James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

by Julie Phillips

Published by St. Martin's Press

480 pages, 2006


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The Mark That Lasts

Reviewed by Andi Shechter

 

For my generation, there are certain time-stopping moments. Where you were when you heard that President Kennedy had been shot or when you saw the Beatles perform for the first time? These were moments that, at least in some way, changed our world, or our lives.

Within the science fiction community, it might have been a time-stopping moment when you first heard that yes, James Tiptree, Jr. was the pseudonym of a woman named Alice Sheldon. I don't remember, though it's more than likely that I helped collate the issue of Locus that announced the news. In my world, it was huge news. But then Alice Sheldon left a huge mark on my world.

Author Julie Phillips doesn't even deal with those details until half way through James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon , a spellbinding biography of Sheldon, and with good reason. Alice B. Sheldon had such an interesting, standout intriguing life that it really takes a couple hundred pages to get to the point -- fairly late in her life -- when she adopted a pseudonym and started really writing, putting out the stunning stories that helped to change science fiction.

Maybe you don't think they changed the genre. If not, they came damn close. Tiptree's prose skills along with her breathtaking ideas brought science fiction to a different place. Not exactly a "new level" -- we already had some stunning writing during the time Tiptree emerged in the early 1970s. Call it a new wave, call it feminism, call it anything you like, but for many readers it was a heady time to be reading science fiction. We had Samuel Delany and Harlan Ellison, Ursula Le Guin and John Sladek, Joanna Russ, Kate Wilhelm and Vonda McIntyre. And Tiptree, who was also known as Alli.

Alice Sheldon had an amazing life. Even if she hadn't started writing as Tiptree and "Raccoona Sheldon" in the later part of her life, her biography would still be fascinating reading.

Sheldon was born to adventurous parents and spent some of her early years in the 1920 in Africa, which was still then the exotic "dark continent" where white folks went to colonize, shoot wild animals and bring religion and "civilization" to the "savages."

Sheldon's mother was a writer of travel books and fiction who wrote of their journeys (two of Mary Bradley's books were Alice in Junglemand and Alice in Elephantland). Alli (as she chose to be called and as Phillips refers to her (distinguishing her from her writer personas) attended a boarding school in Switzerland, debuted in a white dress as did young ladies of her social level, but she also wanted to work and create. She would never be content trying to be a traditional stay-at-home wife, and she came of age at a time in America when that was just barely possible (coming from a high social class and money helped). Along with joining the Women's Army Corps and developing skills as a photo analyst, she worked for the CIA, briefly, in its early years. She painted, she wrote, she got a doctorate in psychology. She married, divorced and married again, the second time to a man quite a few years older than she was. She continued to do new things, other things, not quite settling on one for long periods; she and Huntington Sheldon, her husband (who spent years at the CIA) at one time owned a chicken hatchery -- a rather odd version of settling down and becoming "gentlemen farmers." She and "Ting" traveled to Mexico and Canada, in search of quiet, peace and fishing. She never seemed quite content.

In this lengthy look at a complex person, Phillips pulls few punches. I squirmed at some of the talk. Not that I am squeamish about discussions of sexuality but I worried that the very private person, who hid behind a pseudonym for quite some time, would not have wanted us to know of her struggles over her desire for other women. While other girls of her time managed to deal with lesbianism, Alli never seemed to. It's not clear whether this was out of a lack of understanding of her own desires or a hesitation over how to make an approach. What is clear is that she fell in love and had wild crushes on women throughout much of her life. Her attraction to men existed -- she married twice and had affairs -- but the sexual component seemed to matter little. She told correspondents later in life that women were her true love.

Sheldon never seemed comfortable in her own skin. When she finally became the writer that she was, beginning in the late 1960s and into the early 70s when she wrote many of her most important and brilliant stories, she did so as James Tiptree, Jr., a name she and Ting created.

The nature of the science fiction community can bring writers together, and writers and fans can -- and do -- become fast friends. From the letter columns in magazines to conventions, the community developed, even without the Internet. Alli sent and received many fan letters and people got to know the writer known as "Tip." All these years later, it amazed me to see so many names of my own friends within that group; Alli hid behind post office boxes and half-truths about work and life (although David Gerrold did track her down at home). It was fascinating to read of Tiptree's communications with other writers of science fiction in a time when I was discovering the field reading those books and getting to know all those amazing authors. The community feeling of this world -- the thin line that separates pro from fan -- meant that fans would and did ask writers to write for a fanzine. In this case, it was Jeff Smith who as a young man reached out to Tiptree and became a fast friend. It was to Smith that Alli left her library and papers. Trust, friendship, sharing -- often at a huge remove.

I don't remember where I was when I heard "about Tiptree." I vaguely recall being saddened by the news. We wanted so much to know that there were men out there who got it, who understood feminism and what it felt like to be female. And I hate surprises. I do remember where I was the day I learned of her death, the hard-to-deal-with news that she had shot her husband then herself. Alli had considered suicide an option for many years and was constantly battling depression, though not very effectively. She didn't take very good care of herself and she died at 71. Ting, who'd lost his sight the previous year, was 84. They'd been together for over 40 years.

Reading many intimate details, I cringed only once while reading (after getting over the privacy stuff that perturbed me): author Marta Randall is dismissed as Robert Silverberg's "girlfriend." Phillips could easily have mentioned that Randall was also an author of science fiction, and that she served two terms as the very effective and hardworking president of SFWA in the early 1980s.

Had Alice Sheldon lived, she... I can't finish that sentence. I want to speculate, but who knows? She was frail, she was failing, she was depressive and anxious. But I still wonder what might have been. What would she have thought of the Tiptree Award, given since 1991, "for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender"? WisCon, the science fiction convention that gave birth to the award, just celebrated its 30th anniversary as a feminist science fiction convention.

Alice Sheldon had an amazingly full life, though it doesn't seem to have been fulfilling. She tried things few women tried, and she succeeded in leaving her mark. This is, I believe, the first biography of this amazingly important and interesting woman and, given her contributions to science fiction and to feminism, that realization surprises me. I didn't know her, and yet, I miss her. | June 2006

 

Andi Shechter has been a publicist, chat host, interviewer, convention-planner, essayist and reviewer. She lives in Seattle with far too many books, an old-but-cute purple computer, not enough soft toys (including a small but select hedgehog and gorilla collection), many figure skating videotapes and an esoteric collection of hot sauces. There's a Hugo Award on her mantelpiece which belongs to her partner, cartoonist and artist Stu Shiffman.