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Issue #132 - August 2006

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Who's That Girl

By Cheryl Morgan

Here we have something different. I’m not sure that I have ever read a biography before, let alone reviewed one. What is one supposed to say? How does one judge the quality of a biography? On the basis of the research? How would I know if it was good or not? On the understanding of the subject? As I never met her, again I wouldn’t know. One thing I can say, however, is that the choice of subject is absolutely vital. And in Alice Bradley Sheldon, a.k.a. Major Davey, a.k.a. Racoona Sheldon, a.k.a. James Tiptree, Jr., Julie Phillips has one of the most fascinating subjects a biographer could wish for. The back cover of my ARC (thanks to Gordon Van Gelder for working hard to get me one) says that the book took Phillips ten years to write. I can believe it. And it is worth every minute of that work.

The book is titled James Tiptree, Jr., the Double life of Alice B. Sheldon, but while Tiptree is by far the most famous of the roles that Sheldon played throughout her life, we have to begin with a girl called Alice (a name she reportedly disliked, preferring the more androgynous nickname, Alli).

Alli’s parents were amongst the top tier of Chicago society. Herbert was a successful property owner, Mary an equally successful journalist and novelist. Their big love in life was Africa. Little Alice Bradley went on her first safari at the age of six. Her mother used her as the central character of a children’s book, Alice in Jungleland. Reading what actually happened to Alli in Africa can only make you more impressed with Karen Joy Fowler’s story, "What I Didn’t See".

As the spoiled daughter of very rich parents, who had anything but a normal childhood, Alli did what might be expected of her. She rebelled; she eloped and ran off to California; she took drugs and had affairs. Her 20’s sound a bit like she was living out an Oliver Stone movie. Fortunately for her, celebrity magazines were not nearly so prevalent in the 1930’s. Judging by the picture on the cover of the book, she was a lot prettier than Paris Hilton.

Just when it seemed like Alli’s life had become a total disaster, there was a war. Enter Major Davey, an expert in the new discipline of photointelligence. You know, the sort of people who can show you a photo of light woods, point to some tell-tale marks and say, "see, squadron of Stukas, plain as day." The war also introduced her to her second husband, Colonel Huntington "Ting" Sheldon.

After the war, Alli shuttled quickly through careers. She worked for the CIA for a while (again in photointelligence, not as a covert operations operative); she and Ting owned a chicken farm for a few years; Alli got herself a PhD in experimental psychology. And eventually, around the age of 50, she became Tiptree, an award-winning science fiction author.

Up until this point the reader is always a little unsure. Phillips doesn’t have a lot in the way of sources of information about Alli’s earlier life. Much of her data comes from Alli herself, with the odd comment from equally suspect sources such as her first husband, William Davey. You wonder how much of the woman whose pen portrait is being painted is herself, and how much is made up by the author. Once Tiptree enters the scene, however, the story enters The Fields We Know. Phillips has the whole of the science fiction community to call upon. "Tip", as Alli called himself, was a prolific letter writer. There is correspondence with Harlan Ellison, Ursula Le Guin, Harry Harrison and Joanna Russ. There are comments from people such as John Clute, whom Phillips must have known would one day review the book (highly favorably, as it turns out. Tiptree’s life is full of concepts (conventions, fanzines) and people (Clute, David Hartwell) who are very familiar to me. It is like reading a family album.

Before we get to Tip, however, we need to look at some of the things that made him the man he was. Alli always had something of a feminist streak, but it was the end of the war that really brought things home to her. She, of course, had a successful military career, albeit mainly behind a desk. But there was no heroine’s welcome awaiting her. Meanwhile Rosie the Riveter had gone from being an essential part of the war effort to a covert agent of the enemy. Phillips explains:

Psychology books now pronounced working women "neurotic", unmarried women "unnatural," and educated women "sexually unfulfilled". When Alli read the popular 1947 book Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, she learned that women who worked outside the home were "masculinized," a condition which endangered their marriage, children and sex life. If women were unhappy in the home, it was the fault of feminism, which ranked with Communism, anti-Semitism, nihilism and archo-syndicalism as one of the "organized movements of the modern world gathered around the principle of hatred, hostility and violence."

For many American women it was a severe shock to the system; something that these days is probably only experienced by male-to-female transsexuals after they have completed their transitions and have starting living as ordinary women.

Alli was smart enough to understand that this was all about power, about men coming back from the war and wanting to regain the economic and political dominance they had enjoyed before it became necessary to ask women for help in order to defeat a common enemy. Here’s how Tiptree described the situation:

Incredible how the top dog always announces with such an air of discovery that the underdog is childish, stupid, emotional, irresponsible, uninterested in serious matters, incapable of learning — but for god’s sake don’t teach him anything! — and both cowardly and ferocious […] The oppressed is also treacherous, incapable of fighting fair, full of dark magics, prone to do nasty things like fighting back when attacked, and contented with his place in life unless stirred up by outside agitators. […] Once I learned the tune I stopped believing the words — about anybody.

All of this anger, however, was not sufficient in itself to produce James Tiptree, Jr. Writing as a woman, the best Alli could have aspired to would have been to be a shadow of Joanna Russ. But writing as a woman was something she seemed incapable of doing. Part of this may have been fear of having to live up to her mother’s reputation. Part of it was undoubtedly an understanding of the power relationships within society — relationships that were just as important within the science fiction community as outside of it. However, part of it also seems to have stemmed from the whole Tiptree charade having been cooked up by an incredibly complex woman with very mixed views about her own gender.

As we learn from Phillips, Alli often had strong sexual feelings for other women, but always lacked the courage to follow up on them. She reveled in being Captain Davey, later Major Davey, in the army, her ex-husband’s obviously masculine surname lending her an air of androgyny. She developed a successful writing career as a confident, flirtatious man at the same time as she was living the life of an aging suburban housewife. She strongly defended women’s rights, but at times claimed that she hated being a woman.

Perhaps the most poignant aspect of Alli’s life was the way in which Tiptree’s career nosedived after his pseudonymonous nature was revealed. Even though the majority of the science fiction community rallied round her — encouraged and ever begged her to keep writing — Alli herself was convinced that Tiptree would now be seen differently by his readers. Having been revealed as a "fraud", and indeed as a mere woman, she was afraid he would never be taken seriously again. It is a very understandable fear.

In addition, however, Tiptree’s inability to write with the same intensity after having to go back to being Alli tells us a lot about the creative process. It is perhaps this aspect of the story that prompted Clute to say that Phillips’s book "may be the finest literary biography I’ve ever encountered." You see, writing a literary biography requires that the author understand not only the subject whose life is being described, but her writing as well. Phillips shows us how Alli’s creativity was held in check my her dominant mother, given confidence by her getting a PhD, but freed from its shackles by the opportunity to write, not as Alice Sheldon, but as James Tiptree, Jr.

To write as intensely as Tiptree did, and in particular to do so at a time when classic works of feminist SF such as Joanna’s Russ’ The Female Man, Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and Suzy McKee Charnas’ Walk to the End of the World, were only just being published, must have been enormously difficult for a woman who grew up in polite society during the early 20th Century. Brought up to believe that her only hope of happiness lay in accepting the chains that society placed upon intelligent women, Alice Sheldon was unable to stand up and declaim her own freedom, even when friends like Le Guin and Russ and Vonda McIntyre had showed her that she was free. As Tiptree, however, she was able to raise her voice against the injustice of it all, even though even she was never able to believe that freedom was attainable. We should perhaps leave the last word to Ruth Parsons, the female lead character of "The Women Men Don’t See", who eventually decides to abandon Earth in the company of aliens rather than have to put up with men any more.

Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us. Men are more aggressive and powerful, and they run the world. When the next real crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish — like that smoke. We’ll be back where we always were: property. And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom, like the fall of Rome was. You’ll see.

Ah, Alli, so fortunate for you that you were born into different times. Had you been a generation or two younger you would have lived to start to see Ruth’s words come true. You would have found that the disgust you and Ting felt for the idiots in the Agency who caused the Bay of Pigs disaster was as nothing to your feelings about what went on prior to the Iraq war. You would probably have known Valerie Plame socially. And had you or Ting dared to raise a voice in protest you would have found that Karl Rove had leaked choice details about your youthful indiscretions to the tabloid media.

Then again, you might have summoned up to courage to attend WisCon 30, which could well have been a good thing. I, for one, am deeply sorry that I never had the chance to meet you.

Fortunately, thanks to the hard work of Julie Phillips, I have at least got to know you by proxy. You are, of course, an ideal biography subject, but it still takes a writer of great skill and dedication to bring a character as complex as you to life so vividly. Phillips, I hope, is saving hard for her plane ticket to Yokohama, where she might just walk away with one of those chrome rocket things that brought both of us such pride and fear. Wherever your smoke has drifted, sleep well, sister.

James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon - Julie Phillips - St. Martin's Press - publisher's proof

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
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