Sunday, May 09, 2004

Alice Sheldon and James Tiptree Jr.

What do these names have in common? They both belonged to this person. I've been thinking about Tiptree stories a lot lately. I haven't read them for years, but I plan to pull out my copies of OUT OF THE EVERYWHERE and UP THE WALLS OF THE WORLD and refresh my memory.

If you're an SF fan of a certain age, what I'm about to tell you is a well known story of a well known author. ....Probably well known. It's been so long since I last read SF and Fantasy regularly, and I am now so far removed from the fen of my youth, I don't remember anymore just how popular Tiptree was during her writing career that lasted roughly 20 years--1968 to 1987-- but I believe she was fairly well-known at the time, and certainly won many awards. For those of you who have never heard of James Tiptree Jr., a pseudonym used by the author Alice Sheldon, nor of Alice Sheldon herself, nor read any of her remarkable, razor-sharp writing: it's time you did.

Galen Strickland has done a fine job of summarizing Sheldon's life on his most excellent site The Templeton Gate.

James Tiptree, Jr. [was] the most commonly used pseudonym of Dr. Alice Hastings Bradley Sheldon (1915-1987), a clinically trained psychologist and a former operative of the C. I. A. Her father was a lawyer and world traveller and her mother was a world-famous geographer and author of more than thirty travel books. Much of her formative years were spent in Africa and India and her first career was that of a graphic artist and painter. She then joined the Army and spent most of World War 2 in a Pentagon sub-basement, working in photo intelligence for the Army Air Corps. It was there she met her second husband, Huntington Sheldon.

She was discharged in 1946 having obtained the rank of Major. The Sheldons attempted a business venture, which failed. They both then joined the newly formed C. I. A., her husband retaining his position with that agency when she resigned in 1955. She attended college sporadically for many years, and also taught statistics and psychology. She obtained her doctorate in experimental psychology in 1967. The following year her first SF story - "Birth of a Salesman" - appeared in Analog (as by Tiptree), although she had previously published a story in The New Yorker under her real name as early as 1946.

Her pen-name was derived from a brand label on a jar of marmalade - don't bother looking for that label in your supermarket unless you live in England - and her most convincing argument for its use was that her business colleagues would be sure to censure her if they knew she wrote science fiction. Her true identity was not known for many years by even the editors who purchased her stories. She never met or spoke on the telephone with anyone connected with publishing, and all correspondence was directed to a post office box in rural Virginia. In various letters to editors, fanzines, and other writers an outline of her biography was given, and although her work included several sensitive and sympathetic female characters, it was generally assumed that Tiptree was male. I have never been sure exactly when and by whom her deception was discovered, but it did not occur until sometime in 1976, around the time of the death of her mother. As late as 1975, Robert Silverberg, in his introduction to Tiptree's second short story collection, Warm Worlds and Otherwise, would make this very bold and now obviously incorrect remark:

"It has been suggested that Tiptree is female,
a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something
ineluctably masculine about Tiptree's writing."

This was for a collection that included a story which in retrospect should have given us unmistakable clues as to the gender of the writer. The title itself is quite ironic - "The Women Men Don't See" - and the story is a veritable microcosm of the man/woman dilemma. The narrator is a male who escorts two women toward their rendezvous with an alien spacecraft. He is unable to understand their motives, but it is evident they view the adventure as merely trading one set of alien masters for another which may prove to be more tolerable. This story was nominated for a Nebula in 1974, but Tiptree withdrew it from competition. She would later reveal to Ursula LeGuin her reason for doing so was the many remarks concerning the story being an example that a man was capable of writing interesting and sympathetic female characters, and a prize for the story would have only added to the deceit her pseudonym had already created.

The story I think of most these days is "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" which was published in 1976 when Sheldon was 61. In it, three contemporary American astronauts are caught up in a time vortex that sends them several hundred years into the future. For reasons that are made apparent to the reader sooner than to the story's astronauts, there are no men alive on Earth in this future; the entire population consists of a few thousand women, cloned from a few basic genome types. When the male astronauts encounter no one who is not female, they grow increasingly frustrated that they are not meeting anyone 'with authority' , and ask repeatedly: "But, where are all the people?" (Meaning, where are all the men).

Now think about the current situation with Abu Ghraib prison. Male prisoners are being raped, tortured and abused, and the world reacts with disgust and horror. Female prisoners are being raped, tortured, and abused, and somehow the reaction of the world is much more matter of fact. Many people will be thinking: Yeah, This is the everyday world that women live in. Nothing unusual. A fact of life.
But, what about the people? You know: the men. Oh, well that's different. And why is that? They're not used to it. Rape, torture, and abuse are not a given, an everyday fact of life for men.
I'd love to read what Alice Sheldon would say about Abu Ghraib.

Along with "The Women Men Don't See," her second collection includes several other impressive stories, most notably two award winners, "Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death" (Nebula) and "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" (Hugo). The latter is considered by many to be the first of the cyberpunk tales, long before William Gibson arrived on the scene. Others that I would recommend are "All the Kinds of Yes" and "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain." STAR SONGS OF AN OLD PRIMATE was the next collection, published in 1978, a little more than a year following the revelation of Tiptree's true identity. The most notable story is again an investigation into the gulf between the sexes. "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" won both the Hugo (in a tie with Spider Robinson's "By Any Other Name") and Nebula awards as the best novella published in 1976.

She and her husband "Ting" (short for Huntington) in later years spent much time in the state of Quintana Roo in Mexico. The Quintana Roo is part of the Yucatan Peninsula; the area which contains Cancún, Cozumel, Isla Mujeres and Tulum. It is the home of the modern-day descendants of the Mayans. "Alli" and Ting had a great love for this area, and Alice wrote several memorable stories about it, collected in the volume TALES OF THE QUINTANA ROO, published in 1986.

I gave my sister and her husband a copy of that book one of the first years they went down to Akumal, a still relatively sleepy little town sixty miles south of Cancún, in the heart of the Quintana Roo. When they returned I was delighted to hear that they had not only read the book cover to cover during their stay in Akumal, but also were so thoroughly spooked by the stories they stayed awake an entire night, sitting on the beach with a lone lit candle, watching the moonlight on the waves.

[Strickland]: Even though her persona was penetrated mid-way through her writing career, Tiptree/Sheldon will forever remain an intriguing mystery. She rarely spoke of her personal life, and never of her work for the government, so it is through her fiction we must attempt an analysis of her philosophy and her legacy. Sadly, the end of her life was as tragic as the previous years had been enigmatic. In failing health herself, she fulfilled a promise she had made to her now blind and bed-ridden husband years before.

On May 19, 1987, at the age of 71, Alice Sheldon took the life of her invalid husband, aged 84, and then shot herself in the head. They were found dead, hand in hand in bed, in their McLean, Virginia home.

Whatever you do, do NOT end your reading about Alice Sheldon before visiting this wonderful site, and especially the deeply personal remembrance by her close friend Mark Siegel.

The James Tiptree Jr. Award is an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender. Created and first given in 1991, it is awarded annually at WisCon, the world's only feminist SF convention. WisCon 28 will be held on Memorial Day weekend, May 28-31, 2004 in Madison, Wisconsin.

Cross-posted on my blog.

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