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The Classics: 'The Screwfly Solution'

The Classics: 'The Screwfly Solution'


Exploring gender through madness and millenarianism

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The Classics are must-see, must-read, must-play works revered by The Verge staff. They offer glimpses of the future, glimpses of humanity, and a glimpse of our very souls. You should check them out.

When I was a teenager, I decided the best way to learn about science fiction was to read through every Nebula Awards collection in the library system, marking names. It rarely worked: even if I loved the story, I usually forgot the author, leaving me with a jumbled recollection of plot points and writing styles. The single name I remember now isn’t even a real one — it’s Raccoona Sheldon, one of the pen names of the science fiction author named Alice Sheldon but better known as James Tiptree, Jr. She had won a 1978 Nebula for her short story "The Screwfly Solution," and it terrified me.

Tiptree turns glib justifications about men and women into a horror story

"The Screwfly Solution" is a quick read, and although knowing the ending doesn’t remotely spoil it, I’m hesitant to spell out too much. Told alternately from the perspective of a devoted husband and wife, it recounts a strange social madness that sweeps the world, causing men everywhere to kill women. Rather than a wave of random murders, though, the effect is more like a mass outbreak of social extremism, with each group creating its own justification for the killings. An American movement called the Sons of Adam decides that mankind must eradicate its female "animal part." European Catholics decide that women are "nowhere defined as human" in the Bible. None of the reasoning makes much sense, but it’s just enough to make people question whether it’s a pandemic or just a kind of millenarianism.

The premise is a product of its time, written in an era where feminist authors were exploring separatism from society at large and (often) working from an assumption that men were fundamentally violent and women fundamentally peaceful. But when I read it some twenty-five years later, those assumptions still permeated everything I was being told about gender. I’m not sure what my male counterparts heard during youth groups and talks with adults, but the standard message to girls was clear: you interact with men at your own peril, because they just can’t control themselves.

A romance, a plague diary, and a social treatise

Tiptree turns these glib justifications into a horror story: what if women’s sexuality genuinely made men uncontrollable? The result is horrifying for just about everyone. It’s implied that the killings proceed from a kind of hijacked version of normal human biology, and Tiptree mines the terror of being compelled by instinct to do something unconscionable for all it’s worth. Mine isn’t the only interpretation of "Screwfly," but part of its richness is that it’s simultaneously a romance, a plague diary, and a social treatise — plus a few other things I won’t reveal.

There’s not really a way to describe "The Screwfly Solution" without sounding a little paranoid, but then, paranoia is a charge I’ve seen leveled against the author herself. Tiptree doesn’t slowly introduce strangeness into the life of an everyman, a standard trope in the genre. The strangeness she describes already exists in our world and relationships, even if it often goes unrecognized. Characters in "Screwfly" and other Tiptree stories are all the more alienated not because of some fundamental change in perception, but because the things they’re afraid of reveal the nasty core in our most common beliefs.