obvious statement.Otherwise - Why not a sterilization enzyme?
The television adaptation for its part was overtly attempting to bring contemporary issues into the mix and did so effectively .The end was very sad. (but i wont give it away):))
Paula Stiles said…
Apologies if this is coming so long afterward, but I'm watching the episode on the Syfy Channel (really hate that name) and am struck again by how I just can't swallow this premise and how western (and dated) it is. I lived for two years in West Africa, in a largely Muslim village, and had a lot of friends there. So, not what you'd think would be fertile ground for tough women bent on fighting back. Well, let me tell you--should something like this ever occur, my money's on those women. At the very worst, they'd just withdraw to the bush after poisoning all the food and drink and come back when it was safe.

We in the West (especially white, middle-class women) like to cultivate this idea that we are "nice" and nonviolent, but we are, in fact, just as capable of violence as men. I think we just get away with it more often. We are more likely to be serial poisoners. We almost never get prosecuted if we're the spouse-abusers. We are just as likely as men to abuse our children. I'm not saying that we women are an evil gender any more than men, just that we're not the hapless, guiltless innocents that Tiptree liked to portray. I can understand where Tiptree was coming from (and I do really like some of her stories, just not this one). I've worked in male-dominated professions, as she did, and it can feel isolating and scary. But I think her attitude was very much of her time and not really a good indication of how even her contemporaries would have reacted to the situation.

Plus, I couldn't stand the daughter, who was a spoiled daddy's girl, and kind of wish the story and episode had shown her death!
Into the Void said…
I was tweaking an article on the screwfly when I came across this.

The one physiological difference between rage and lust is the hard-on. That's why a sexual let-down can transform into to anger. How well a man controls his emotions is, I believe, cultural.

The scary part of the story was that the urge to kill wasn't accompanied by frustration or anger.
Jenn said…
This review is interesting in light of what is occurring in 2012.

This part in particular:

"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."

This battle is back to being fought out, in public, on home shores. It's not some former female doctor under religious house arrest in Afghanistan. It's men trying to take away women's right to health care choices, our right to earn the same wages as our male equals, our right to be equal.

Product of OUR times, I'd say. Thanks Alice.
Unknown said…
I think even if women tried to create a safe zone...do you realistically think a literal battle of the sexes would really be all that competitive?

Girl power doesn't exist in the real world of sexual dimorphism.
Robert Vernon said…
I disagree with the idea that we have the ability to override our natural animal instincts. In fact there are so many example of normal humans doing horrible things, which after further review are clearly animal based behaviors, with only the slightest push. Men with young girl children have gang raped other you girls is a classic example. why would any man who has his own daughter at home, go with a group of guys to rape an unknown girl of the same age/social background/etc. What mental process failed to prevent such actions? Why do racial bias issues almost always center on men, rather than women. specifically why are the prime targets for attack in any society the minority men and NOT the minority women? Could it be that those men seek the need to eliminate potential sexual competitors? Reading some the new neuroscience stuff coming out of research labs all over the world show that we repeatedly take actions, THEN write the narrative justifying those actions. Thus I propose that we are very much animals, and that the mind (consciousness) which rides piggy back on our physical brains is just trying to keep everything sorted. This would also explain why people commit horrendous crimes, admit to committing the crimes, then when asked why are UNABLE to provide a reason. I'm not saying there are not liars, who do not wish to admit to it, but even talking it out with many murderers or rapists its clear that many of them really do not have a conscious reason for doing what they did, but for whatever reason were not able to muster the mental self-control to prevent it. This falls in line with group violence. people who would never hurt a fly (pun intended) are capable of incapable amounts of violence when in a group.
Zartaj said…
@Trent Hacker Looking at the real world where feats of gender equality or "girl power" rise naturally, sexual dimorphism is too singular a concept to factor into a hypothetical battle of sexes.
Banake said…
Honestly, this was the only reasonable review of this tale that I read.

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