Alice Sheldon’s SF short story ‘The Screwfly Solution’ is misread by most readers as an alien attack driving men to insane violence; a closer revisionist read shows that the alien attack affected women as well, into suicidal passivity.
Did everyone misread Alice B. Sheldon’s 1977 SF short story “The Screwfly Solution” (WP)? It seems so. Sheldon’s story has the same problem as Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life”: the surface story is so easily read one way that a reader can just run roughshod over the parts that don’t fit, either ignoring them or cramming a square peg into a round hole. In Sheldon’s story, no readers seems to have noticed all the hints that the mind-altering chemicals are affecting the women too—everyone reads it solely as “the men go berserk murdering all women, who are able to put up no resistance”. When I read “Screwfly”, I thought this was fairly obvious albeit that Dr. Sheldon was perhaps, as with “Love Is The Plan”, expecting too much of her reader like familiarity with zoology to the point of understanding the “lordotic” reference1, and was surprised to look at the Wikipedia entry and see none of this covered; checking other reviews, none of them mention this either. As obvious as it might seem, it seems almost all readers miss it (somewhat like they miss how Tarkovsky’s Stalker references Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor”).
So, to dig into it, the male-only reading has several problems:
This is prima facie absurd.
Women are not helpless creatures who bare their throats to be cut, have never in history acted like that, and Sheldon certainly didn’t believe that. (She had an extremely active life as an artist, traveler, Army intelligence officer (reaching the rank of Major), earning her doctorate in animal psychology, SF writer under several pseudonyms, bisexual, journalist, etc.) Sheldon is typically taken to be a highly-feminist & knowledgeable writer, and not the ignorant borderline misogynist and/or misandrist that the male-only reading implies with its depiction of women en masse as being incompetent, helpless, and masochistic to the point of suicide. Even in terms of a “victimization Olympics” interpretation, this is extreme.
By any sensible understanding of the world, it would take women years or decades to die out, and they might never do so; it would be perfectly possible for women (being slightly over half the world population) to take over and counter-purge men (whose economies are also collapsing), and make do without men (harvesting semen from raids, raising their children, or taking a few captives who can safely service many women). Further, the men are in a losing strategic position: they are unable to replenish their population, as they must murder any women they capture, while the women can begin exponential growth of their population easily, meaning that any war of attrition is an almost guaranteed victory. So the alien strategy is deeply flawed, even without considering evolution.2
The absurdity of it is explicitly highlighted in the story, directly pointing out to the reader how “strange” it is that the women are generally so helpless and even the female protagonist is apathetic to the point of suicide (emphasis added):
I still can’t really realize, I have to stop myself from rushing back. But you saved my life, I know that. The first trip in I got a paper, I saw where they bombed the Apostle Islands refuge. And it had about those 3 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. Or more, now they’ve started on the refuges.… Like hypnotized rabbits. We’re a toothless race. Do you know I never said “we” meaning women before? “We” was always me and Alan, and Amy of course. Being killed selectively encourages group identification.… You see how sane-headed I am. But I still can’t really realize. […] The old man gave me the hooks quick and whispered to me, “Boy, them woods’ll be full of hunters next week.” I almost ran out. […] No. I’ll just make a good end, say up on that rock where I can see the stars. After I go back and leave this for you. I’ll wait to see the beautiful color in the trees one last time.
Her phrasing raises a question: what predator suddenly hypnotized the rabbit?
In fact, the odd passivity of the women is present from the start: in the first anecdote, a female epidemiologist travels to the initial outbreak, and lies down on a cot, and lets her throat be cut; the female protagonist’s friend dithers and makes excuses about selling her house rather than simply fleeing; women do minimal lobbying about ‘femicide’ by the ‘cult’, etc. (In reality, in the 1970s, people went berserk over the wave of cults in the USA and any associated mistreatment of women especially, eg. Charles Manson.)
The reading is simplistic, and the story disappointingly shallow. Compare the complexity of “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death” (WP) to this reading of “Screwfly”. Why is it so long when so much of it in the middle is just men murdering women, and could apparently be cut to reach the punchline with little loss? (And why does it feel like “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death” is a twin story, when “Screwfly” is so one-sided?)
The story is written with many parallelisms and symmetries, making the lack of a parallel in male/female psychological horror striking by its absence.
The viewpoint moves between man and woman, with the man acting and the woman reacting. The male protagonist succumbs to the alien attack, becoming an unreliable narrator, and while aware of his madness, commits suicide after realizing he murdered his daughter (who goes to him despite all orders not to); and then the perspective switches to the woman, who tries and fails to escape successfully, noting the oddity of how futile resistance seems, and presumably dies shortly after the ending.
A core male vs female parallelism is the extract from “Ian MacIntyre” (an author mouthpiece), around three-quarters of the way through, about the sex/violence mechanism the aliens exploit:
…in some, the expression of aggression and copulation alternate or even coexist, an all-too-familiar example being the common house cat. Males of many species bite, claw, bruise, tread or otherwise assault receptive females during the act of intercourse; indeed, in some species the male attack is necessary for female ovulation to occur…It seems therefore appropriate to speculate that the present crisis might be caused by some substance, perhaps at the viral or enzymatic level, which effects a failure of the switching or triggering function in the higher primates…In this connection it might be noted that exactly this condition is a commonplace of male functional pathology, in those cases where murder occurs as a response to and apparent completion of, sexual desire. It should be emphasized that the aggression/copulation linkage discussed here is specific to the male; the female response (eg. lordotic reflex) being of a different nature.
If the male half is about attacking, then what is the female half? There are no less than 2 references to lordosis here, but this apparently flies over the heads of most readers, who skim over this as so much evopsych bio-babble and likely haven’t seen cats mating in this age of near-universal spaying/neutering. “Lordosis” is about passively cooperating with being mounted by sticking up one’s rear.3
So, what ‘switching or triggering function’ might be failing in ‘the female response’? Or do we just ignore this entire passage as so much infodumping by Sheldon, her “showing her homework” in prolixly explaining some quasi-scientific justification of the men-murdering-women which we are well-acquainted with by this point?
All of this has a simple and satisfying explanation: the alien attack affects women as well. In both genders, the sexual instincts are deranged: the men act to kill, and the women to be killed.
This resolves the mysteries; absolves Sheldon from the charges of incompetent worldbuilding, superficial storytelling, and thorough misogyny; adds additional parallelism (the male unreliable narrator is followed by a female unreliable narrator, etc), and considerable depth (the length is because of the passive witnessing); and explains the digression into feline mating behavior.
This interpretation has one problem itself: the eponymous anti-insect intervention, which is still employed today on a mass scale, is about one sex only (sterile males). Doesn’t the title of the story demand we interpret the attack as solely about males?
I disagree. Should we take the screwfly sterile insect technique as a mechanical analogy/allegory? After all, in none of the sterile insect technique applications do the sterilized insects kill the opposite sex, and the humans do not act like the insects. So the analogy is only partial and can’t be insisted upon as holding exactly in every detail. Given all the problems with insisting only the male sex is affected, I don’t find adding another point of dis-analogy to negate all the advantages of the bisexual interpretation.
A further counterargument is that there is yet another symmetry here, missed if one focuses only on screwflies: there are 3 examples of sterile insect technique are listed throughout the story—the screwfly, but also the “Spruce budworm” and the “canefly”. These 3 examples do not all operate the same way: female screwflies mate only once, so a sterile male must successfully ‘mate’ to eliminate a female; while for the Spruce budworm, “It seems it blocks the male from turning around after he connects with the female, so he mates with her head instead.”; and for caneflies, one interferes in massed coordinated reproduction, where you “Concentrate the pheromone, release sterilized females”. (Another interesting society-level chemical attack is the juvenilizing MV-678.)
The Spruce budworm example seems to be plausible if not entirely factual (the sterile insect technique was used on the tobacco budworm—an authorial error?), but I find no references to the sterile insect technique for any ‘canefly’, nor is there any ‘canefly’ which is a major human parasite. This is striking given the other 2 examples, screwflies & budworms, are real. Why did Sheldon feel the need to make up a fictional intervention involving modifications to females if she intended the male-only interpretation? The presence of low-tech human technological attacks on males and females separately suggests that we look for a ‘missing’ attack, and that would be an attack on both sexes. And it would then stand to reason that a higher-tech civilization (the aliens) might employ this much more effective bisexual attack on pests which are much more adaptable and difficult to exterminate than any insect: humans. So even here, the bisexual interpretation gives a superior reading, and a further twist.
Such strategies are best used for total eradication or not at all, otherwise, like insecticides or antibiotics, survivors may evolve resistance. Even a single resistant male can result in a population becoming resistant almost overnight, given intense selection; a remarkable recent example is “The Evolution of Sex Ratio Distorter Suppression Affects a 25 cM Genomic Region in the Butterfly Hypolimnas bolina”, et al 2014 , which demonstrates Fisher’s principle in the real world, when a parasite caused a 100:1 female:male sex ratio, which after a century of stasis (!), collapsed to 1:1 in 5 years once a resistant mutant finally immigrated from elsewhere. Thus, if one uses a single intervention affecting only one sex, one cannot simply walk away: the job must be monitored & more work done until complete extinction is confirmed.↩︎
While this might seem unreasonably obscure a reference, lordosis has been the subject of a fair amount of investigation, some of it quite macabre, like the experiments in seeing how much brain could be removed from mice or cats while still being able to mount or do lordosis, which I read about for my hydrocephalus essay; those specific studies were a few years after “Screwfly” was published, but there was work before then, and it’s entirely possible that Sheldon knew of such work given her scientific specialty.
Like Cordwainer Smith (who incidentally, like Sheldon, also worked in US intelligence) and the “pain of space”, would be another example of how literary-supremacist interpretations of SF stories, neglecting the contemporary scientific knowledge informing SF, leads to distorted interpretations.↩︎