September 2006

Joanne McNeil

nonfiction

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips

Artistic, classically handsome, worldly, affluent, and charming, James Tiptree Jr. defied the science fiction writer stereotype, but her reason to remain anonymous was an unexpected one. Julie Phillips does great justice to the meta-sexual visionary in her page-turner biography, James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon.

It wasn’t that the '70s science fiction scene was an unfriendly old boy’s network. Quite the opposite, with the equal rights movement in full force, a number of talented women like Ursula K. Le Guin, Kate Wilhelm, and Joanna Russ (to name three frequent recipients of “Tip’s” flirty correspondence) gained proper respect and even won Nebula awards. Yet, better than any feminist speculative work, Alice Sheldon's experiment writing women’s movement-sympathetic science fiction under a male penname, really questions how readers gender the voice of an author.

Born in 1915, Sheldon was about twenty years older than most New Wave SF writers. She started writing late in a life full of other intellectual pursuits. Nearly every chapter in the book packs as much as one would expect in a single writer’s life, from her travels in Africa as a child and teenager, to married life in '30s Greenwich Village and Berkeley, and WWII adventures as a highly ranked WAC. Then she worked at CIA, got a PhD in experimental psychology, and of course, created James Tiptree Jr.

Phillips explains her name choice, “I have tried to call her Major Alice Bradley Davey Sheldon, Ph.D., by the names she used at different times, and have mostly taken the liberty of using the name she liked best: Alli.”

Although Alli threw herself into caprice (she said to her first husband, feeling his feet go cold before their shotgun wedding, “I don’t like people that are frightened of life”), she evaded personal relationships, as well as sexual ones with the gender to which she was most attracted. Only as Tiptree, the kindly but cool gent, could she finally articulate her sexual feelings for women -- and in brash weirdly erotic intergalactic storytelling.

Again, her sexual restraint was not out of custom (Radclyffe Hall published The Well of Loneliness in 1928), but shyness. Her willpower was as much an enabling force as it was an isolating factor. In journal entries about her failed attempts at pregnancy, she tells herself not to wallow in self-pity, and moves on, accepting the loss without any sense of regret. But that same strong voice prevented her from following through on her sexual and emotional desires. 

Such an internal conflict usually stops a biographer in his tracks, but Phillips turns in a fantastically incisive study rivaling that of Nancy Milford. And she is careful not to let the sensational aspects of her subject overshadow Tiptree’s unforgetable writing -- work that is now undeservingly out-of-print.

New Wave SF Cubmaster Harlan Ellison was one of the first to sing praises. He once wrote to Tiptree, “You’re the single most important new writer in science fiction today. Nobody touches you! Not me, not Delany, not Blish, not Budrys, not Disch, not Dick.”

Compared to similar twentieth-century literary circles the close-knit science fiction “New Wave” has received very little biographical examination. It could be because, stereotypically antisocial nerds they were, so few of their interactions were face-to-face. Like proto-netizens, they formed intense friendships by way of correspondence. So it is easy to see how an elderly housewife could fool them all into thinking she was J. D. Salinger or Henry Kissinger -- or anyone but a female.

Harry Harrison once wrote to Tiptree, asking him to reveal his identity. He explained that the science fiction community was made up of misfits and could accept any eccentricity. After all, Philip K. Dick was a “manic-depressive” and Judy-Lynn del Ray, a dwarf.

“Harry, there isn’t any interesting secret or goodie here at all, just one real neurotic,” Tiptree/Alli wrote back. She was completely honest and dishonest at once.

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips
St. Martin's Press
ISBN: 0312203853
480 Pages