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James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (2006)

by Julie Phillips

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6602724,577 (4.37)92
James Tiptree, Jr. burst onto the science fiction scene in the 1970s with a series of hardedged, provocative short stories. Hailed as a brilliant masculine writer with a deep sympathy for his famale character, he penned such classics as Houston, Houston, Do You Read?and The Women Men Don't See. For years he corresponded with Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison,Ursula Le Guin. No one knew his true identity. Then the cover was blown on his alter ego: A sixty-one-year old woman named Alice Sheldon. As a child, she explored Africa with her mother. Later, made into a debutante, she eloped with one of the guests at the party. She was an artist, a chicken farmer, aWorld War II intelligence officer, a CIA agent, an experimental psychologist. Devoted to her second husband, she struggled with her feelings for women. In 1987, her suicide shocked friends and fans. The James Tiptree, Jr.Award was created to honor science fiction or fantasy that explores our understanding of gender. This fascinating biography, ten years in the making, is based on extensive research, exclusive interviews, and full access to Alice Sheldon's papers… (more)
Recently added byprivate library, NankoTeunis, yulischeidt, bradleyhorner, Rob1957, Kharisma1980

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» See also 92 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 27 (next | show all)
This biography of Alice Sheldon is brilliant. Brilliant, but sobering.

I didn't imagine there would be such depth and investigation going into Alice's life, but not only do we get the character of it, but we get the whole glorious, convoluted, conflicted joy, sadness, and understanding of this person.

I mean, sure, the later-life effects of her writing under the well-respected pseudonym of Tiptree and her increasingly difficult dodges she had to perform to keep her secret from all of fandom and the friends she made from other authors was pretty fun, sad, and freaking fantastic. But when we see all of this through the eyes of her personal feminism and the resulting blowback in the SF field, the whole subject takes on a very poignant and relevant light.

She was very conflicted on the whole subject and it shows.

She led a rich life, from being the daughter of a popular novelist, living in Africa during the heyday of the Great White Hunter legends as a kid, to always knowing she never BELONGED anywhere, of how she was driven by rage as a woman while always having to put on a happy face, to her days as a professional painter learning from the greats, to her short stint as a critic, her joining the military during WWII, to her life as a chicken farmer, to her time as a CIA analyst, to her time as a psychological researcher on perception, to her much later career as an SF author.

What started as a joke turned into a name thrown into fame. She was a man who finally understood women! (Never mind that so many of the stories are DARK, dystopian, highly sexualized male-dominated stories full of institutional and personal abuse... and both sexes were to blame.)

The biographer gave us everything in Alice's life. Her lesbian desires, never fulfilled, her rebellious decision to elope with a man who was just as angry as her, to finding deep companionship with her second husband while never really getting what she really desired. Compound this with her agreement with him to form a suicide pact when things got to be too difficult, and then, at the end, after much illness and depression, she kills her husband and then herself, the picture becomes quite as dark as her fiction.

But this is not the whole story. Of course. She suffered lifelong depression and rage at the world, but it was science and the drive to build something lasting that brought her the most joy. Her core belief revolved around anti-entropy. I thought it was beautiful. She was always rational and deliberate. How she went about saying goodbye to everyone was as thoughtful as it was heartbreaking.

I've never read a more multi-faceted and rich biography. Of course, I can also blame the woman who is the subject of it for giving so much interesting fodder in the shape of her life.

Yes, it's a difficult life, too, but it was full of something really special. It might even go a long, long way to redefining our understanding of history. From a humanist perspective.

Just. Wow. What an interesting person.
( )
  bradleyhorner | Jun 1, 2020 |
I can't remember if I started reading Tiptree's bizarre but often good for a mindf**k stories before I knew that she had been outed as a female writer. This biography is a fascinating tour through her upper-class explorer childhood, to stints as a WAC to working at the CIA. Finally she falls into putting her tortured psyche into stories and the literary friendships with many famous figures from the SF world of the 60s and 70s. It does get bogged down at times with the personality analysis, by the author and the subject, but it was overall a good read for a biography. ( )
  cindywho | May 27, 2019 |
I'm in love with this woman! Also, I need to read some more Tiptree. ( )
  akaGingerK | Sep 30, 2018 |
“What I do with emotion is not, strictly, to ‘bottle it up.’ I parcel it out. I make it drive me in work; I try to use it to understand the world; I occasionally try to form or express little bits in objective writing or drawing; I try to stay out of situations which encourage it; I take it out in physical exertion – and what still can’t be handled I do ‘bottle up’ and sit on. What else can one do? […]”

Alice Sheldon in “James Tiptree, Jr. - The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon” by Julie Phillips

Biographies have traditionally had a complex relationship with "truth." Hesketh Pearson's brilliantly readable mid-twentieth-century biographies favour "good stories" over the boring facts. Julie Phillips didn’t have to tackle one of the most difficult things in writing a biography: correct the distortions and myths in previous biographies. It was all a blank sheet. Phillips seems to favour the "bag of facts" approach to biography which has been gaining favour but this too has its problems – notably, that reading such a book tends to be a chore, not a pleasure. The challenge, I think, is to keep a balance between telling the story and being rigorously, “checkably” factual.

When it comes to autobiographies, you sit down with your blank sheet of A4 and start sucking your pencil (or your mouse), desperate for inspiration; isn't the mining of your own life likely to be more quickly and readily available at all hours of day and night and perhaps require less effort than having to pass what you have learned of the nature and life of other people through a process of synthesis and precis and imaginative marshalling? There may also be the thought that the hanging out of dirty linen (linen from best Irish flax?) on a public washing line may be helpful to one's own bruised psyche. Though full disclosure is very fashionable these days, of course, I'm not sure this is necessarily therapeutic. This also applies to biographies. Just as in so many films a scene airing much emotion is accompanied by a sly, tinkling, solo piano as the filmmakers slip into telling-you-what-to-feel mode. Perhaps we can make a distinction between a case where a writer dishes the dirt on him/herself, with little collateral damage caused, and a case where Big Bertha transmogrifies into a cluster bomb and the havoc spreads inexorably from the centre, like a pebble chucked into the Tralee Ship Canal outside Blennerville.

Tiptree/Sheldon was literally a Feminist-in-Disguise for generations. I'd agree she doesn't fit the current shrill, superficial version of feminism that is sometimes just online shaming (and not all that progressive often) but I'd wager she's going to have a lot more credibility as a feminist in 100 years’ time and all the twitter "feminists" will be forgotten along with the motherhood-on-a-pedestal Victorians, the racist anti-Union feminists of the early 1900s and the anti-sex pro-Reagan 1980s groups. Feminism is a very old and long tradition. I think he/she had been thinking about it lucidly for a lot longer than most all of us. Too bad his/her story ended the way it did. We may never know what it really happened and what made him/her do it.

Without delving much deeper into the book, I would say the aim of any writer is to publish something that sells. In the book blogosphere, I meet lots of people who think they can write, including two or three who think they can write so well, that they want to charge people to listen to their advice on what these people should be reading. They call themselves bibliotherapists. I can't tell you how desperate I am to tell them that they are living in cloud cuckoo land and that the country is full of bin men, shop assistants and dog walkers who are in every way equal, but haven't got their brass necks. I imagine a lot of writers who pick an unusual subject - like writing about a writer such as Tiptree - have had enough of emptying bins or walking dogs. That also goes for Biographers.

As one alien said to another after visiting earth, 'What do you think?' The other alien replied: 'Well the ones with the intelligence seem ok, but I'm not sure about the ones with the testicles.', and this coming from a Sapiens belonging to the latter; Tiptree belonged to the former.

NB: Must-read for those of you who love SF-of-a-different-Persuasion. Unmissable as well because of the letters between Tiptree/Sheldon and some other SF writers, namely Philip K. Dick, Joanna Russ, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

A coda:

“’And then about three o’clock in the morning Mrs. Sheldon called me back and told me that she had actually killed Mr. Sheldon. I remember she said, ‘Jim, I slain Ting by own hand and I’m about to take my own life, and for God’s sake don’t call the police, to give me time to do what I have to do here.’ And by this point there was nothing I could do. I did call the police, and they went over and found that both of them were dead.’”

John Morrison in ““James Tiptree, Jr. - The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon” by Julie Phillips

Tiptree/Sheldon was true to herself to the end of her days. Big testicles. What a woman! My kind of SF.

SF = Speculative Fiction. ( )
  antao | Apr 28, 2018 |
In the late 1960s, a new writer emerged on the science-fiction scene, producing powerful stories that explored the role of sexuality and gender unlike any author before. James Tiptree Jr. tackled often-controversial themes with humanity and compassion. He won several literary awards and garnered recognition both in and out of the sci-fi field. Although Tiptree corresponded by letter with fans and several notable writers – Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Harlan Ellison, and Philip K. Dick, among others – no one had met the elusive author or even spoken with him on the phone. In 1976, James Tiptree Jr. was exposed to be Alice B. Sheldon, a woman in her mid-60s. Tiptree continued writing and publishing until her 1987 suicide. In her legacy, she would remain an enigma.

The first biography on the author, Julia Phillips' James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, successfully explores this extraordinary life. More than a mere genre writer, Alice B. Sheldon had explored Africa by the time she was 6; run a chicken farm; helped, while in the Army, pioneer the skill of analyzing aerial photographs of potential military targets; and worked for the CIA – all before embarking on her writing career under the Tiptree pseudonym. Sheldon's mother, Mary Bailey, wrote popular African travelogues, one of which, Alice in Jungleland, the young Sheldon illustrated.

As Phillips unfolds the many incredible aspects of Sheldon's life, a troubled and unhappy woman emerges. She unhappily grew up in the shadow of her famous and successful mother. Sheldon lived during an era when, regardless of her ambitions and intelligence, a woman was expected to marry, be a dutiful wife, and have children – none of which she aspired to. She suffered from chronic bouts of severe depression.

Meticulously researched and beautifully written, Phillips parts the veil and reveals the woman that was James Tiptree Jr. Far more than providing a biography of an important and influential literary figure, she introduces us to one of the most fascinating and complex personalities of the 20th century.

(Originally appeared in The Austin Chronicle, August 16, 2006.)
Link: [http://www.austinchronicle.com/gyrobase/Issue/review?oid=oid:395759] ( )
  rickklaw | Oct 13, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 27 (next | show all)
In this excellent biography, Julie Phillips traces the threads of Alice Sheldon's remarkable life, braiding them together, teasing apart tangles.
added by lemontwist | editThe Women's Review of Books, Susanna J. Sturgis
 

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