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

St Martin's Press, 2006, $27.95
reviewed in Interzone 205, August 2006
 

Even before she was a person, Alice Hastings Bradley was a fictional character. At the age of six, she featured in a children’s book, Alice in Jungleland, written by her mother, Mary, a well-known author and society hostess. Here, Bradley described how, during a sea voyage to Africa, the young Alice was dressed as a doll and placed in a wooden box, after which she was carried into a fancy-dress party. Much to everyone’s surprise, when the box was opened Alice remained perfectly still, ‘just like a real doll in a box’.

The sense of relief contained in that anecdote is almost palpable, as well it might be, for Mary Hastings Bradley had a great deal invested in her daughter’s good behaviour. The  expedition which she had helped to fund was headed for the Congo, to film and shoot gorillas. Bradley had been publicly criticised over her decision to take her daughter with her and she knew that she would be permitted to take on the role of explorer only if she could also demonstrate that she was a competent mother at all times. Thus the young Alice Bradley became the unwilling centre of attention, required to appear immaculately dressed and well-behaved at all times, conforming to society’s demands in order to support her mother’s claim to a life beyond what society deemed proper. All the while, young Alice was, as she later acknowledged, the baggage on the trip, denied the adventures her mother craved, because she was too young

The irony of this was surely not lost on the adult Alice, whose lasting fame rests not on her work as a research psychologist, nor even on her career within the CIA, both carried out in her own name, but for her creation of another fictional character. James Tiptree, Jr. was the by-line who unexpectedly came to life, achieving a strong and vivid existence on the page, and providing Alli Sheldon, his progenitor, with a voice for all those things she felt she couldn’t say as a woman. As it turned out, Tiptree’s existence was to prove as fragile as that of Alice in Jungleland. When Tip’s true identity was accidentally revealed in 1976, it effectively robbed Alli Sheldon of her voice, while young Alice proved not to be a beautiful doll, but a troubled little girl who struggled hard to come to terms with life as an adult.

The story of how James Tiptree, Jr was revealed to be Alice (Alli) Sheldon, ‘nothing but an old lady in Virginia’, is now well known, but the territory between Alice in Jungleland and  James Tiptree, Jr has so far been little explored. Julie Phillips’ ambitious, multi-layered biography now reveals that the life of Alice Sheldon was every bit as strange and exotic as the life she bestowed on Tip; and more to the point, that much of his life was indeed her own.

For much of her life Alli was tortured by the  sense of not knowing who she really was. A confusing childhood left her with, on the one hand, a very well developed sense of her own artistic and intellectual abilities (among other things she was an accomplished artist and an excellent mathematician) but on the other, an inability to apply herself to her work in order to improve her skills. She wanted to make her own way, but was reluctant to give up the comforts of her parents’ house and money. Yet, she was stifled by her adoring mother; for much of her life, Allie associated love with possession. More than once she described her mother as a ‘queen bee’, needing to always be the centre of attention, but it is clear that the bond between mother and daughter was very strong throughout their lives.

Alli’s acquaintances – almost everyone interviewed for the biography seems to start by saying ‘I didn’t know her very well – clearly regarded her as a strong woman who conducted life on her own terms. However, her journals suggest that she was very uncertain about her gender identity and her sexual orientation. She could not come to terms with her wild crushes on women, none of which seem to have been entirely reciprocated, nor reconcile these with the fact that she preferred the company of men as friends, although all her sexual partners appear also to have been male. She could ride a horse, fire a gun, fish as well as anyone she knew; she puzzled over how a woman might reconcile such skills with motherhood and managing a home. In an unfinished essay, ‘Femininity and Society: A Discussion from the Standpoint of the Atypical Woman’, she wrestled with this dilemma, concluding that male and female were cultural categories, and that the sexes are really divided into men and mothers, and that the female reproductive system was a ‘vampire’, themes she would often return to in her stories. In the light of this, her eventual decision to more fully ‘inhabit’ her by-line is perhaps not so surprising, in that she was finally able to give voice to a part of herself that had remained suppressed for so many years.

One might wonder why Sheldon needed Tiptree so much as she seems to have done, considering the remarkable variety of things she tackled during her life. She had an impressive war-time career in the CIA, working on the interpretation of surveillance photographs. Later, she helped her second husband to run a chicken farm, work that turned out to be far more time-consuming than they initially supposed. Later still, she went back to university, finally becoming Dr Alice Sheldon, research psychologist. However, as Phillips shows, the work always came between Sheldon and her artistic side, rather as motherhood had got in the way of writing and exploration for Mary Bradley. Becoming James Tiptree gave Alli permission to write, providing her with a space as well as a voice. Whereas Woolf advocated that women should have rooms of their own in which to work, Alli Sheldon literally took this a step further, and created a persona in which to work. Having said which, I think that Phillips perhaps misses a trick in not considering that having attempted to present Alli as a feminist (I am not always entirely persuaded of the argument in favour of this), she never really addresses the fact that Alli transforms herself into, effectively, a male version of her own mother, or even, the man her mother would have most liked to be.

In Tip, Alice Sheldon seemingly reached her apotheosis, brief as it turned out to be. Critics agree that the stories written after Tip’s identity was revealed were never as good as those before. It seemed that Alli could write only by distancing her creative ability from her physical self; once the distance was removed, her writing began to wither away. With that went her reason for being. Alice Sheldon had all her adult life suffered from depression. She was terrified of old age, and terrified of what it would do to her and her husband. They had made a suicide pact, but at the point when Alli decided the time had come for them to die, Ting’s only problem was failing eyesight. It seems likely that her depression had convinced her otherwise; consequently, on May 19, 1987, she shot Ting as he lay asleep and then, after ringing a lawyer and her step-son, she turned the gun on herself.

Tiptree’s legacy is well-documented. The discovery that he was in fact she has prompted much critical discussion on how to read masculinity and femininity in writing, and taught a couple of generations of readers to be more careful about making judgements based on the author’s name and supposed gender. The James Tiptree Award is now an institution, promoting work which pushes the boundaries of our understanding of gender portrayals in science fiction; it is supported by one of the most fiercely loyal communities within the sf world.

Alice Sheldon has become very much overshadowed by her own alter-ego, and this biography is therefore a very welcome redressing of the balance. It’s all too easy for us to be admiring of the carefree Tip, pounding out his stories, or to acclaim Alice Sheldon’s audacity in creating this vibrant persona for herself. It’s far too easy to represent the creation of James Tiptree, Jr. as a conscious feminist statement, a thumbing of the nose to the masculine sf establishment. To do so is, I believe, to overlook what it was that drove Alice Sheldon to transform herself as she did. Julie Phillips’ carefully researched account of the life of Alice Sheldon is a stark reminder of what has happened to too many women, not only to writers, who have tried to find a balance between their daily and creative lives. James Tiptree, Jr triumphed but it was Alice Sheldon who fought every inch of the way, and Julie Phillips who brought that remarkable story to our attention.

Maureen Kincaid Speller

 

James Tiptree, Jr. was a meteor in the science fiction firmament that blazed very briefly but oh so brightly. The first stories appeared in 1968 and attracted little attention, but early in 1969 Galaxy published ‘The Last Flight of Doctor Ain’, and suddenly everything changed. This was a short, intense story about a man who loves planet Earth so much that he sets out to kill all its human inhabitants. It is an extraordinary piece of work which laid out all the characteristics we would come to identify with Tiptree: tightly controlled prose with not a wasted word, plotting that set the reader directly in media res and forced them to work out the context for themselves, and above all the curiously erotic equation of love with death. This was not doom-laden, but it was uncompromising. The science fiction world sat up and took notice.

Over the next few years a rapid-fire succession of such stories fizzed in the popular imagination: ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In’ which won a Hugo, ‘Painwise’, ‘Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death’ which won a Nebula, ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’, ‘A Momentary Taste of Being’, ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ which won both a Hugo and a Nebula, and in 1972 the masterpiece, ‘The Women Men Don’t See’ which would have won a Nebula (or at least should have done) but for Tiptree withdrawing it from the ballot. This was a time when the new creative freedoms won in the 1960s were bearing fruit and writers were producing intelligent and challenging fictions about sex, fictions that smashed the icons and ignored the conventions. This was a time when the narrow, inward turning world of science fiction had been bust open by the new waves of Britain and America, allowing in a new awareness of literary style and possibility. This was a time when feminism was suddenly having a huge effect not just politically but in literature also, and especially in science fiction. This was a time when writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, Harlan Ellison and others were producing some of their best work. And still nobody was doing anything like Tiptree. This was out of left field, dazzling, daring, taking some of the most tired clichés of the genre, aliens and spaceships, and setting them on edge so that they seemed to take you into areas no-one in science fiction had ever explored before. Two women in the jungle who ignore their male would-be protector and choose to go with the aliens? This was unprecedented.

The sheer exuberant originality of the stories was enough to capture the eager imagination of science fiction writers and readers, but there was something else which helped to make Tiptree the focus of everyone’s attention: his absence. Nobody met James Tiptree, there was no photograph, there was no biography. The mystery, coupled with such startling work, was too tempting to ignore. Fans began to construct their own biographies. The stories arrived from McLean, Virginia where the CIA had its headquarters, and the stories revealed an easy familiarity with the world of spooks, so Tiptree was clearly a CIA operative. The stories often featured the wild places of the world, which Tiptree must have visited on undercover operations. At one point David Gerrold tried to visit the address the stories came from, but encountered only a startled middle-aged woman who denied any knowledge of Tiptree; this was enough to start a rumour that Tiptree was really a woman, a rumour enthusiastically taken up by Harlan Ellison, though more, I suspect, in the spirit of goading a reaction than because he really believed it. Most people unquestioningly agreed with Robert Silverberg when he wrote in the introduction to Tiptree’s second collection, Warm Worlds and Otherwise, ‘there is … something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing’. Most people at this point included the wide circle of people with whom Tiptree, ‘Tip’ as he liked to be known, carried on an enthusiastic written correspondence, writers like Le Guin, Ellison, Russ, Barry Malzberg and the young fan Jeffrey D. Smith. For Smith’s fanzine, Phantasmicom, Tiptree submitted to an interview which spoke of upbringing in Chicago, early experience in Africa and India, time in the army during World War II, all supporting the very masculine persona. When Smith renamed his fanzine Khatru, Tiptree agreed to be one of only two male writers (the other was Delany) to take part in a major and very influential symposium on feminism in science fiction. Tiptree’s comments upset some of the other contributors, and he withdrew.

Along the way, Tiptree mentioned that his mother had been a famous writer. In 1976 he announced that his mother had just died. Smith checked the Chicago papers and found the obituary for Mary Hastings Bradley, survived by her daughter Alice B. Sheldon. The secret was out, but if fandom was dumbstruck, the effect on Tiptree was even more profound. In this masterful biography, Julie Phillips points out the quality of Tiptree’s fiction had already begun to trail off as Tiptree succumbed to pressure from editors to write a novel. Novel length did not suit the intensity and the rhythm of Tiptree’s prose, and the knock-on effect was beginning to show. Nevertheless it is also noticeable that although Tiptree went on to produce two novels and several collections of stories after her identity was revealed, never again would they approach the richness or the resonance of the early work. Something in the writing fed on the secrecy, on the licence granted by a masculine identity.

Julie Phillips’s biography brings us as close to understanding what that something might be as we are ever likely to get. She explores the pampered childhood in wealthy Chicago society, the big game expeditions in Africa when Alice was a frightened little girl, Mary’s success as a writer, the failed early marriage, life in the WAC during the Second World War and success in photo-identification which brought Alice together with her second husband, ‘Ting’, a period of chicken farming after the war then a brief stint in the lower bowels of the CIA (where ‘Ting’ had a long and successful career), the latent lesbianism, a late interest in psychology (Alice took her PhD just as her first stories were being accepted), the writing, the depressions, the dependence on ever more potent cocktails of drugs, the toils of growing old, and finally the killing of ‘Ting’ followed by her own suicide. It is a powerful story of an extraordinary life and told as vividly as we could possibly wish. Out of it emerges a convincing and disturbing portrait of someone unhappy in her self and able to function best only by becoming other. It is a dangerous practice to use an author’s biography as a way of explaining their fiction, yet it is nevertheless true that much in this conflicted life fed into the fiction, and the fiction could only really thrive amid the conflict.

We can never know how James Tiptree, Jr. went from journeyman to master of prose and plot within the space of four or five stories, that is part of the enduring mystery of being a writer; but through this vivid and readable biography we can discover something of what made her the finest chronicler of sex and death, of human evil and human hope, of loving the alien, that science fiction has ever produced. She blazed in our heavens for a very short time only, but her influence remains strong, profound and inescapable, and this is a superb monument to Raccoona Sheldon, to James Tiptree, Jr. and to Alice Bradley Sheldon.

Paul Kincaid