Tag Archives: biography

Octavia E Butler: Modern Master of SF

Unknown.jpegGerry Canavan wrote a fabulous essay in Luminescent Threads about ‘disrespecting Octavia’ – about whether or not work in Butler’s archives that remains unpublished ought to be published now, against her wishes. It’s a thoughtful essay that acknowledges it’s not an easy question to consider, and makes the unpublished work sound fascinating while admitting its flaws.

I knew Canavan was writing a biography of Butler when we asked him to write for us, and I’d been meaning to get hold of it… well, all year. I finally did and I finally read it and it is exactly as wonderful as I had hoped.

To call it a biography isn’t quite accurate. It is that, to an extent; you certainly learn the outlines of Butler’s life, and Canavan is quite explicit in looking at the struggles Butler faced in finding the time to write, how much re-writing she did because she wasn’t happy with work at various points, and other aspects of her life like receiving the MacArthur fellowship and so on. But this is also an extended critique of Butler’s work – both published and unpublished, because one of the amazing things about this book is that Canavan had access to the many hundreds of boxes of papers that Butler left when she died so suddenly. They’re stored at the Huntington, and their finding guide alone is over 500 pages in length.

Makes me want to start printing out and filing emails.

Each of the chapters is based around a particular creative period in Butler’s life, which I liked because it foregrounds that the creative output is the focus of the book but/and that it happens in tandem with the actual events in Butler’s life. Canavan traces themes across her work, as well as the ways in which so much of her fiction (12 published novels and 9 short stories!) can be seen as connected to one another: through early drafts and plot ideas as well as the motivating ideas. It makes me desperately want to read some of that unpublished work when I read about what she was trying to do in them… although Doro/Jesus sounds a bit weird even for me.

This is not a long book and it’s not a dense book. It’s not a nitty-gritty, every-day-at-a-time biography, and it’s not a highly technical literary analysis – it’s far more approachable and engaging than either of those would be. This is a book for people who love Butler’s work and want to know more about her and her work. It works brilliantly.


Unknown.jpegSheila Chisholm led a remarkable life, which I think is done justice by this biography from Robert Wainwright.

Born into a well-t0-do family outside of Sydney, she went to England in 1914 to make her debut. When war broke out she and her mother ended up in Cairo, helping to care for injured soldiers there… and while there she married a young Scottish lord. He ended up being a drunk gambler, so after two children and quite a long time in a fairly unpleasant marriage (not a violent one, though, it seems), they divorced. By this time she was firmly established as one of the Beautiful People, with friends in the highest echelons of society and she herself becoming a trend setter. Being friends with the English princes may well have helped with that. Eventually she remarried, this time an English lord (lower in the ranks that the Scottish one). One of her sons died at the very outset of World War 2. Her second husband died soon after. After some time, she married for a third time, this time to a prince: Dimitri Romanoff. Yes. Romanoff.

Life wasn’t all love and dresses and travel (frequently to America!), although there was a great deal of that, and it does Sheila a great disservice to only think about her in terms of who she married and who she might (or might not) have had an affair with. Sheila started an interior design business with her second husband; she was deeply involved in a variety of charities, including organising a ball to raise money for one of the biggest hospitals in London. She also, in 1948, started Milbanke Travel (John Milbanke was the English lord). Two decades later, when she sold it to a British hotel and restaurant company, it had eight branches in Britain and 200 staff, as well as operations in the US and Australia – and “it had Unknown-1 8.26.58 AM.jpeggenerated a turnover of  £5 million.”

Additionally, Sheila had an amazing set of female friends, many of whom were influential in their own way. In fashion – Sheila was one of the first women to have really short hair in London – and in the parties they threw, and attended, and therefore had the chance to influence important people. Sheila knew Winston Churchill and Joseph Kennedy, Rudolph Valentino and Evelyn Waugh. And of course two kings of England were, for a time, close friends. I think that, in a way, the parties Sheila and her ton went to may have had some similarities to the salons of eighteenth-century France. Perhaps they were mostly about gossip, but real discussions can and do happen around gossip.

Robert Wainwright has written a really interesting biography. As with so many biographies of women I think it has to be accepted that there’s no way to be certain about some parts of Sheila’s life. Wainwright is relying heavily on memoirs, diaries, and letters for some parts of his reconstruction. That said, she was such a powerful and famous woman that she did get mentioned a lot in newspapers, and interviewed for the Women’s Weekly a few times, so there’s more about her than for many of her peers.

Reading this biography is a bit like reading a regency romance (… except there are three different kings mentioned…): there’s a lot of dressing and partying, and there are names like “Buffles” for Lord John Milbanke; Anthony Hugh Francis Harry St Clair-Erskine; Count Court Haugwitz-Reventlow; and Viscount Marmaduke Furness. I will never again accuse those romance writers of making up ludicrous names.

The other awesome thing is that Wainwright has managed to write an intensely readable biography. This is a truly page-turn-y experience. I’m not sure I will read many more biographies of this era – I’m not that interested in your average dude from this period – but I have zero regrets about reading this.


Galactic Suburbia: the Tiptree biography spoilerific

Galactic Suburbia Spoilerific – James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips

phillips tiptree

In which we celebrate Alli Sheldon’s centenary with the first of our James Tiptree Jr spoilerific episodes and stand in awe of her extraordinary life, and the hard work of her biographer, Julie Phillips.

You can get us at iTunes or Galactic Suburbia.

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips

It’s Tiptree month, and this spoilerific is a bit different from our usual ones because we’re focussing on a biography – Julie Phillips’ biography of Alice James Raccoona Bradley Davies Tiptree Sheldon. Her life sounds a bit like a novel and it’s all the more amazing for being real…

Join us for our next episode when we talk about some of Tiptree’s short works, including

Houston, Houston, Do you Read? and

“Your Faces, O my Sisters! Your Faces filled of Light!”

(both are available in the Tiptree collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, and Tansy particularly recommends the ebook which is nicely laid out)

IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: Galactic Suburbia now has Messagebank on its Skype number, so you can leave us audio feedback. I know, right??? This month, we would particularly appreciate comments about your favourite Tiptree work, thoughts on the Julie Phillips biography, or on the short fiction we’ll be discussing later this month. We would love to be able to include your audio feedback in future episodes (so make sure to let us know if your comment is not something you wish to be broadcast).

03 90164171 (within Australia)
+613 90164171 (from overseas)

You can order the upcoming Letters to Tiptree from Twelfth Planet Press – a selection of thoughtful letters written by science fiction and fantasy’s writers, editors, critics and fans to celebrate her, to recognise her work, and in some cases to finish conversations set aside nearly thirty years ago. The book also contains archived letters between Tiptree and some of her dearest correspondents.

Please send feedback to us at galacticsuburbia@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook, support us at Patreon; and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!

Alexander Kerensky

When I teach about the French and Russian revolutions, I like to pick a personage to announce as my very favourite; it seems to amuse the kids. For the Russian, Kerensky is my best and favourite; Lenin and Trotsky are a bit too dubious, and none of the other Bolsheviks get that much of a look-in in the textbooks. Kerensky, though… he seems to try his best in difficult circumstances between the revolutions in 1917, he had a career in politics and was a radical before the February Revolution, and I knew there was some vague connection to Australia. So he seemed a good choice. Which meant that I really needed to read a biography. Thus my excitement at finally hearing about this biography, old though it is, and the fact that I found a hardback version via Better World Books.

Certainly there are aspects of this book that date it, and while it’s pretty good about being objective it of course doesn’t entirely manage it. And books that refuse to translate French for we non-speakers just make me throw my hands in the air, sometimes non-metaphorically. Nonetheless, I am so happy to have read it; it has cemented Kerensky as the revolution’s ‘first love’ even while I acknowledge that I’m absolutely getting something of a biased account of Kerensky’s role and motivation. It’s a biography; that’s what they do

UnknownKerensky comes across as desperately in love with Russia, probably a bit near-sighted about the issues affecting the non-Russians, but vehement in his defence of, for example, the Jewish population; he was unendingly opposed to anti-Semitism. He was a passionate radical (although not a Marxist) – and, as happens to so many radicals, changed by actually being in power; he seems to have been one of those people whose reaction to setbacks is to take on yet more work and responsibility, since noone else would be able to do it as well. I felt deeply sympathetic for him, from this 100-year-on perspective, as he faced the problems of 1917: how could someone successfully negotiate placating the Allies during World War 1 about Russia not negotiating a separate peace, and deal with the Russian soldiers’ impatience with fighting this war that has gone dreadfully for them over the past two years, and deal with the expectations of the population for change following the fall of the Tsar, and deal with the political bickering from both left and right? Possibly these obstacles could have been negotiated for someone else, and maybe it should have been possible to reconcile the differences of opinion and bring everything to rights within Russia… but it didn’t happen. Abraham’s account shows where Kerensky made very poor decisions but also points out the immense pressure of the times. Like I said, I’m sympathetic (which is easier at a distance).

Two things frustrated me a bit about this biography. The first is that it didn’t really clarify for me one of the more bizarre episodes of Kerensky’s turn as head of the Provisional Government, between the revolutions: the Kornilov affair, where – depending on who you talk to – General Kornilov might have been trying to replace the Prov Gov with a military dictatorship, or working with Kerensky to save Kerensky’s position, or… who knows. Abraham does put the events into greater context by talking about Kornilov’s earlier actions as part of the overall Russian command, and gives details about Kerensky’s moves in August and negotiations with Kornilov; Abraham certainly makes it less Kerensky’s fault than other historians (looking at you, Richard Pipes) suggest, and gives reasons for some of the more incriminating evidence that turned up afterwords. But my problem is that Abraham doesn’t go into much detail about what happened to Kornilov afterwards – just a mention of a cushy prison in the context of the Civil War – and there is zero mention of Bolsheviks being let out of jail and armed in order to defend Petrograd, which the textbooks all mention. It’s too long since I read other histories of the period so I’ll have to refresh my memory from Fitzpatrick… because there’s either a weird lacuna from Abraham or a serious overstatement elsewhere.

That frustration is quite academic. The other is one I should have expected: that the women in his life aren’t that well treated. Kerensky married young; Olga gets served well enough early on but not later. He has an affair while a leading politician; what happens to her after he leaves Russia is dealt with brusquely in half a paragraph, and then not clearly. He has at least two more serious affairs and then marries an Australian woman; the affairs are glossed over with little explanation. Nell appears a bit in the last couple of chapters, with discussion of their moves within America and then to Australia and then back to America, but really it’s superficial. And I feel this is a shame, given how much time they spent together.

Overall this is a well-written biography, although not one I would recommend to a reader with zero knowledge of the Russian revolution. It’s certainly added to my knowledge of pre-Bolshevik Russia, and has deepened my understanding of Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky.



Once upon a time, I was 16. One 16-year-old Saturday afternoon, I switched on the television to discover a black-and-white Dirk Bogarde being sentenced to death by He-Who-Would-Be Rumpole (Leo McKern). I was horrified and mesmerised. And then when Bogarde declaimed “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known” … well, there was definitely Something In My Eye. Such that my mother had to ask what the problem was, and when I told her Dr Simon Sparrow was on a tumbrel, headingfor the guillotine… she just shook her head.


I am of an age to remember when Friday nights were a Great Night for movies. My dad stayed up super-late with me once, to watch Breaker Morant, and had to almost physically prevent me from ranting and raving about the injustice of it all, because who does high-horse morality better than a 15 year old? Anyway, the ABC went through a period of classic British films, whence my introduction to Carry On. And after Carry On came the Doctor films. And Dr Simon Sparrow just stole my heart. (Seriously! Look at those eyes!)

All of this is the long-way-around way of saying that a few years after all this, my mother bought me a biography of Bogarde. That was quite a long time ago now. I have an unfortunate habit of appreciating the books she buys me but not reading them for ages. In my defence this is a BIG book – like 700 pages big – and somehow 700 pages of biography is different from 700 pages of space opera. Because I finally, finally read it. Hooray! And it took me quite a long time (like over a week).

I vaguely remember Mum breaking it to me that he was gay; I had no idea that he went on to have such a successful career as an author, nor that his film career was quite as… fraught.

imagesThe bio had some excellent bits in it. I was fascinated by the discussion of film-making in Britain in the 50s and 60s (and a bit horrified); the idea of Judy Garland and other such bright lights going over to Bogarde’s place for Sunday lunch kinda blew my mind. But there are some problems here as well. Firstly, and most annoyingly, Coldstream makes quite a deal of the fact that in his memoirs, Tony Forwood often appears as entirely marginal, sometimes only as a manager vaguely hanging around. The reality is that they lived together for something like 50 years. Coldstream makes this part of Bogarde’s fear of being outed as gay (totally reasonable in the 50s when Britain still had its laws making homosexuality illegal), but also part of his rewriting of his personal history. My main beef with this, though, is that Coldstream doesn’t actually interrogate Bogarde and Forwood’s relationship himself. I don’t mean that I wanted to read an expose of their sex life; I mean that I was left wondering whether they actually were lovers, or had an entirely platonic relationship or… what. Coldstream fell into the same problem – not entirely ignoring Forwood, but not properly considering his significance – that he accused Bogarde of. Which means there’s this huge part of Bogarde’s life – was he gay? Was he asexual? – that is ignored. And if you’re writing a bio, that should (I feel) be either part of the discussion, or completely left out, and if the latter then that needs to be spelled out for the reader. Especially in Bogarde’s case where his drop-dead-beauty was part of his appeal as a film star, and where his sexuality has been cause for discussion for a very long time.

My other gripe with this book concerns two really weird bits. One: Coldstream sent off samples of Bogarde’s handwriting to a graphologist. That’s someone who analyses handwriting and tells you about your personality. Um, weird. Two: the biography ends with a totally bizarre story of the people who bought Bogarde and Forwood’s estate in France being superstitious about a possession of Bogarde’s bringing them bad luck. Also, um, weird.

If you’re interested in film history, this is awesome. I’ve left it with my mum and I think she’ll get more out of it because she’ll know more about the people being mentioned. If you’re interested in biography generally this actually is quite a good one – it’s perfectly readable and Bogarde really did have a fascinating life, serving in WW2 then acting in theatre and films – and oh the drama (heh) around that – then going on to writing and public appearances.

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.


Danton: making it big in the revolutionary world

I read biographies far less often than someone of my historical bent would be supposed to. I often expect them to be dry – I’m not sure why – and I often prefer books on the minutiae of history, the stuff that often gets overlooked. That said, I have a soft spot for Alison Weir’s biographies – I’ve read most of her Tudor stuff, and I really liked her book on Isabella (“She-Wolf of France”).

One of my all-time favourites is a biography of John Dee, best known as an astrologer, alchemist and magician, but actually responsible for some pretty awesome science too. Against that is the fact that I have biographies of Dirk Bogarde (I am a big fan of the Doctor movies), Gandhi, Elizabeth I… and the Pythons autobiography… all sitting on my unread/true shelf (it’s a long story). I’d like to read more bios, they just don’t move up in the ‘must read’ queue.

This problem is exacerbated, for me, when it comes to reading of modern, controversial characters. Dee was controversial, and Isabella certainly was (and when I can get my hands on a good revisionist bio of King John, I am going to be all over it), but even I concede that arguing about them is slightly academic, although always with modern repercussions. I would desperately like to read a good biography of Trotsky – and Lenin, I guess, too – but who the heck am I going to trust? A popularist like Alison Weir? I don’t think so, sunshine. A historian of whose politics I know nothing? Problematic. I would love to read one written by Peter McPhee – God bless his Marxist soul – but I don’t think that’s going to happen.

And so we come to the fact that I have finally finished The Giant of the French Revolution. Danton: A Life, by David Lawday.

When I first started reading about the French Revolution I quickly decided that Danton was the man for me; Marat is too much a rabble rouser – although dying in the bath is sooo Greek tragedy – while Robespierre, with his insistence on continuing to wear ancien regime costume, clearly had gumption but his whole Republic-of-Virtue-or-die made me a bit uncomfortable. There are things about Danton that make me uncomfortable too, but… he’s so much larger than life, he had such energy, and he instructed his executioner to make sure to show his head to the crowd once it was off, because it was worth looking at. Plus, Gerard Depardieu plays him in a movie, and he was perfect.

So, the book. Lawday admits at the start that this is a slightly romanticised history, because Danton committed almost nothing to paper. There are no footnotes, although there are references at the back giving some indication of where ideas and quotes came from. And it is a bit romantic: Lawday sometimes lets himself go on flights of descriptive fancy about the streets of Paris and the countryside around Arcis, Danton’s birthplace; and he gets a bit smoochy over Danton and his wife Gabrielle’s relationship. The other romantic aspect, and the thing that annoyed me the most, was that Lawday’s vision of Danton as a hero apparently demanded that there be a genuine fiction-like villain for him to play against. Robespierre, the man probably responsible for Danton’s death, is the obvious candidate here, and Lawday goes out of his way to malign and belittle him as unmanly and insipid, in contrast to the testosterone-fuelled Danton. But what really, really got my back up was that Lawday also featured Manon Roland, wife of Danton’s fellow elected official Jean-Marie Roland. It seems clear that Mme Roland and Danton did not get along. Lawday, though, plays this up in sexualised and demeaning ways that were occasionally outright offensive. Having recently read Liberty, about the contribution of women to the Revolution – including Roland – this got my goat even more than it might have.

Sigh. Anyway, aside from that demonisation, I did really enjoy Danton. Lawday gives a good running explanation of the Revolution such that I didn’t get lost trying to figure out what else was going on at the time, and he does well at portraying Danton as intimately involved in most of the important events. Some of this may be exaggeration, but not all of it. It’s largely well written, although I’m not sure that I agree with The Economist that it’s “beautifully told”. It’s eminently readable, anyway, and captures the energy and urgency of the Revolution. I think this would be exceptionally good way in to the Revolution for someone with little knowledge of the events, but with a curiosity about people who shape events.

In other news, I am still struggling through Citizens. That is, in theory I am still reading it, but it’s at the top of my bookcase at the moment, not being read.

Revolutionary women

So, a while ago on the Coode St podcast, Jonathan and Gary wondered what it would be like if you tried to write a history of sf through the female writers. I think this is a most interesting idea, and relates to my desire to find women writing space opera.

Which relates to a book I’ve just finished reading called Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France by Lucy Moore. I was expecting it to be a book essentially looking at six women, all very different, and their experiences in the French Revolution. However, what I got was so much more than that. Alongside the bios – and they were really interesting women, all of them – I got a full history of the Revolution itself, almost entirely from the point of view of women. And the really, really cool thing is that it totally, totally worked.

Women were involved at every level of the Revolution. It was working-class women who marched on the palace in 1789 and scared the king and queen terribly. Women were involved in planning and suggesting policy in the convention’s various incarnations, and getting it passed too, thanks to both direct action on the streets and more indirect action in the various salons. Women were directly impacted, of course, by changes made to the laws – although they were not accorded citizenship rights under the great Declaration – and, perhaps more interestingly, perhaps stereotypically, but nonetheless dramatically, fashion was also of huge importance. Especially in the streets of Paris, what you wore was an immediate sign of your allegiances. In a world where there were laws about how could wear what, having women on the street insisting that everyone wear the revolutionary cockade was pretty influential. As was when aristocratic women, formerly the paragons of incredibly expensive haute couture, wore clothes that wouldn’t look out of place on a sans coulotte.

The women under investigation were Germaine de Stael, Pauline Leon, Theroigne de Mericourt, Theresia de Fontenay, Manon Roland and Juliette Recamier (all names missing accents, since I can’t figure out how to add them in). Leon is perhaps the most interesting, in some ways, because she was the most definitely working-class. I had come across her (and Mme Roland) in Marge Piercy’s City of Darkness, City of Light – daughter of a chocolate maker, active on the streets and probably in violence. Mericourt had probably been a courtesan, and was also immensely visible on the streets. The other four were all basically aristocrats, on various levels and with differing views on politics – what they wanted to get out of politics, and how they went about doing it.

Each chapter is based around one woman, but Moore weaves so skilfully that she keeps the larger story of the Revolution moving, and brings in the narratives of the other women as well. It’s a marvellously well-written book, which I thoroughly enjoyed – even though I was reading it for school! – and it’s now covered in (appropriately pink!!) comments in the margins. Hugely recommended to anyone interested in the French Revolution or women in history more generally.