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"James Tiptree, Jr.": The amazing lives of writer Alice B. Sheldon
Special to The Seattle Times
"James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon"
From the opening montage of contradictory scenes in her subject's amazing life, to its copious citations of sources, Julie Phillips' biography of science fiction's trickster genius is a wonder. In "James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon" she renders an accurate portrait of a writer who refused to be simply one thing.
As Tiptree, and under a second, female pseudonym ("Raccoona Sheldon"), Alice B. Sheldon won the genre's major awards multiple times. A few years after her death, the influential new James Tiptree Jr. Award for feminist-themed science fiction was named for her — or him. Tiptree's/Sheldon's importance to the field has never been in doubt, but as Phillips shows, questions about her identity and gender began long before the construction of the Tiptree persona, and continued even after this "ineluctably masculine" author (to quote colleague Robert Silverberg) proved to be, in Sheldon's own words, an "old lady in Virginia."
Julie Phillips will read from "James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon" at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com); and at 7 p.m. Aug. 31 at Island Books on Mercer Island (206-232-6920; www.mercerislandbooks.com).
Phillips' account of Sheldon's childhood starts with sketches of her mother, Mary Hastings Bradley, a popular early 19th-century novelist and African explorer, an overwhelmingly charismatic yet dauntingly ladylike woman. Moving chronologically from Sheldon's birth in 1915, through African safaris in 1921, 1924, and 1930, summers running wild in the Wisconsin woods, and a short stint at a Swiss finishing school, Phillips fleshes out dates and names with intense emotional revelations gleaned from Sheldon's letters, journals, and essays.
She continues this technique through colorful events any biographer would include: Sheldon's society debut, her Army Intelligence and CIA service, her four years operating a chicken hatchery, her marriages and her extramarital affairs with men and women.
In addition to sharing vivid glimpses of this reclusive science-fiction legend's personal life, Phillips connects Sheldon's story with Tiptree's and Raccoona's written work. She goes beyond drawing obvious parallels between the alienation most women experience in a culture dominated by masculine values and the literal aliens of the genre — Phillips sees her subject's long-suppressed-because-it's-so-unladylike anger as the source for much that fans found disturbing and exciting in her fiction.
Phillips gets even more specific at times, as when she points to Sheldon's study of clinical psychology as the genesis of her story "The Psychologist Who Wouldn't Do Awful Things to Rats," or the role familiarity with Pentagon bureaucracy played in her most famous short story, "The Women Men Don't See."
Sheldon submitted her first story as Tiptree in 1967, and introduced Tiptree's "protégé" Raccoona in 1972. Though as Tiptree she corresponded freely with fans and other writers, she refused to meet face-to-face. Sheldon was unmasked in 1976 by the death of her mother; friends put together Tiptree's letters about his mother's death with the obituary of Mary Hastings Bradley, and the mysterious male feminist was no more.
Though she classifies the stories written after Sheldon's outing as weaker, Phillips believes the revelation itself made little difference in how she was treated. Others dispute that. Local author and critic L. Timmel Duchamp laments the way in which the collapsed Tiptree "hoax" and the author's new feminine identity overshadow Sheldon's originality and brilliance.
Still, those who acknowledge her influence range from William Gibson ("Neuromancer" and "Pattern Recognition") to Karen Joy Fowler ("What I Didn't See" and "The Jane Austen Book Club").
In a marketplace littered with coolly calibrated best-sellers by imaginary authors such as JT Leroy and Nasdijj, "Double Life's" tale of Sheldon's nine-year deception captures a rare, innocent glee, a spirit that could be summed up in her advice to those who wanted to imitate Tiptree's fast-paced style: " ... start from the end and preferably 5,000 feet underground on a dark day and then don't tell them."
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company