James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon
by Julie Phillips
AVAILABILITY: Usually ships within 2-5 days
Publication Date: 2006
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Binding: Hard bound
Topics: Biography / Autobiography, Gay & Lesbian, Sexism / Patriarchy, United States
Description: What could be better than getting two biographies for the price of one? In essence, that's what Julie Phillips has given us with this spellbinding portrait of Alice Sheldon, the extraordinary woman who created stunning works of science fiction under the pen name of James Tiptree Jr.
Sheldon, whose unconventional life included a childhood filled with exotic adventure, a stint in the CIA, and an eventual murder-suicide, assumed Tiptree less as a pseudonym than as a masculine persona that allowed her to express many facets of her complicated personality, including profound gender confusion and a fixation with sex and death that surfaced in her brilliant, disturbing stories.
Ten years in the making, this biography does elegant justice to an enigmatic literary figure whose double life remained a secret for nearly a decade. In a word, it's unputdownable.
James Tiptree, Jr., burst onto the science fiction scene in the late 1960s with a string of hard-edged, provocative stories. He redefined the genre with such classics as 'Houston, Houston, Do You Read?' and 'The Women Men Don't See.'
He was hailed as a brilliant writer with a deep sympathy for his female characters." For nearly ten years he carried on intimate correspondences with other writers - Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, and Ursula K. Le Guin, - to name a few. None of them knew his true identity. He was so reclusive that he was widely believed to be a top-secret government agent.
Then the cover was blown on his alter ego: a mysterious sixty-one-year-old woman named Alice Bradley Sheldon.
A native of Chicago, Alice traveled the globe with her mother, the writer and hunter Mary Hastings Bradley. At nineteen, she eloped with the poet who had been seated on her left at her debut. She became an artist, a critic for the Chicago Sun, an army officer, a CIA analyst, and an expert on the psychology of perception.
Beautiful, theatrical, and sophisticated, she developed close friendships with people she never met. Devoted to her second husband, she struggled with her feelings for women.
An outspoken feminist, she took a male name as a joke - and found the voice to write her stories." With ten years of work, Julie Phillips has written a biography of Alice Sheldon. Based on extensive research, exclusive interviews, and full access to Alice Sheldon's papers, this is the definitive biography of a profoundly original writer and a woman far ahead of her time
Review(s): "In sf, Alice Sheldon's chief legacy is the James Tiptree Award, given annually for the best feminist sf. Her work blazed a trail that other women have followed. Julie Phillips does an excellent job in telling Sheldon's story." - Martin Morse Wooster, The Washington Post
"Journalist Phillips has achieved a wonder: an evenhanded, scrupulously documented, objective yet sympathetic portrait of a deliberately elusive personality: Alice Sheldon (1915 - 1987), who adopted the persona of science fiction writer James Tiptree Jr.
Working from Sheldon's (and Tiptree's) few interviews; Sheldon's professional papers, many unpublished; and the papers of Sheldon's writer-explorer-socialite mother, Phillips has crafted an absorbing melange of several disparate lives besides Sheldon's, each impacting hers like a deadly off-course asteroid.
From Sheldon's sad poor-little-rich-girlhood to her sadder suicide (by a prior pact first shooting her blind and bedridden husband), Sheldon, perpetually wishing she'd been born a boy, made what she called "endless makeshift" attempts to express her tormenting creativity as, among others, a debutante, a flamboyant bohemian, a WAC officer, a CIA photoanalyst, and a research scientist before producing Tiptree's "haunting, subversive, many-layered [science] fiction" at 51.
Sheldon masked her authorship until 1976, and afterward produced little fiction, feeling that a woman writing as a man could not be convincing.
Through all the ironic sorrows of a life Sheldon wished she hadn't had to live as a woman, Phillips steadfastly and elegantly allows one star, bright as the Sirius Sheldon loved, to gleam." - Publishers Weekly
"Finely detailed biography of a woman whose ascension as a cult figure writing as a man was the most visible facet of her fascinating and, in the end, tragic life.
Journalist Phillips's (Ms., Village Voice, etc.) superb depiction of Alice Sheldon (1915 - 87) as the woman behind the persona of science-fiction writer James Tiptree, Jr. is an extraordinary achievement.
A Chicago debutante who survived a quickie society marriage and divorce, 'Alli' Bradley enlisted in the army and became a WWII intelligence officer. After the war, she married fellow veteran Huntingdon Sheldon, and they both joined the fledgling CIA.
She also dabbled in graphic art and eventually earned a Ph.D. in experimental psychology. After more than a decade of publishing as "Tiptree," Sheldon's secret was revealed. Her life ended in a double suicide with her ailing husband.
Apart from the basic facts of her life, Sheldon's innermost thoughts were revealed to the world through her stories and the voluminous correspondence "he" exchanged with close friends, who, like Tiptree's readers, had no idea that it was a woman speaking to them.
Most, Phillips says, saw him as a manly man's writer, dealing with issues of sex and death-her writing was sometimes compared to Hemingway's-but one with an unusual talent for creating sympathetic female characters.
Phillips is more than adept at plumbing Sheldon's writing to expose her anger at the role gender plays in sex, creativity and power. A compelling portrait of a conflicted feminist. - Kirkus Reviews
A very long review from Book Review follows:
"Even in a science fiction writer's most inaccurate predictions, there are sometimes valuable truths to be gleaned. In an introduction to "Warm Worlds and Otherwise," a 1975 collection of short stories by the elusive and enigmatic James Tiptree Jr., his editor and fellow author Robert Silverberg attempted to sketch a portrait of a cult figure who had never been seen in public, and whose only tangible connection to the known universe was a steady stream of letters originating from a post office box in McLean, Va.
Though some fans believed that the mysterious Tiptree was actually J.D. Salinger or Henry Kissinger, Silverberg speculated that the writer was probably employed as a federal bureaucrat, around 50 or 55 years old, and enjoyed the outdoors.
Furthermore, Silverberg wrote: 'It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree's writing. I don't think the novels of Jane Austen could have been written by a man nor the stories of Ernest Hemingway by a woman, and in the same way I believe the author of the James Tiptree stories is male.'
As science fiction readers would learn just a few months later, Tiptree was closer in age to 61 but was an avid traveler and gun enthusiast who had worked for the United States government.
Also, James Tiptree Jr. was a woman named Alice Sheldon. Though Tiptree's narratives of alien worlds and alienation make up one of science fiction's most vivid and influential bodies of work, Sheldon, who committed suicide in 1987, has remained an incomplete canvas, accessible to readers only through her pseudonymous fiction and some posthumously published nonfiction, correspondence and poetry.
But in Julie Phillips's engrossing and endlessly revelatory biography, the woman behind the alias is at last allowed to step into the spotlight, emerging as neither a malicious prankster nor a defiant contrarian, but simply as a writer for whom science fiction proved to be the ideal genre to tell her own story.
Decades before her first piece of Tiptree fiction was published in 1968, Sheldon had become adept at juggling multiple personas. Born in 1915 to the Chicago socialites Herbert Bradley, a lawyer and real estate investor, and Mary Hastings Bradley, an accomplished author, young Alice had already traveled to Africa by the age of 7 and been called "the First White Child Ever Seen by the Pigmy Tribes" in The New York Times.
As a 19-year-old debutante she eloped with a young man, William Davey, shortly after meeting him at her debut tea, resulting in minor scandal, an abortion and a tempestuous union that would end in divorce seven years later.
At the onset of World War II, she dreamed of becoming a pilot, but settled for volunteering for the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps; in the military she would rise to become one of its first photointelligence analysts, discover the joys of Benzedrine and later meet another man, Col. Huntington Sheldon, known as Ting, whom she would also marry impulsively, but with whom she would spend the rest of her life.
In the years that followed, Sheldon would join the C.I.A. as a counterintelligence analyst, earn her Ph.D. in experimental psychology and operate a chicken farm in New Jersey - they were restless and uncertain times for her. She began work on a major treatise on aesthetics, then abandoned it.
Her marriage, though harmonious, had turned sexless, and she frequently found herself consumed by intense crushes on women that she could never bring herself to act on. She could neither envision a place for herself in the emerging feminist movement, then viewed with suspicion and hostility in popular books and mass media, nor publish the essays she wrote in defense of women's equality, and in her moments of deepest depression found solace in gazing at the stars. "There must be other races out there," she wrote in a letter to Ting in the mid 1950's, "watching our tiny yellow sun glimmering in their unknown field of the sky. Do they desire us as we desire them?"
It would take another decade or so for Sheldon to invent the identity of James Tiptree Jr. on a whim (after spying a jar of Tiptree jam in a local supermarket ), attach it to some science fiction pastiches she had been playing around with and submit the manuscripts to editors.
But by the early 1970's, Tiptree was unquestionably one of the brightest-burning talents in the constellation of science fiction. In her breakthrough short story 'The Last Flight of Dr. Ain,' published in 1969, she writes with sardonic affection about a scientist who spreads a deadly virus in hopes of cleansing the world of humanity, making a startlingly sympathetic character out of a man with genocide on his mind.
Traditionally male customs and rites of passage became familiar themes in her work: a story called 'Her Smoke Rose Up Forever,' published in 1974, let Sheldon, through the voice of a male narrator, express her yearnings for double-barreled 12-gauge shotguns and unconsummated female loves; while 'A Momentary Taste of Being,' a novella from 1975 about a space exploration team that learns their brains are about to become interstellar sperm, may be the greatest sustained dirty joke in sci-fi history.
Indeed, the very best Tiptree stories inevitably possess some element of gender displacement: in 'Houston, Houston, Do You Read?' a group of astronauts discovers a future Earth whose male population has been entirely wiped out, and whose remaining females have learned to get along just fine in their absence. ('As I understand it, what you protected people from was largely other males, wasn't it?' asks one guilelessly perceptive survivor.) And in 'The Women Men Don't See,' arguably Tiptree's masterpiece, a boorish man and two women are stranded in the wilderness after a plane crash; when they are discovered by a group of extraterrestrial wanderers, the women depart with the aliens, preferring to travel with the monsters they don't know rather than spend another moment with the monster they do.
With its dead-on depiction of a male chauvinist, this story probably helped advance the argument that Tiptree was a man, but it also allowed Sheldon to express some deeply felt frustrations.
One character compares, for example, women's quest for equal rights to an extinguished campfire: 'Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us. Men are more aggressive and powerful, and they run the world. When the next real crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish like - like that smoke. ... And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom, like the fall of Rome was. You'll see.'
The sincere, self-defeated plea is promptly dismissed by the story's male narrator: 'The last time I heard that tone," he remarks, "the speaker was explaining why he had to keep his file drawers full of dead pigeons.'" - Dave Itzkoff, Book Review