in Context is a new feature on this blog that examines the works of great authors in SF in relation to their life experiences. This week-long series of posts will feature a brief biography of the author, followed by an examination of three or four pieces of their fiction. For our first feature, I introduce to you the Hugo and Nebula Award winner, James Tiptree, Jr.
It is no mistake that I begin this series with James Tiptree, Jr. “Tip” kept his life a secret from his admirers for most of his life, until the passing of his mother, when rumors spread that he was none other than Alice (“Alli”) B. Sheldon. Tip wrote throughout the feminist movement as a man, not in an effort to add legitimacy to her writing, but more out of a desire to live through a male persona. Make no mistake — Alli lived her life as a woman and in total, was married to two men (one briefly, which ended in divorce and another that lasted the rest of her life). She was consumed with understanding the role of women in society and used her writing largely to express these inner struggles. But she also had thoughts of what it would mean to be a man and in letters and diaries would write of her desires. Alli, who deeply loved her second husband, Ting, also struggled with her sexuality. Her letters suggest that she never had a sexual experience with another woman, but the longing to do so was an important aspect of her psyche.
There has been a lot of effort as of late promoting the equality of women in SF and it seems apropos to begin my in Context series with a woman, who for a decade was believed to be a man. Even Ursula K. Leguin, who frequently corresponded with Tip by mail, wrote, “I don’t think I’ve ever been surprised before [. . .] And it is absolutely a delight, a joy, for some reason, to be truly absolutely flatfootedly surprised — it’s like a Christmas present!” (Phillips 329) The discovery of Tiptree’s identity hit the SF world by storm, leading people who had never written to Tip before (such as Gene Wolfe and Alfred Bester) to pen a missive, offering their support.
Tiptree doesn’t just happen to be a woman — her writings focus specifically on women’s issues and her lengthy correspondences with Ursula K. LeGuin and Joanna Russ add a dimension to her writing. The gender and sexual ambiguity also creates a complex flavor to his fiction that makes it well worth reading and reflecting on.
My knowledge of Tip comes primarily through Julie Phillips stunning biography, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. In the biography, Phillips tells of Alli growing up in a household with a strong mother figure — Mary Bradley. Her parents were very much the socialites and her mother, a popular author in her own right, interacted with many of the famous writers of the day. They took Alli on two lengthy trips to Africa, where her mother hunted a gorilla and an elephant. Mary chronicled these experiences in a couple of adult and children’s books.
Alli later went to college and at nineteen, she eloped with a depressive, abusive, writerly type, whom she divorced shortly after. She then went on to serve in the Women’s Army Corp (in the middle of WWII), followed by a brief stint in the CIA. It was during her time in the Army that Alli met Ting, who would remain her devoted husband for the rest of his life.
Alli’s pseudonym came later in life when she and her husband were walking through a grocery store and came upon a brand of Tiptree marmalade. At first the name was a joke, but it stuck. Keeping her identity a secret, Alli submitted short stories as James Tiptree, Jr. Most writers respected his privacy; however, there were an occasion or two where people would show up at the house or Tip’s P.O. Box to try and identify him/her. Alli also wrote under the pseudonym of Raccoona Sheldon, who supposedly was a grade school classmate of Tip . In total, Alli published around 70 short stories and a couple of novels (which weren’t particularly well-received compared to her short fiction).
From 1967 until 1976, Tiptree’s identity remained unknown to the larger populace. Then, when a letter written by Tiptree reflecting on her mother’s death became public, rumors spread like wildfire that she was indeed Alice B. Sheldon. This led to a mix of emotions for Alli and even though she received a massive amount of support, she continued to struggle with depression and dwelled on those who were slow to respond or were critical of her writing. But Alli persevered and continued to write, mostly still as James Tiptree, Jr., but also as Raccoona.
For years, Alli had a pact with Ting (her idea, but he reluctantly agreed) that they would commit suicide before they were unable to take care of themselves. In 1987, when Alli was 71 and her older husband had gone blind, she shot him in his sleep, then killed herself, fulfilling the pact.
Tiptree’s fiction remains relevant today and there is an award named after him called the Tiptree awards, which recognizes works of fiction that explore gender issues.
This week we will examine the following novelettes/novellas that James Tiptree wrote:
- The Women Men Don’t See
- The Girl Who was Plugged In
- Houston, Houston, Do You Read?
- The Screwfly Solution
Stay tuned tomorrow.
Phillips, Julie. James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. St. Martin’s Press, New York. 2006.