The Man Who Didn’t Exist
James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon
By Julie Phillips
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006
447 pages, $27.95 hardcover (Canadian $37.95)
Reviewed by Susanna J. Sturgis
A six-year old girl from Chicago in the Belgian Congo, whose “mother walks next to her, holding a rifle and her daughter’s hand.”
A teenager huddled “under quilts in a cabin in the Great North Woods, reading Weird Tales.”
A nineteen-year-old debutante who “meets a handsome, dark-haired boy” and elopes with him five days later.
A “divorcée wearing three-inch heels and a fox fur jacket [who] goes down to a Chicago recruiting station and enlists in the army.”
And the culmination of all the above: “In 1970, a man who does not exist sits down at a typewriter. . . .”
Science fiction readers have already solved the riddle. James Tiptree Jr., the man who did not exist, set science-fictiondom on fire in the late sixties and early seventies. “He was a brilliant and original talent, with a voice like no one else’s: knowing, intense, utterly convinced of its authority and the urgency of its message” His star rose, and rose, and rose even higher.
As 1976 turned into 1977 the star exploded. James Tiptree Jr. was revealed as Alice Sheldon. When Tiptree was unmasked, Sheldon was 61. Science fiction was widely thought to be a young man’s game, then one of its giants turned out to be a woman whose produced her entire oeuvre in her fifties and sixties. And everyone who assumed Tiptree was a man—based not only on the author’s name but on the style and subjects of the stories and what was known of the author’s life—had some rethinking to do about gender.
In this excellent biography, Julie Phillips draws in and traces the threads of Alice Sheldon’s remarkable life, braiding them together, teasing apart tangles. She identifies themes and uses them to illuminate the stories. Deftly, she sketches the necessary backgrounds and foregrounds, among them white exploration of black Africa in the early twentieth century, women in the US armed forces, and science fiction.
Alice Sheldon, born Alice Hastings Bradley, was dealt a privileged hand, Phillips explains:
Her father, Herbert Bradley, was a lawyer who led three expeditions into unmapped Central Africa. Her mother, Mary Hastings Bradley, was a highly successful author of travel books and popular fiction. Both adult Bradleys were charismatic, energetic, public people whose adventures gave the family an exotic air.
Because Alice was an only child, she received their undivided parental attention.. Alice wrote of Mary: “She didn’t provide a model for me, she provided an impossibility.”
Alice accompanied her parents on two extended expeditions to central Africa, when she was six and when she was nine. As the first white child many of the Africans had ever seen, she was often the center of attention; at the same time, much of what she saw and heard was confusing, often downright terrifying. Human cruelty looms large in the stories of James Tiptree Jr. So does human insignificance against the vast and unforgiving forces of the universe.
Alice’s experiences both set her apart from her peers and left her with a deep desire to fit in. As a young woman she was torn between her desire to break free of her parents and her reluctance to give up the material comforts and social status that came with being their daughter. She was also, Phillips writes, “naive about opportunities for women, and knew little about the few hard-earned places a woman might occupy between dazzling success and married obscurity.”
Alice’s impulsive marriage at nineteen to William Davey was a disaster. By the time they finally split up, World War II had begun; seeking purpose and structure for her life, Alice Davey enlisted in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in August 1942. Although at first she relished being “among free women for the first time,” real life soon collided with unrealistic expectations and she railed against “the great betrayal of women by women.”
Trained as a photo interpreter, Captain Alice Davey was transferred to Europe in May 1945 to assist with postwar intelligence gathering. Her commanding officer was Colonel Huntington “Ting” Sheldon of the US Army Air Force. He invited her to dinner at the senior officers’ chateau. Captain Davey “challenged Colonel Sheldon to a game of chess, played blindfolded, and won. He fell in love.”
She didn’t, at least not until many years after they were married, but her marriage was the most important relationship of her adult life. Her temperament was all-or-nothing; from an early age she was subject to depression, and her downs were punctuated by amphetamine-sustained highs. Ting provided the ballast and balance she couldn’t create for herself, the grounding that made her subsequent achievements possible. How did he manage? This is the only noteworthy gap in the book, and the fault lies not with the biographer but with the lack of source material. From infancy Alice was surrounded by writers, and she was a writer herself. Ting was not; he left no written record. Perhaps more important, he was an intelligence officer during the war, and through most of the 1950s and 1960s he was a high-level policy analyst for the CIA. Self-disclosure wasn’t in his repertoire.
Alli—the nickname she embraced when her mother-in-law started using it—herself was employed by the CIA at a less exalted level and for only three years. Eventually she resumed the undergraduate education she had abandoned during her first marriage. In 1967, she received her Ph.D. in experimental psychology. However, Alli and academic science were not a good match. Alli and science fiction were.
Alice had been reading science fiction since childhood, perhaps drawn partly by settings and stories that were as exotic as her real life. In her early fifties, Julie Phillips writes, “it began to seem less like an escape and more like a discourse as necessary as the news. After the narrow, stifling fifties it offered new, longer perspectives.” Younger writers “began to insist that SF be taken seriously as literature, or wrote as though it already were. SF acquired real characters, atmosphere, social criticism, style. And it joined these qualities to what it already had, a vocabulary uniquely suited to imagining change.”
Alice’s earlier attempts to write fiction had led nowhere, but now “the stories started coming to her, when she was writing up her dissertation, studying for her orals, skimping on sleep, and using as much Dexedrine as she dared…. [T]he new stories were fast-paced, taut, energetic, and entertaining.” And ready to send out. Alli’s new status as a serious scientist may have been part of the reason she decided to publish her science fiction under a pseudonym. As the much recounted story has it, she and Ting were grocery shopping at Giant Foods. She spotted a jar of Tiptree jam. “James Tiptree,” she said. Ting added, “Junior.” By the end of 1967, James Tiptree Jr. had sold three stories.
The development of the Tiptree persona is a story that fascinates from any angle, and Phillips explores it perceptively, with great insight into the fundamentally indescribable process of artistic creation. Women writers have adopted male personas for a variety of practical reasons. Alli Sheldon seems to have become James Tiptree Jr. with little if any premeditation, but gradually Tiptree—“Tip,” as he was known to his correspondents and editors—struck off on his own. His writing matured; his persona took on depth and even a physicality that both was and was not Alli Sheldon’s. The early 1970s were a time of passionate feminist ferment in science fiction. The wild irony is that Alli Sheldon, who had been arguing with women’s roles and her own woman’s body for most of her life, plunged into this maelstrom in the guise of a man—a man who carried on extensive correspondence with the likes of Joanna Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin, Vonda N. McIntyre, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro.
Tiptree thoroughly enjoyed flirting with his female correspondents. From behind her mask, Alli could finally indulge her attraction to women. Phillips writes that Alli
never had an affair with a woman; she was always drawn to girls and women who didn’t return her love. She loved men, slept with them, married them, depended on them; men’s interest and attention would always matter to her. But loving women is one of her stories, a submerged plot within the public plot of her two marriages, another secret identity.
Particularly poignant is Tiptree’s correspondence with Joanna Russ. “It’s like corresponding with a conflagration,” Tip told another friend. “An absolute delight.” Russ may have been the only woman Alli ever met with whom she didn’t have to worry about coming on too strong.
Several years after Tiptree’s identity was exposed, Alli wrote to Russ:
It occurred to me to wonder if I ever told you in so many words that I too am a Lesbian—or at least as close as one can come to being one never having had a successful love with any of the women I’ve loved, and being now too old and ugly to dare try. Oh, had 65 years been different. . . .
Phillips says that “Alli’s story about her sexuality changed to suit her audience,” citing several other letters to prove her point. However, to me, the examples all sound like the same story told by a teller who wasn’t entirely sure what the story was, how much she could tell, or how much her listener might hear.
If the excerpts quoted in this book are typical, The Selected Letters of James Tiptree Jr. would be a lively and important addition to the annals of both feminism and science fiction; the collected Tiptree-Russ and Tiptree-Le Guin letters would be especially welcome.
Tiptree’s cover was blown for good in late 1976. Several of Tip’s correspondents knew that his elderly mother, the explorer, had just died in Chicago. Anyone who consulted the Chicago papers quickly found the obituary for Mary Hastings Bradley, at the end they learned that she was survived by one child: “Mrs. Alice Hastings (Mrs. Huntington) Sheldon.”
After the unmasking, Alli Sheldon continued to write as James Tiptree Jr., and occasionally as Raccoona Sheldon, but never as prolifically and rarely as compellingly as she had from 1967 to 1976. Tip’s accomplishments did not, it seemed, transfer to Alli, and Alli could not tap into the power and confidence she had had as James Tiptree Jr.
The editor Gardner Dozois wrote to her: “It wouldn’t surprise me at all to find that ‘Tiptree’s’ best work is yet to come.” Had Alli/Tip been twenty years younger and in better health, it might have happened. But Alli’s body and mind were both worn down; the resilience to rise to this formidable challenge just wasn’t there. The decade of Tiptree’s ascendance takes up about 150 pages in this book; the decade after the unmasking only 40. Still, between 1967 and 1976, during her sixth decade on the planet, she had secured her reputation as one of the twentieth century’s top science fiction writers and the creator of some of the century’s best short fiction. It seems uncharitable to fault her for being unable to regroup and start again.
Alli and Ting made a suicide pact: if one could not go on, the other would not either. Phillips strongly suggests that Alli was the instigator. Ting was 84 and almost totally blind, but otherwise not in bad health. She, more than a dozen years younger, was the one who most dreaded decline and death; she was ready to go, and leaving him behind was unthinkable. In the very early hours of May 19, 1987, she took his life and then her own. “The Washington Post said the police found Alli and Ting lying beside each other in bed, Alli holding Ting’s hand.”
James Tiptree Jr.’s and Raccoona Sheldon’s stories are widely anthologized, read, quoted, and remembered. In 1991, at WisCon, a feminist science fiction convention, writer Pat Murphy announced the establishment of the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, to honor fantasy and science fiction that explores and expands our ideas of gender.
From the moment Murphy and [Karen Joy] Fowler announced it, the Tiptree Award was a huge success. Fans came forward to volunteer at the [fund-raising] bake sales, design T-shirts, edit cookbooks. In turn, the award has inspired a new feminist energy within science fiction.
It’s all true; I know, I was there in 1991, and I chaired the 1994 award jury. The “Tiptree juggernaut,” also known as the “secret feminist cabal,” is one of the most astonishing organizing phenomena I’ve ever seen.
Murphy and Fowler sometimes claim that the award started out as a joke. Maybe. But, as Alli once said of Tiptree, “What started as a prank dreamed its way into reality” If it was true of Tiptree, why not of the award?
Julie Phillips begins her acknowledgments:
In 1994 I read an article on the Tiptree Award, by Suzy McKee Charnas, in The Women’s Review of Books. I ended up writing two articles of my own, one for Ms. on the award and one for The Village Voice Literary Supplement on Tiptree herself.”
While researching the latter, she read a few quotes from Tiptree’s correspondence. “I was hooked,” she writes.
What goes around, comes around. Tip lives. Spread the word.
Susanna J. Sturgis has been reading and reviewing science fiction since the late 1970s. Her essays, poems, and blogs, not to mention pictures of her dog and her horse, can be found at www.susannajsturgis.com.