James Tiptree Jr. was a trickster. He burst onto the science-fiction scene in 1967 with a string of dazzling tales. Their narrative speed and strict adherence to the genre's conventions quickly earned him the admiration of long-established writers, yet he brought a new, unsettling subversiveness to familiar tropes. For ten years, no one guessed the trick that lay at the heart of Tiptree's identity: He was a woman named Alice Sheldon.
In James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, Julie Phillips skillfully elucidates the relationship between Sheldon—her fascinating life and complex psyche—and Tiptree, the man who didn't exist but nonetheless charmed dozens of correspondents and thousands of readers. While each of these parallel biographies is presented in meticulous detail, most compelling is Phillips's probing of why this intelligent, accomplished woman required a male persona to give voice to things she herself could not say.
In 1921, six-year-old Alice Hastings Bradley traveled with her family to the Belgian Congo and, as she later wrote, contracted "a case of horror vitae that lasted all my life." This was the setting of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and the site of a still-recent genocide—a word that didn't yet exist. Alice was the only child of Herbert Bradley, a Chicago attorney, and Mary Bradley, a writer and socialite. Their social world included Carl Akeley, of Chicago's Field Museum and New York's American Museum of Natural History, whom they accompanied to the Congo to hunt gorillas. Based on these travels, Mary wrote books, two featuring her daughter: Alice in Jungleland and Alice in Elephantland.
Mary was a formidable woman. After Herbert's real estate investments were dented by the Depression, she supported the family in its accustomed high style, earning more than $30,000 a year from her writing. She published stories in the Saturday Evening Post and was selected for O. Henry Award volumes. Her income sent Alice to finishing school in Lausanne and to college at Sarah Lawrence.
"It was partly from colonial adventure stories like Mary's that science fiction was born," Phillips observes. "The first time Alice saw Star Trek, she recognized it at once as a story about her childhood." This observation, like so many in this superb biography, strikes deep. It illuminates one of the darker corners of science fiction—its political unconscious, as it were. The writer's bible for Star Trek couldn't be clearer about the colonial echo: "Horatio Hornblower in space." The multicultural crew may look like it's been sent by the United Nations, but its gunship could wipe out a planet.
Young Alice saw the genital mutilation of Kikuyu women, babies dying in the streets of Calcutta, a riot in Shanghai that was the start of the Chinese Revolution. She heard the screams of a man being killed for the cannibal pot. She even saw a crucifixion: "The men had been stripped, tortured, tied to posts, and left to perish in the sun. . . . Auschwitz—My Lai—etc. . . . did not surprise me one bit, later on." Mary wrote that cannibals were "much like other folk," and her daughter, writing as James Tiptree Jr., might have agreed—but her agreement would be based not on cultural relativism, but on the universality of human cruelty, the biological urge to dominate and exterminate.
Phillips's use of the expression "double life" in her subtitle is apt, for there are two stories here. Had Alice never written as Tiptree, her life would still be worth our attention for the milieus it touched, for how it delineates just what a privileged and ambitious woman could and couldn't do at the time, and for its exploration of the extent to which her beauty, social position, intelligence, and ambition created irreconcilable expectations. A little more than half the book is devoted to Alice's life before she invented Tiptree at age fifty-one, and no part of it is dull. That half alone is a major biography that will fascinate even those who've never heard of Tiptree; the second half will send fans back to the work with fresh eyes.
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At nineteen, Alice married William Davey, whose grandfather, Cyrus McCormick, invented the mechanical reaper. "When I was made into a debutante I thought I was on the slave block to be married, so I married the first boy who asked me, three days later." They lived in New York, Berkeley, Carmel, and Santa Fe, Davey writing a novel, Alice learning to paint, both of them behaving badly as only rich, spoiled children can. At twenty-six, she divorced. She then spent time in Mexico City, at the fringes of the Orozco-Kahlo-Rivera crowd. When the US entered World War II, she enlisted in the Women's Army Corps and was assigned to the Pentagon, where she was trained in the interpretation of reconnaissance photos. "Intelligence" and "security" operations were being invented; they would outlast the war and culminate in the creation of the CIA.
On VE-day, photointerpreter Captain Alice Bradley Davey was posted to Europe, where the Army Air Force was looting German technology and intelligence. Her commanding officer was Colonel Huntington Denton "Ting" Sheldon, twelve years her senior, American born and British bred, a product of Andover, Eton, Yale, and Wall Street. Ting pursued her, and within four weeks they were married. After the war, Alice worked seriously for a time at writing. She sold a story to the New Yorker, through her mother's agent, then complained of the magazine's self-conscious civilization and disciplined first-rateness. "I am . . . not a civilised human being. I am in this culture but not of it." She couldn't face competing with her mother in the arena of literary fiction because, as she would later write, "anything I could do she could do ten times as well." The vexed relationship with Mary was lifelong. Her mother was a source of love, a source of fear, a model as well as a reproach.
Ting still had his Washington connections. The CIA was adding a photo-intelligence section, and both Ting and Alice signed on. From 1952 until Ting's retirement in 1969, the CIA was the couple's world. Alice worked there for only three years; she quit when it became obvious that, as a woman, she could never rise to her husband's level.
After reading Rudolf Arnheim's Art and Visual Perception, Alice wrote to the author. A friendship began; she helped him revise his book Visual Thinking. At his urging, she went back to school at American University, graduated summa cum laude, and continued on to George Washington University, studying experimental psychology, doing lab work, and teaching classes. Her research was concluded and published in 1967, when she received her Ph.D. This was the longest and, by her own account, the happiest detour in Alice's life. Arnheim read her thesis and noted, "Now that she will be on her own she will produce the real Alice!" She did and did not—she produced Tiptree.
Why Tiptree? In letters and diaries, throughout her life, Alice refers to herself as "second rate," a goat among sheep; she claims to lack "the ear for rhythm or the feel for style." "I was a good grade B" she said about her painting, and she used that as an excuse to quit. But her alter ego, Tiptree, wouldn't quit. Tiptree didn't care if he was grade B. And why science fiction? First, Phillips tells us that Alice had been reading SF since the '20s and had a huge collection. She knew its language. Maybe, too, because it was considered grade B. The performance anxiety her mother inspired could be safely bypassed in another identity, as well as by working in a genre Mary would consider subliterary.
Certainly it began as a frolic. She took the Tiptree name from a jam label. But eventually, there was too much unspoken at the heart of Alice's experience that found ready expression in the tropes of science fiction. She had seen cruelty, dominance, and submission as a child; she had served in the war, seen the inside of institutions dedicated to hegemony and power; in the psych lab she and her colleagues had used rats as subjects, another unquestioned power relationship that had disturbed her. (One Tiptree story is called "The Psychologist Who Wouldn't Do Awful Things to Rats.") Now the United States was in Vietnam, Ting was supervising the President's Daily Brief, and science fiction gave her a way to address all of it, without having to explain, justify, or excuse herself. Without needing to have a self.
The fun and the thrill and the power of it was, like H. G. Wells's invisible man, to cast off one's clothes and walk through the middle of town naked and unseen. To be among people but not of them. But as Wells's character discovers, it is easier to start the game than to end it. It began as a frolic, but it was no detour. Tiptree and Alice would live parallel lives. Phillips meets this unusual biographical challenge by referring to her subject as "Alli" or "Tiptree," depending on which persona is being discussed. The alternation of male and female pronouns is a witty, subversive strategy equal to Alice's own.
Tiptree's first two short-story collections were titled 10,000 Light-Years From Home (1973) and Warm Worlds and Otherwise (1975). The tales are headlong, intense, ramshackle. They have a larkish air that opens on abysses. A 1969 story, "Beam Us Home," presents a young man named Hobie, born perhaps in 1957, too late for Vietnam, good in school, a Trekkie, mild mannered but deeply disaffected with the world: "It's such a shitting miserable mess mess mess." He joins the Air Force in order to qualify for the astronaut corps, and at this point any percipient SF reader knows how the story will end—with Hobie leaving corrupt Earth for space, his heart's desire—and so it does. But if Alice began the story as a valentine to her beloved Star Trek, Tiptree hijacked it by sending the twenty-three-year-old pilot not into NASA but into a bloody, protracted guerrilla war in Venezuela. This dirty neocolonial intervention is less a projection of Vietnam than an extrapolation from the national-security state Alice witnessed at its creation. The tale's conventional conclusion may satisfy the genre's form, but what comes before memorably disturbs it.
If Alice imagined that Tiptree could stay invisible, she didn't know the science-fiction community. Within a year of her first publication, a young Star Trek writer named David Gerrold showed up on her doorstep, but Alice convinced him he had the wrong address. Even after that near exposure, Tiptree carried on extensive correspondences, though now from a PO box. Shy when meeting people, in letters Alice could be like her mother, a nonstop raconteur. She never invented a résumé for Tiptree; instead she used him as a vehicle for her own biography. As emotionally open and garrulous as Tiptree could be in letters—sharing details straight from Alice and Ting's travels, or domestic trivia like leaky roofs, or even confidences about his sexual history—he carefully used gender-neutral language (such as child and gonads) that allowed correspondents to draw their own conclusions. When an editor asked if Tiptree had served in the military, the answer was "World War II, yeah, mostly locked in a Pentagon sub-basement"; it wouldn't occur to the editor that the writer had been a wac. Another time, Tiptree insisted to a correspondent, "I am not, retransmit NOT, employed by CIA." True, but for anyone who cared to notice, the ex-employee called it "CIA" and not, like a civilian, "the CIA."
The apparent artlessness of Tiptree's prose is not naive; it's a mimicry and a seduction and a provocation directed at SF reading habits. "Alli didn't feel she was imitating male writing styles," writes Phillips, which is doubtless true, but the style is constructed of SF borrowings—some Robert Heinlein, some Alfred Bester, some Theodore Sturgeon, a trace of Robert Sheckley—and the default narrative voice of the SF Alice had read is male. When Robert Silverberg, introducing an early Tiptree collection, called the work "ineluctably masculine," he was famously wrong about Tiptree's gender, but he had correctly seen that the male voice could be learned and imitated—and turned back on itself.
Phillips is candid about Alice's sexuality. Though she never acted on the impulse, Alice once wrote "it was always girls and women who lit me up." In her twenties, she went out of her way to sleep with black men, and wrote, "My contact with negroes . . . has refreshed all my early African memories." And Tiptree explained in an essay that the xenophilia and exogamy in his stories might owe to having spent his "formative years surrounded
by the socially-wrong-colored buttocks and pubes of Aliens you mustn't touch." Alice's marriage to Ting was affectionate but, after a few disastrous experiences, apparently platonic. So the appearance of sex in a Tiptree story—and there is plenty of it—almost always presages some catastrophic Liebestod.
"And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side" is orthodox SF with
a poison center. A young reporter in a spaceport interviews an old space hand about his experience with aliens—a cornball setup that opens into something quite new in the genre: sexual obsession with the Other. "All our history is one long drive to find and impregnate the stranger. . . . But now we've met aliens we can't screw, and we're about to die trying." Humans will abase themselves, abandon their culture, their souls, anything at all, so strong is the urge. "They laugh at us. They don't have it."
The early story "Your Haploid Heart" combines the love-death theme with another one of Tiptree's obsessions: the willingness of rational beings to exterminate "inferior" races in the name of progress. Representatives of the Galactic Federation have come to see if aliens they contacted generations ago qualify for admission to the Federation. Only "human" races do. It's the same question that preoccupied nineteenth-century colonialists: Are the natives human? The Federation's definition of human is sexual; if a race can interbreed with humans, it is human. The Esthaans are so eager to be accepted that ever since first contact with the Federation they've hidden a dirty secret—the inferior Flenni race that dwells on their planet. In truth, the Esthaans reproduce like mosses: They bud asexually to produce sexually active offspring, the Flenni, who are in turn the parents of the Esthaans (and who are, in fact, sexually compatible with humans). This biological fact is so inconvenient and repulsive to Esthaan ambitions that it has been repressed, and the Esthaans are on the verge of exterminating the Flenni, even though the consequences would be suicidal. Once again, the armature of this story is standard-issue SF—a single scientific fact, in this case the diploid-haploid reproductive cycle, is extrapolated, and its consequences drive the plot. But the depiction of psychosexual madness is an exceptional departure from the genre's norms. And a further barb: This lunacy was brought by the Federation with its offer, Be like us.
"The Women Men Don't See" is Tiptree's signature story. The first-person narrator might as well be Tiptree himself. A deskbound CIA man, the character Don Felton is a tissue of clichés, a fabrication as fake and as familiar as any sub-Hemingway male who ever stepped out of the pages of the Saturday Evening Post. This world-weary but still-game fellow is on his way to a fishing vacation in the Yucatán. The chartered plane he shares with a woman and her daughter goes down in a storm, and the predictable survival scenario starts to play out. On the ground, Don's manly patter of dammit and god-awful and don't be a fool lulls us with a sense of normalcy that is soon to be upended. The rescue vessel, when it comes, is a UFO. Don wants to capture or kill the aliens. The women Don has failed all this time to see, Ruth and Althea Parsons, have another idea. They would rather go with the aliens than stay with Don and his kind. To Don's "For Christ's sake, Ruth, they're aliens!" Ruth replies, "I'm used to it."
Such stories gave Tiptree a reputation as a male feminist. One of the neatest ironies of the Tiptree identity came when he was invited to participate as the token straight male in a fanzine forum called "Women in Science Fiction." Tiptree's contributions provoked Joanna Russ to say that he espoused ideas "no woman could even think."
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Perhaps, as Phillips suggests, Alice's formidable mother had repressed the part of her daughter that eventually emerged as Tiptree, but certainly it was Mary Bradley's death that put an end to the impersonation. Tiptree had once let it be known that his mother was an African explorer from Chicago. And then he let on that she had died. Some fans went looking and found Mary Bradley's obituary in the October 28, 1976, Chicago Tribune; it named Mrs. Alice Hastings Sheldon as Mary's only survivor. Within weeks, all science fiction knew. She was no longer invisible.
Tiptree stopped writing for three years. Alice's horror vitae had become a dread of aging and death; the months she had spent tending Mary in her decline made Alice desperate. Alice wanted Ting to agree to a suicide pact. Though he was twelve years older, he was not so eager to die; still, she convinced him to agree to reconsider it "in 4–5 years."
Some stories from the '80s are every bit as strong (and some as weak) as earlier work. "Our Resident Djinn," a fable about Lucifer and the death of God, bears comparison with Mark Twain."Yanqui Doodle" is an acid reworking of "Beam Us Home," about another disastrous US military incursion (nothing about Iraq would have surprised Alice). But Tiptree had mostly finished saying what he needed to say about Alice's childhood experiences. He had led her out of that jungleland, leaving her with only a frangible self—she had already had one heart attack—and the burden of a now-blind husband, and a threadbare pseudonym that no longer hid anything.
The end of Alice's life has been mythologized in the science-fiction community. It is certain that she suffered from depression and wished to end her life before old age diminished her faculties, and it is certain that she was devoted to Ting. It is not at all certain, as Phillips makes clear with admirable tact, that Ting had agreed to a suicide pact. On May 18, 1987, a short letter went out to Alice's friend Ursula K. Le Guin: "Dearest Starbear . . . . Apologies for the long silence. Life here is on the way down and out. Not to condole, it's been a great one for both." That night, Alice Sheldon shot her husband in the head as he slept, then lay down beside him, took his hand in hers, and shot herself.
After Alice's death, the books fell out of print. But among SF writers, Tiptree's reputation only grew. In 1991, Karen Joy Fowler and Pat Murphy created the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, given annually to an SF short story or novel that explores or expands gender roles. Some winners have been Le Guin, Theodore Roszak, Molly Gloss, M. John Harrison, Kelly Link, and Geoff Ryman. When Tiptree published his most important work, science fiction was still a minority taste, and its literary conventions were often arcane, and difficult for the general reader to decode. A generation of Hollywood SF films has made the material of Tiptree's stories more accessible, and a recrudescence of imperial hubris has made some of their themes more immediate. It is certainly a good moment, as Phillips makes clear in this compelling biography, to revisit the work of James Tiptree Jr.—trickster, shape-shifter, bricoleur—in light of the life of Alice Sheldon.
Carter Scholz is the author of the novel Radiance (2002) and the story collection The Amount to Carry (2003), both published by Picador.