“The Screwfly Solution” by James Tiptree, Jr.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree, Jr.Much is made in the horror genre of the link between sexual arousal and aggression in males. I can think of many characters whose motives for killing boil down to some kind of short circuit that bridges the two. But what if the entire male population suddenly lost the ability to separate them? That’s the main premise of James Tiptree, Jr’s “The Screwfly Solution”.

The story opens with Alan, who is in South America doing some humanitarian work. He’s reading a letter from his wife, Anne, who is in the United States. It’s obvious the two are very much in love as the pain of separation is clearly apparent. In this letter and others, Anne paints an increasingly disturbing picture of a life where males are getting more and more aggressive. Some of these males have banded together into a religious cult called the Sons of Adam, and female-free zones are called “liberated”. A concerned Alan packs his things and heads home.

Most of the action takes place off stage, but Tiptree’s story is remarkable all the same. News clippings and letters tell of murder and carnage and misogyny gone viral, all while Alan gets closer and closer to home.

What’s the cause of all this? It’s an extermination attempt by an alien race, and a successful one, too. The “screwfly” in the title refers to a pest that was eradicated in 1982 by using a chemical which interrupted their reproductive cycle. No reproduction equals extinction, and that’s the same logic used by the aliens here. Drop the agent, wait a while, and Earth is there for the taking.

Feminist themes are obvious, with females on their own against a murderous, strong, and very much in-charge male population.

Religious aspects of the story are not friendly. Alan’s friend Barney scrawls in the margin of a newspaper story: “Man’s religion and metaphysics are the voices of his glands – Schonweiser, 1878”. Infected men gather in cults and use Bible verses to justify violence. There’s a newsclipping datelined the Vatican, where Pope John IV refuses to comment on a “Pauline Purification” movement which advocates the elimination of woman “as a means of justifying man to God.” The same story quotes a European Cardinal stating that women are clearly a temporary companion and instrument of man.

Joe Dante directed a film version of “The Screwfly Solution” as part of the Masters of Horror series. Unfortunately, it doesn’t match the power of this story, the main failings being that the wonderful emotional content between Alan and Anne feel forced, and that there is a completely unbelievable throw-your-remote teenager moment that ruined the credibility of the whole thing for me. Also, there was a bit of annoying moralizing thrown in about how the aliens did this to humanity to save the planet. Tiptree’s story said nothing of the sort. The aliens just wanted the place. The memorable last line of the story tells it all.

“The Screwfly Solution” originally appeared in Analog Science Fiction / Science Fact in June 1977 under the pseudonym Racoona Sheldon. James Tiptree, Jr is also a pseudonym for the author whose real name is Alice Sheldon. I read the story in the Tachyon Publications collection: Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. “The Screwfly Solution” won a Nebula Award in 1977 for Best Novelette.

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