James Tiptree, Jr.

by Julie Phillips

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Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Copyright: August 2006
ISBN: 0-312-20385-3
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 447

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James Tiptree, Jr., burst on the SF scene as a short story writer in 1969 and went on to write much highly-acclaimed short fiction in the 1970s. His fiction was feminist, powerful, unique, and uncomfortable. It garnered two Nebulas (and a third under a different name) in seven nominations and two Hugos in six nominations, and might have racked up more awards if he hadn't withdrawn several stories for various reasons. He also formed epistolary friendships with numerous science fiction authors and editors: Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Jeff Smith, Harlan Ellison, Barry Malzberg, and many others. In 1976, after mentioning the death of his mother, Tiptree (as well as Racoona Sheldon, another pen-name with a few short stories and later a Nebula to her credit) was revealed to be the pseudonym of Alice Hastings Bradley Sheldon, a 61-year-old woman who's private life was fully as remarkable as her writing and her public deception. Despite an understanding reception and urging by her friends to keep writing, Sheldon sunk into a creative and emotional depression after the loss of Tiptree as a public face. She partly recovered to write more in the 1980s, nothing as good as her earlier work, and then with her depression worsening and her husband's health failing, killed both her husband and herself in 1987.

It's difficult to overstate the significance of Tiptree in both the history of feminism in science fiction and as an influence on the field, and yet Tiptree is not as widely read or known by the average SF reader as other luminaries of the same era. In part this is because she was first and foremost a short story writer; she wrote only two novels, one published late in her life after her double-identity was revealed, and neither are as strong as her short fiction. Short-story writers have a harder time gaining popular recognition, but despite this and an SF writing life of less than twenty years, she belongs in the top ranks of SF authors and is recognized today by an SF award in Tiptree's name.

Julie Phillips's James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon tackles the monumental task of capturing in a biography the life of a woman who was a child on African safaris, a children's book illustrator as a child herself, a wealthy socialite, a painter, a WAC and aerial reconnaissance expert in World War II, a chicken rancher, a CIA analyst, a doctoral student in psychology, and a science fiction author. More importantly, it attempts to show her roles as daughter, husband, and often mysterious friend, as brilliant creative mind plagued with depression, and as a feminist from an era and upbringing where feminism felt different and lived differently than it would for those growing up far later in the 1970s. In all of those tasks, this book succeeds brilliantly. Phillips has not simply added background details to Tiptree the author or recorded the dry facts of a life (however complex). With painstaking research, frequent quotes from Sheldon's letters (as Tiptree and not), and respectful but thorough attention to motives and emotions, she has recorded the story of a person in all of her flaws, triumphs, and bright-edged tragedy.

Biography is not a common reading genre for me. I find it difficult to develop the same sense of attachment and investment in the biography of a person, with all its necessary messiness and unknowable corners, as I can get from a good novel. This is a magnificent exception, partly due to Alice Sheldon's exhaustive letter writing and preservation of copies of her letters and partly due to Phillips's skill. It helps, too, that Sheldon is a near-perfect subject for a biography; starting with her adventures through Africa as the first white child that many of the people they encountered had ever seen and continuing through her experiences as a woman in the armed services in World War II, she lived a life that casts light on corners of history that I'd never before thought of or explored. But Phillips is also constantly putting each event in context, showing how Sheldon viewed events from later in her life, and picking out emotional themes and struggles that weave the tapestry of a life together. I came to the end of the book not only fascinated (and entertained) by the adventures of a life, but also feeling a profound sympathy and connection to a woman whom I never could have met and a new appreciation for the problems that concerned her. This is biography at its best.

This is a long book and an extremely thorough one. I will warn that not all parts of it will be equally gripping. Those interested solely in Sheldon's contribution to science fiction will have to wait until halfway through the book before Tiptree enters the scene, and some of the quieter parts of Sheldon's life do drag in the reading. The context, though, lets Tiptree explode onto the scene for the reader in a resonance of how he exploded into the SF scene. Phillips provides the background and life details that explain Tiptree as a persona, that let the reader see through Tiptree to Sheldon and understand what role Tiptree filled for her. And, by that point in the book, Phillips has shown Sheldon to be such a decent, fascinating, and brilliant person that one is rooting for her wholeheartedly and can feel like one is sharing in the exciting, wonderful, fulfilling game that Tiptree became (and the tragedy and uncertainty that follows his loss).

The best part of this biography are Sheldon's letters. Her expressiveness and personality shines there; the dynamic between her and other SF authors and editors provides memorable quotes and fascinating opportunities to observe human interactions. As a long-time Usenet reader and letter writer (e-mail rather than paper in my case), I loved to watch how letter-writing worked in Sheldon's life, how she chose to express herself and how she let emotions out on the page that she had difficulty showing in person. This book is inspirational; if you have any letter-writing bent, it will have you wanting to write more, to practice more, to let more of yourself out on the page.

These letters provide insight not only into Sheldon but also into her correspondents. Harlan Ellison's letters, for instance, are a hoot, and from Sheldon's story one can see both why he's important and respected in SF and also why he can be so difficult and frustrating. In other cases, the letters showed a side of writers such as Ursula Le Guin that I would never have thought about (and which I think may have been difficult for them to show even just as part of Sheldon's story). Tiptree formed epistolary friendships that touched people deeply, and from the quotes and excerpts here, everyone she touched is humanized and given new depths.

I am in awe of the research and dedication that Phillips clearly put into this book and her ability to tell the story of another person while keeping herself so firmly in the background. She has attempted to put herself into Sheldon's head enough to write a biography about what mattered to her rather than the biographer. I can't judge the success myself, having no other knowledge of Sheldon with which to judge it, but it feels right, and from the endorsements by Tiptree's and Sheldon's correspondents, it apparently feels right to those close to Sheldon as well. I never felt like Phillips was intruding, pushing her own view or agenda, or treating her material with any less than dignity, respect, and consummate professionalism. An example: buried in an appendix is a comment that Alice Sheldon left instructions that her letters only be read if her correspondent agreed and a brief comment that one person (Yarbro) declined and therefore those letters are not shown here. I found this deeply impressive, not only because of Phillips's respect for Sheldon's and Yarbro's wishes, but also because she could have made a point of this for so many reasons and instead downplayed it entirely.

This book passes academic muster in form and detail too. Quotes are attributed, sources and materials are clearly noted (with extensive quote-by-quote commentary in an appendix), and ambiguity and conflicts are noted. This work wears its scholarship openly, without ever becoming stuffy or boring.

If you have any interest in biography, feminism, or the history of science fiction, I wholeheartedly recommend this book. I hope it wins the 2007 Best Related Book Hugo in a walk, but even more I hope it finds an audience outside of the SF community. Alice Sheldon, in all of her guises, roles, and lives, is someone who deserves to be better-known and better-understood; science fiction seen through her eyes is a different place and a different voice than we normally see.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-10-12

Last modified and spun 2015-12-26