Re: James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

I’m not sure I can add anything new to the chorus of voices recommending James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips, except to say, it’s just as good as “they” say it is. The early chapters depict a talented, artistic writer who was the daughter of a talented, adventurous writer. Alice (or Alli) goes on childhood trips to Africa, grows up in the hothouse atmosphere of the Chicago society scene, struggles through an impulsive failed first marriage, enlists as a WAC, works for the proto-CIA, and enters an impulsive enduring second marriage. Very much the picture of a brilliant woman in the first half of the twentieth century, who felt all too keenly that she could have done more if she were a man.

Once she assumes the mask of James Tiptree, Jr., things get intense. Even as Tiptree sends admiring letters to the great SF writers of the day, he is accepted by them as a brilliant new voice. After Tiptree becomes interested in gender politics, Alli adds the name of Racoona Sheldon to the mix. At first the community of writers and fans sustains the illusion, but as the awards (and attendant ceremonies) accrue, the illusion collapses. Alli keeps writing as Tiptree and Racoona, but it’s never quite the same.

Towards the end, things get really dark, not the sort of thing to read if it’s getting late and the house is making funny noises. Worse, you know what’s coming and you know that nobody’s efforts are going to stop it. The very end is passed over quickly, leaving you with a lot to digest.

I have to admit that I haven’t read many of Tiptree’s stories. Too dark and weird for me. I do remember back in the 70s most of the writers I liked were women: Ursula K. LeGuin, C.J. Cherryh, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Nancy Springer, and Patricia McKillip come to mind. Then I stopped reading books for a lonnng time. Much of what I’m writing about here is my process of catching up. There’s so much stuff to wade through and so much has disappointed me, that this line from one Tiptree’s letters is what speaks to me now:

“when something strikes you right you are so happy to be able to like it that you spill all over with generosity.”

Ain’t that the truth.