I’ve decided that, since I can’t find a convenient film-version of Goodreads, I will keep a tally on the blog here – over on the right, if you’re reading this on the blog itself; if you’re getting this through RSS or email, and you care, you’ll have to visit. Anyway so far there are two movies there: Frost/Nixon, which I’ve been meaning to watch for ages, finally saw yesterday, and really enjoyed – what a cast! – and Chronicles of Riddick, which I love despite its flaws.
It’s probably impossible for me to give an adequate review of this amazing biography. It is written so beautifully, and Sheldon/Tiptree’s life so extraordinary, that it’s hard to encapsulate in anything other than this book.
For those late to the party: Alice Sheldon wrote SF as James Tiptree Jr and remained incognito for many years. This biography sets out Sheldon’s entire life, though, not just the fiction-writing part, because it is truly a life worth recording. She went to Africa three times, with her parents, before the age of 15 – one time on a gorilla-hunting expedition. Life at home was no fairy tale… and she got married at 19 to a man she had only met a few times. They stayed together for about 6 years. She tried university, she tried being an artist, she tried journalism. She joined the WAC during WW2 and thus met her second husband, Ting. She got a doctorate in psychology, she tried chicken farming, and – the reason most people will read this bio – she wrote science fiction, mostly in short story form. She was a complex woman, probably a difficult one, beset by a number of demons – how to deal with emotions, her mother, depression, anger, and drug use. I’m not convinced I would have liked her as a person. That’s beside the point, though.
This is not a happy story. There is a lot of heartbreak and difficulty in Sheldon’s life, on large and small scales. Phillips’ discussion of her depression and drug use is sympathetic: not so delicate as to ignore it, not romanticising it or making excuses, just… this is how it was. Which was heartbreaking, to be honest. The way Sheldon herself wrote about her feelings and frustrations was agonising, perhaps because, frankly, it was (for me) just faintly recognisable.
One thing I really liked about this biography is Phillips’ use of names. She calls her subject Alice early on, and Alli after Ting’s mother starts using that nickname (she loved it apparently). She also uses Tiptree when referring to the fiction and letters and possible thoughts of that alter-ego, which I think is a lovely way of complicating what could otherwise be dismissed as ‘simply’ a nom-de-plume. (Phillips also devotes some time to Raccoona Sheldon, and how Tiptree and Raccoona were seen to interact by editors etc.) It’s a true history book too: Phillips has used a lot of primary material, and – delightfully – quotes from it frequently. This worked really well, and was utterly riveting, when it came to Tiptree’s letter writing. Tiptree was an inveterate letter-writer; fan letters, letters accompanying stories, the occasional letter to a magazine… Tiptree was a regular correspondent of a huge number of people, and by regular that might be a letter every fortnight or so. And the people? Oh, Ursula le Guin and Joanna Russ, for example. (My head exploded a little bit at the idea of those three exchanging letters and talking about each other to the other. Which they did.) Yes, it did inspire me to write a fan letter to Julie Phillips.
I am not of the opinion that one must know the gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and schooling history of an author in order to understand or appreciate their work as a piece of art. There is, however, no denying that some background or knowledge can add depth. Knowing Tiptree to be a woman does change how we read some of his/her fiction; and knowing something of her struggle with sexuality and sex can add depth, too, as well as her experiences of colonialism in Africa an Europe after WW2.
These comments haven’t even touched on Sheldon’s sexuality, her politics, or any number of other issues in her life. It’s a really, really great biography – even if you’re not interested in Tiptree’s fiction, this is a remarkable life, and illuminates all sorts of interesting things about life in one part of America from the 1920s to the 1980s.
Having discovered who her mother is and wanting to rescue Nate, who might be the love of her life and has been kidnapped by the Sea Goddess Sedna, Beatrice Shakespeare Smith – Bertie – sets out into the world with four miscreant fairies and one devious air-elemental. And this is where one really big difference between the first and second books occurs: the setting. Where the casual magic of the Theatre Illuminata kind of made sense because it’s a theatre, and it seems to occupy a space not really connected to a particular time or space, the ‘real’ world is meant to be just that. So the magic of Bertie’s words, and of some of the other characters met along the way, seemed slightly more out of place. Perhaps this is because I was expecting the story to be more grounded in particularity – perhaps Bertie’s ‘real’ (non-theatre) world isn’t meant to be any more ‘my’ real world at all.
That’s maybe a quibble, but it did still sit at the back of my mind gnawing a bit. There were a couple of other things that gnawed, including Bertie’s relationship with and attitude towards both Nate and Ariel. I’m not a fan of the love triangle at the best of times, and this one made me uncomfortable because I couldn’t tell which one I thought she would, or should, end up with! Perhaps silly, but there you go. I also occasionally had difficulty telling whether something was actually happening to Bertie in the real world, or whether it was a dream, or if it was happening for real but in an other place. It may well be that Mantchev was blurring boundaries deliberately, but I found that this confusion threw me out of the story occasionally.
Nonetheless, I did enjoy this novel. Mantchev has a delightful turn of phrase and it’s fast-moving enough that I basically read it in a sitting (helps that I am on holidays). Bertie continues to be an enjoyable and engaging heroine, who develops by necessity as she encounters difficulties and as she considers the holds that people have on her, and how to be her own person. The fairies are still winsome and incorrigible, and have renewed my own interest in pie. Ariel… continues to be problematic. I don’t especially like The Tempest, but should I ever bother to see it again I will certainly have difficulty viewing him without Mantchev-glasses (I will also suffer from Dan-Simmons-glasses when watching Caliban, so maybe I really ought not to see it again. Oh so sad). The plot, as I said, was fast-moving and had some fun bits, but I think suffers with comparison to the first book. That was so tight, and focussed around one really core issue, that it felt utterly of a piece. Here, although rescuing Nate is central, the action feels more episodic and bound together much more loosely.
I’m intrigued that there is a third (and, I think, final) book in the series; it will be very interesting to see where Mantchev takes Bertie et al next.