Novella Review: A Momentary Taste of Being by James Tiptree Jr.

A Momentary Taste of BeingA Momentary Taste of Being by James Tiptree Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read in Star Songs of An Old Primate as part of a few reading challenges: Big Fun in a Little Package Novella Challenge and the Women of Genre Fiction Challenge. The collection is also being read for the LGBTQ Reading Challenge, and the Collections! Challenge.

This is going to be a short review because I can’t tell you too much about it without completely spoiling the plot. Other people interpreted it as “meandering”. I don’t think so. I do think it’s one of those things you might have to go back and read twice to catch all the references. But I think I was lucky enough to catch them the first time around. Perhaps it was because I was looking, on some level, for all those things that would have been relevant because of the challenges I was reading this for. The theme is largely, “What is the meaning and purpose of life?” and “What does it really mean to be human?” but if you don’t know Tiptree, you’re going to find the answer that she comes up with is quite a surprise. It was intense and fascinating! I see why it was nominated for a Nebula at the time it was written.

The basic plot is that Earth is desperately overcrowded and depleted of natural resources. A desperate measure of the UN put together a ship full of carefully-screened representatives of the best and brightest experts from the nations of the world to seek out a new, possibly inhabitable planet. Because of the distances involved the signal system is a simple one: a laser will signal green for good, yellow for “we haven’t found anything yet,” and red for “danger; stay the hell away.”

Aaron, the ship psychologist, and his little sister Lory, are part of this crew. Lory went on a landing mission to a possible nearby planet. She returns alone, without the rest of the crew, and towing an alien lifeform (some sort of plant-being) in the crew capsule. The records of what happened aside from some pictures of one of the most beautiful landscapes anyone has ever seen, have been lost, and Lory is acting oddly. They must now try to piece together what happened, and determine if this planet really is what it looks like, in an environment where the pressure to find something suitable, both for the people living on the ship and for the rest of the species, is enormous. And, Go!

I did see a plot hole at the end; but perhaps that plot hole is covered by the thought that maybe the protagonist is not entirely aware of his own motivations, subconscious or otherwise.

I loved it! Tiptree is new to me as of this year and this collection, and I am fascinated by the way her mind works. I think she’s a genius, and I urge all dedicated sci-fi fans to read this story.

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2 thoughts on “Novella Review: A Momentary Taste of Being by James Tiptree Jr.

  1. Hi, I just recently read this story myself. I found many of the aspects very interesting: the technical details, the philosophy and the claustrophobic atmosphere of this spaceship looking for a world to rescue humanity. But, ultimately I did also find it quite meandering. I am currently reading a collection of Tiptree’s science fiction stories called “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever”. While I was taken with the style of this story, which I found somewhat experimental, it is not the strongest story I’ve read so far. Having said that I am very much enjoying the collection as a whole.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is one of the books I’ll eventually be reading for my SF Masterworks Reading Challenge (see sidebar). I think a lot of the stories cross over with Star Songs of an Old Primate. I love discussing these stories that I love with other people who are interested, whether they share my opinions or not, so thank you for your thoughts!


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