I usually have to think to come up with catchy titles for my entries, but the work has been done for me this week. Love is the Plan the Plan is Death is a Nebula-winning short story written by James Tiptree Jr., a pseudonym of Alice Sheldon. A trailblazer in fusing “hard” science fiction which focused on science and technology with the sociological and psychological ideas of “soft” science fiction, Tiptree was also a master in exploring the vantage point of the other, the female, and the alien. I first came upon her work in the collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever and was captivated by the mastery of her prose and the bleakness of her tales. Love is the Plan the Plan is Death is my favorite story out of that compilation.
Unlike the utopian future of the Star Trek universe, Tiptree’s science fiction stories tend to be dark and pessimistic, often exploring the inexorable force of biological determinism and the futility of existence as self-aware individuals. Her tales force me to wonder: Are we as human beings ultimately slaves to our biology? Despite our intelligence, are we doomed to behave like other creatures, to overwhelm the carrying capacity of our surroundings until we experience precipitous plunges in population as a species? Although Love features no human characters, it provides an opportunity to ruminate upon these very important questions through the perspective of Moggadeet, a terrifying yet lovable and sympathetic alien.
Mix the body plan and fangs of a trapdoor spider…
Love is told through Moggadeet, an alien that can only be described as a giant spider-scorpion hybrid. At the beginning of the narrative, he is recounting his life’s story to Lilliloo, his mate, whom he has been tenderly caring for. Unusual for his species, Moggadeet is not only intelligent and self-aware, but constantly attempts to resist succumbing to the instincts of his species, biological imperatives dubbed “The Plan”. Unfortunately, his efforts prove futile as Moggadeet recounts his life experiences with regret. He kills his brother Frim contesting lover Lilliloo, being unable to contain the blood lust that is triggered by the colour of a female’s fur. After vowing to treat the Old One, an older injured member of his species with respect, he resorts to cannibalism as the cold winter seasons dull his ability to think and reason. He tries to make a new life by escaping with Lilliloo to warmer regions, but that too ultimately fails. At the end of his tale, the Plan is revealed: Moggadeet is destined to be food for the now fully-grown and pregnant Lilliloo, suffering the same fate as his predecessors despite his valiant struggles. In his final act before being devoured, he tries to pass along one final message to his eventual offspring, warning them ominously “the winters grow”.
A Growing Threat
…with the weaponry and armoured carapace of a scorpion…
Subtly hinted in the background of Love is the threat of global climate change: the winters are growing longer and colder. Moggadeet’s exchange with the Old One hints at the potential ramifications for their species:
Old One: “Look around, young one. These stony deadwoods. Dead shells of trees that grow in the warm valleys. Why are they here? The cold has killed them. No living tree grows here now. Think, young one!’
*Moggadeet looks around* I look, and true! It is a warm forest killed to stone.
Old One: “Once it, was warm here. Once it was like the valleys. But the cold has grown stronger. The winter grows. Do you see? And the warm grows less and less.”
Moggadeet: “But the warm is life! The warm is Me-Myself!”
Old One: “Yes. In the warm we think, we learn. In the cold is only the Plan. In the cold we are blind … waiting here, I thought, was there a time when it was warm here once? Did we come here, we blacks, in the warm to speak, to share? Oh, young one, a fearful thinking. Does our time of learning grow shorter, shorter? Where will it end? Will the winters grow until we can learn nothing but only live blindly in the Plan, like the silly fatclimbers who sing but do not speak?
Climate change not only destroys the environments suitable for Moggadeet’s race, but also disrupts their ability to act beyond their basic instincts. The cold represents a literal threat to Moggadeet’s reasoning skills and higher-level functions. In the cold, he reverts into an unthinking instinctual animal, focused only on survival. In this type of environment, the morality, creativity, spontaneity, and self-reflection that Moggadeet is capable of cannot flourish. This reminds me of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from a previous entry. In Love, climate change actively undermines the base of that hierarchy, robbing Moggadeet and others like him of the ability to become self-actualized individuals.
The Lovable and Sympathetic Alien
… and one of these, and you’ll have an idea of what Moggadeet looks like.
Throughout the narrative, we see Moggadeet as the one most capable of rising above his species’ instincts, to break free of the “Plan” of his race. Moggadeet is portrayed as different from the rest of his kin. He is characterized as an enlightened creature, able to learn from the past and look to the future, trying to do the best he can in a changing world. Tiptree does a fantastic job at creating the alien while respecting the reader’s need for the familiar; there is enough humanity in the alien for the reader to connect with him as the protagonist. Inquisitive, clever, and considerate, there is a childish exuberance to him that transforms an otherwise monstrous creature into a lovable and sympathetic character.
This is why his failure to escape the Plan is so affective and tragic. It is clear that Moggadeet lives an emotionally and intellectually fulfilling life. But despite his best efforts, he is unable to resist succumbing to his instincts or find a solution to the crisis that threatens his species. An Amazon reviewer compares Moggadeet’s struggles with our own species:
“Love is the plan…” is my favorite science fiction short story, and one of the best short stories of any kind ever written. It has not a single human character, and depicts the unbearably touching efforts of a gigantic, heavily-armored, multi-limbed alien to tackle and solve three deadly problems faced by his species, two internal— stemming from instinctively programmed behavior— and one external, a global climate change. That he will fail, and why he will fail, is evident early on from many clues fairly planted within the narrative. But he does his level best, which is indeed far better than you and I could hope to do, and like most Tiptree aliens, he is totally charming and lovable throughout his hopeless task. Our own species is currently failing completely to deal with a global climate change, and we are neither charming nor lovable in our miserably conflicted efforts.
– Rory Coker
The reviewer is speaking from a place of deep pessimism, and her comparisons between Moggadeet and us force me to ponder about humanity’s fate. If this self-reflective creature that is deeply committed to change could not break free of his biological constraints and find a way to survive, what chance do we have? Despite our intelligence and our self-awareness, are we doomed to behave like locusts, exploiting our surroundings and exhausting the surrounding resources until we eventually destroy ourselves? Do we have more of a chance to escape our fate than Moggadeet did his?
In Culture is the Preservation of the World
There is one glimmer of hope for the future survival of Moggadeet’s race, and it is through the passing of knowledge to future generations. With their dying breaths, both Moggadeet and his father attempt to share the key learning from their life – the dangers of an increasingly cold climate – to their offspring. This is an unusual development in their species, as shown in the exchange between Moggadeet and the Old One:
Old One: “You go to the caves of Winter. That is the Plan.”
Moggadeet: “Winter yes. The cold. Mother told us. And after the cold winter comes the warm. I remember. The winter will pass, won’t it? Why did she say, the winters grow? Teach me, Old One. What is a Father?
Old One: “Fa-ther? A word I don’t know. But wait -” His mangled head turns to me. “The winters grow? Your mother said this? Oh, cold! Oh, lonely,” he groans. “A big learning she gave you. This learning I fear to think.”
The Old One is startled to find out that Moggadeet has received this “big learning”. This is knowledge passed down from generation to generation and could help others like Moggadeet escape being simply instinctual and unthinking creatures. It is through the sharing of learning that holds the key for the future survival of Moggadeet’s species. As the winters grow, there is still hope that his offspring may gain insight from their father’s warning and be able to live, think, and learn as self-aware individuals. Unfortunately, the violent life cycle of Moggadeet’s species makes the passing down of knowledge difficult and rare.
Unlike Moggadeet’s species, we are much more social and cultural creatures. Our greatest achievements are rooted in the collective knowledge and experiences of our ancestors and our peers. It is our species’ ability to share and learn accumulate key knowledge makes us better equipped to deal with complex challenges.
Should we overcome the challenges of the current ecological crisis and move towards a more sustainable and harmonious future, it will be because we have learned to become better stewards through our laws and metaphors, our science and technology, and the continuous examination of our place in nature. These achievements will belong to the realm of culture, and as Kentucky poet and author Wendell Berry once wrote, “it is culture, and certainly not nature, that teaches us to observe and remember, to learn from our mistakes, to share our experiences, and perhaps most important of all, to restrain ourselves.” (Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Chapter 10) Wade Davis, anthropologist and Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, had this to say about the importance of culture in helping us transcend the biology of our species:
“Were I to distill a single message from these Massey Lectures, it would be that culture is not trivial. It is not decoration or artifice, the songs we sing or even the prayers we chant. It is a blanket of comfort that gives meaning to lives. It is a body of knowledge that allows the individual to make sense out of the infinite sensations of consciousness, to find meaning and order in a universe that ultimately has either. Culture is a body of laws and traditions, a moral and ethical code that insulates a people from the barbaric heart that history suggests lies just beneath the surface of all human societies and indeed all humans. Culture alone allows us to reach, as Abraham Lincoln said, for the better angels of our nature.”
– The Wayfinders, p.198
Despite Tiptree’s best efforts to depress me, Love is the Plan actually provides me with some hope for our future. I reject the premise that we are merely slaves to our biology. We need to look and learn from the various cultures of our world to understand the entirety of human experience, to respect the world around us, and to protect ourselves from human nature. It is through culture that we can realize the potential that Tiptree believes humanity innately possesses:
“If I could describe a ‘human being’ I would be more than I am – and probably living in the future, because I think of human beings as something to be realized ahead… But clearly ‘human beings’ have something to do with the luminous image you see in a bright child’s eyes – the exploring, wondering, eagerly grasping, undestructive quest for life. I see that undescribed spirit as central to us all.”
– Alice Sheldon, aka James Tiptree Jr., Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, p. vi
Davis, Wade. The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom matters in the Modern World. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2009.
Pollan, Michael. Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. Kindle e-book edition. New York: Grove Press, 1991.
Tiptree Jr., James. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. (2004) Jeffrey D. Smith. Tachyon Publications San Francisco, CA. Love is the Plan the Plan is Death p. 403-420. (1973).