Tuesday, October 03, 2006

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

At the end of the summer, I finished reading Julie Phillips's excellent biography of Alice Sheldon's life. I remember being fascinated by some of her late work, stories collected in "Tales of the Quintana Roo", when I was younger. At the time, I didn't know that James Tiptree, Jr. was actually the pen name of Alice B. Sheldon, I only felt that in reading her stories, I connected with a very intelligent mind. Julie Phillips' biography of Alice's fascinating life is recommended to any reader who is excited by a person filled with boundless curiosity. It is certainly not strictly for Science Fiction readers-- the book doesn't get to the actually stories until its final third. Alice did not start writing as Tiptree until she was 51 years old. She was born to an author Mother and an attorney Father, who invested wisely in real estate in Chicago. Her family's wealth led them to go on Safari-- Alice's first Safari took place when she was six years old. The wonder and devastation she saw there marked her life forever. By the time she was 11, she had already traveled extensively in Africa during three different Safaris. This kind of exposure to other parts of the world transformed her experience of 'ordinary' American life. She certainly could not relate to other children her age-- Phillips describes a scene where Alice's elementary school teacher is discussing Africa and cannot get Alice to sit still because she had already been there. Experiences like this provoked her and frustrated her formative years. She was also marked throughout her life by her Mother's success in writing stories for national magazines and books. Alice later went on to join the Women's Army Corps, where she-- taking a little initiative-- ended up in military intelligence by the end of World War Two. This job later became part of a new government agency after the war--the CIA. She stuck with it for three years and then left to pursue writing. Her husband worked for the Agency for the rest of his life. All of these experiences were later drawn upon to create the persona of James Tiptree, Jr. The stories by James Tiptree, Jr. are fascinating as they have an inherent skepticism regarding the nature of human progress. Phillips constantly reminds the reader at the end of most chapters how Alice's memories contributed to the substance of her stories, and how Alice's own reality exposed her larger psychological problems. Alice witnessed first hand how the United States treated women as second class citizens after World War Two. This experience made her cynically view later feminist movements in the 1970s. Throughout her life she was a witness to human violence and cruelty, whether it was in colonial Africa or in the United States of America. All of this fed into her Science Fiction stories. Tiptree was something that started as a joke for her and then became almost an emotional release at times. She was able to correspond with so many fans, publishers and other authors under this persona, that Tiptree literally provided her with a second life. Tiptree was an elaborate game for her; his actions helped her through so many depressive moods. Unfortunately, the game only led so far, by the end of the 1970s Alice was taking numerous prescription drugs and was addicted to Dexadrine (something that started when she worked for the CIA). Her quick mind could only see one way out and she entered into a death pact with her husband. Finally in 1987, she shot her husband as he slept then herself. At that point she could not deal with growing old and losing her sensibilities in a world that grew colder. Julie Phillips new biography illuminates through a thorough study of all of Alice's stories and correspondence the life of a truly remarkable woman.

For a more detailed look at this biography, I highly recommend Carter Scholz's review of it in Bookforum.


The Screwfly Solutionby Raccoona Sheldon

Beam Us Home by James Tiptree, Jr.

The Women Men Don't See by James Tiptree, Jr.

suggested links:

The official site of Julie Phillips regarding the book in question, author interviews, excerpts, praise etc.

The Tiptree Award

Congo Journey - John le Carré writing in the Nation

Fantastic Fiction Uk bio

Publisher of "Her Smoke Rose Up Forever" tachyon

Alice's professor at Sarah Lawrence College and life long friend Rudolf Arnheim

1 comment:

Tom said...

Excellent review