Science fiction's female mystery man

Review Biography

August 13, 2006|By CHARLES MATTHEWS | CHARLES MATTHEWS,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

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

Julie Phillips

St. Martin's / 480 pages / $27.95

In 1921, at the age of 6, she went with her parents, who were Chicago socialites, on an African safari, and she returned to Africa with them twice before she was 16. She was educated in a Swiss boarding school and at Sarah Lawrence, got married, had an abortion, divorced, joined the Army in World War II, married a colonel, raised chickens, worked for the CIA, got a doctorate in psychology, and was an ardent feminist even in the June Cleaver era of the 1950s. She was beautiful, witty and bisexual (though she seems never to have acted on her desires where women were concerned).

She was also bipolar and addicted to cigarettes and amphetamines. Over the course of two weeks in 1976, her biographer tells us, she popped "Seconal, phenobarbital, Dexedrine, Compazine, codeine, Percodan, Valium, Demerol, and Numorphan ... a synthetic form of morphine." In May 1987, at the age of 71, she shot her blind, 84-year-old husband in the head while he was sleeping, then lay down beside him and killed herself.

But none of that is why the people who know about Alice Hastings Bradley Davey Sheldon remember her. What they remember of her is her persona: James Tiptree, Jr., author of dark, sexy, imaginative stories that her biographer, Julie Phillips, characterizes as "like urgent messages from some haunted house on the corner of Eros and Mortality."

For almost a decade, from the spring of 1967 to the fall of 1976, Sheldon persuaded not only science fiction readers but also the people who edited and published her stories, as well as fellow writers such as Ursula Le Guin, who corresponded with her, that she was a swaggering but reclusive man. She borrowed the surname from the British Tiptree line of jams and marmalades, which she had seen in the supermarket. The friends with whom she corresponded knew him as "Tip." He won the top science fiction awards, the Hugo and the Nebula, though he never showed up in person to accept them.

There was wild speculation about Tiptree. Because the women in his stories were treated with sympathy and insight, there were rumors that he was really a woman. Others, such as Le Guin, suspected that he was gay. Some fans imagined him as a tall, thin, "immensely handsome," pipe-smoking man. The writer Barry Malzberg "wondered if he was really J.D. Salinger." In the Watergate era, because Sheldon had originally used her own address in McLean, Va., when she corresponded with publishers, there was speculation that Tiptree was some shadowy government figure, maybe even Henry Kissinger.

One of her fans was David Gerrold, who had written the classic Star Trek episode "The Trouble With Tribbles." He had corresponded with Tiptree at the McLean address, so when he was in the area in 1969 he decided to drop in. He was met at the door by a woman in her 50s, who persuaded him that there had been some mistake. Sheldon then went out and rented a post office box, and Tiptree wrote Gerrold that he had recently moved.

Tiptree's identity was safe until Sheldon's mother died and her obituary appeared in the Chicago Tribune. Tiptree had told his correspondents that his mother was "an elderly explorer living in Chicago" - a clue that was just too strong for the secret to remain hidden from eager investigators. Pressured by rumors that she was Tiptree, Sheldon confessed. And thus Tiptree was emasculated - Sheldon could never again confidently write letters in his voice, and even the fiction began to lose something of its bravura.

Science fiction is so often thought of as "read by boys with faces full of acne and brains full of cyberspace, girls with stringy hair and fierce imaginations," as Phillips puts it, that the fascinating life story of Alice Sheldon and James Tiptree may be unfamiliar to people not drawn to the genre. But hers is not only a story about a science fiction writer: It's also a life central to the culture of the 20th century. Sheldon's story spans from a time when white hunters went into darkest colonial Africa to shoot game and encounter "cannibals," to a time when human beings walked on the moon.

More important, Sheldon's was the life of a 20th-century American woman who both rebelled against and capitulated to the restrictions placed on women. She was alternately intrepid and timid, bold and conventional. She was attracted to other women - and some men - but she dutifully remained married to her second husband, Huntington "Ting" Sheldon, for 42 years. And though she was one of the most searching and provocative feminist writers in a genre heavily dominated by misogynistic "rocket jocks," she chose to do so in the guise of a man.

(She's commemorated by the Tiptree Award, which annually goes to a science fiction or fantasy writer whose work explores questions of gender.)

Phillips, a journalist, spent almost 10 years writing Sheldon's story. If there's a flaw to her book, it's that Sheldon's life is almost over-documented - Phillips had so much material to work with, so many letters and journals, that the shape and import of the life sometimes fades into a blur of facts. And we lose sight of figures such as Ting Sheldon, who were key to her life. As a character in the narrative, Ting is less convincingly real than the imaginary Tip.

But this is an utterly absorbing and provocative book, one that should delight science fiction fans but should also open the eyes of the general reader to the mystery and wonder not only of the genre but also of the people who create it.

Charles Matthews is a former book editor at the San Jose Mercury News.

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