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James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon
By Julie Phillips
ISBN: 9780312203856
Review by: Kim Wells


This biography of sci-fi great James Tiptree Jr, whom most of us know was really Alice Sheldon, is well-researched, interesting, and timely. I recommend it very highly for readers of Sci-Fi, readers interested in the history of 20th century women's writing, and anyone who has read the work of Tiptree. It's definitely one of the best biographies I've read, and it includes a nice spread of photos, as well as in-depth and well written research into the history of this great writer's family and past.

But it ultimately despressed the hell out of me, and I found myself not wanting to finish it.

I already knew what happened to her years after her "outing" as a woman writing science fiction using a man's pseudonym (some would say a requirement during the male-centered era in which Sheldon was working). I knew she had killed herself and her husband of many years, as part of a murder-suicide pact. I knew I would not want to read that part (thankfully, the details of the murder/suicide are handled gracefully, without even a touch of the tabloid feel one might fear.)

What truly depressed me was the similarity of such a brilliant person's biography to her science-fiction stories. In them, frequently, a person exists within an "alien" culture which doesn't (and often doesn't even want to) understand them.

Even during years where women were taking stronger roles in public life (details of the author's correspondance with such Second-Wave greats as Ursula K. LeGuin and Joanna Russ are included in the book's second half) Sheldon felt alienated as a woman. Even with a strong mother (who was a working writer herself), even with a supportive spouse, even with an adventerous life (it was rumoured she was a spy during the early Cold War, among other adventerous stories) Sheldon/Tiptree was very often sad/crazy/suicidal. Nothing really worked, ultimately, to make her "fit".

While there is an award today for sci-fi writers, named after and to honor Tiptree, defined on its website as "an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender" and therefore more encouragement for women writing in a still-male dominated field, I still think there is a long way to go before minds like Sheldon/Tiptree's are no longer aliens within their own world.

Read this biography. It is a testament to how far women writers have come in the last fifty years, from having to pretend to be someone they aren't to being able to be honored for strong writing no matter what gender. But the biography, and the life it describes, are also a testament to how far we as an equality-seeking culture still have to go. As long as one brilliant mind still cannot find a place as a writer simply because they have a gender that differs from the "norm," we are still not really postfeminist at all.

Finally, if you really want to do something about supporting people writing with the kind of intensity and talent of Sheldon/Tiptree, the Tiptree Award website suggests that at your next conference (or sci-fi "con") you hold a bake sale where the proceeds go toward the Tiptree Award Fund.

I love the idea. It reminds me of the bumper sticker saying: "It'll be a great day when our schools have all the money they need and the army has to hold a bake sale to buy battleships."

It'll also be a great day when great minds are honored for being great minds, no matter what their biology, and they are no longer "aliens" among us.

p.s. You might also, if you're interested in gender and science fiction, attend the Wis-Con. I'm going to try very hard to attend the next one, myself. Their website describes the con as:

"The world's leading feminist science fiction convention. WisCon encourages discussion and debate of ideas relating to feminism, gender, race and class. WisCon welcomes writers, editors and artists whose work explores these themes as well as their many fans. We have panel discussions, academic presentations, and readings as well as many other uncategorizable events. WisCon is primarily a book-oriented convention... with an irrepressible sense of humor."

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