Friday, April 09, 2010

James Tiptree, Jr.

I just finished an excellent biography, James Tiptree, Jr.: A Life of Alice Sheldon. Sheldon was a science fiction author who only started publishing stories in the genre while in her 50s during the late 1960s. She wrote under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. and for a little over 10 years of her sci-fi writing career no one realized she was a woman, including her own agent. Tiptree corresponded by mail with writers such as Phillip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin, both of whom admired his work, and his stories received much critical praise. In his letters Tiptree used Sheldon's own autobiography as his own. In 1977 when Sheldon's mother died Tiptree wrote of it in several letters. This led many to deduce that Mary Hastings Bradley was in fact Tiptree's mother and, considering Bradley only had one child - a daughter, it revealed Sheldon's true gender. Sheldon's career dwindled after the revelation and she eventually killed herself along with her husband in 1987 in what was a sort of mutual "suicide".

Sheldon's struggle with gender and sexuality were central to her life and her stories. As a young woman in the 1930s, Sheldon found her options (largely, marriage) limiting. She questioned her sexuality and felt a strong attraction to women that she never really pursued due to social taboo. She certainly addressed issues in her stories that no woman could have written about during that time and been taken seriously. It was only under her male pseudonym that Alice could write freely and receive the praise and respect her writing deserved. Sheldon later said of the identity revelation in an interview, "A woman writing of the joy and terror of furious combat, or of the lust to torture and kill, or of the violent forms of evil--isn't taken quite seriously.... I think that for all of us the sense of being in contact with something that has the potential to do--or maybe (wow!) has done--real evil, gives a little thrill to reading. Some people seem to have projected that onto Tiptree. Maybe I did a little too. So to write on as a toothless tiger was shaming."*

*The quote in this article comes from Biography Resource Center, which you can access from home with your library card. This resource far outshines Wikipedia because the articles are written by respected authorities on the individual and come complete with excellent bibliographies.

Crown of Stars

James Tiptree, Jr.: A Life of Alice Sheldon

Out of the Everywhere and Other Extraordinary Visions

Up the Walls of the World

The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: 60th Anniversary Anthology
Includes "Women Men Don't See", one of Tiptree's more famous stories


La Princesse de Clèves said...

The Tiptree Award (since 1991)is an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.

Ragged Robin said...

I had never heard of it... very cool.