Alice Sheldon and James Tiptree Jr: a remarkable life

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.


3 responses

  1. I read this last year and thought it was an amazing book. Your comments feel very similar to my own thoughts. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  2. […] The Double Life of Alice Sheldon, Julie Phillips; Changing Planes, Ursula le Guin; Perchance to Dream, Lisa Mantchev; Twilight […]

  3. […] anthology opens with a short essay from Julie Phillips, the biographer of Tiptree/Sheldon (which I reviewed here, and as I write I am listening to The Writer and the Critic discuss it), about talking and […]

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