The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

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As you may remember from a previous Space Canon entry, Alice B. Sheldon was, for a decade, the science-fiction writer James Tiptree Jr. She used the pseudonym because writing science fiction was a guilty pleasure, but also because she was sick of being “the first woman in some damned occupation.” Tiptree ranks among the greats of the genre, and Alice was no different: a terrible powerhouse of a woman, who spent her childhood in the unspoiled Congo and World War II in a Pentagon sub-basement.

Julie Phillips’ James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon tells the story of this incredible person, who struggled with a whole heap of things, including a tragically sublimated homosexuality; on trying to be normal, Alice only achieved “delicate tension” which she described as “endless makeshift.” She rebelled, sometimes dejectedly, against a world which didn’t allow for unusual, self-directed women. Born into Chicago high society and surrounded by cotillions and finishing schools, other women and their concerns seemed Martian; over the course of her many careers, she perpetually found herself the only woman in a sea of men, who she identified with much more than her female counterparts. Eventually, Alice concluded that “the only way to survive as an intelligent woman was to think of herself as a secret exception — not really a woman at all.”

Hence, eventually, the masculine pseudonym.

“Tiptree,” initially only a pen-name, quickly turned into an entirely separate male personality, one which enabled Alice to say subversive things and talk authoritatively about all the traditionally un-feminine aspects of her life, like her military experience, hard science, and shooting elephants in the Belgian Congo. To keep her true identity concealed, she had to insinuate a career in Intelligence, a sense that Tiptree was the alias of a hush-hush government official: an entirely separate, decade-long narrative, a masterwork in itself.

Alice was complicated, interesting, and heart-wrenchingly relatable-to; her biographer writes with real insight, no easy task for the story of a notoriously secretive woman who occasionally used her CIA experience to vanish for weeks at a time. To wit, Alice on her own psyche: “I live way within, in the unformed, unchallenging depths, occasionally lashing out at someone with a tongue-whip of words, a severe glitter — ‘See, I contain marvels!’ — then whisk, back into the hole.”

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This book awakened a monster inside me.

Here is this brilliant person, so dissatisfied with the conditions of her (admittedly incredible) life, and to realize that I have the formidable privilege of having been born when I was, into a world where my self-possesed weirdness, my terror of carrying out a conventional life, my questioning, where nothing and no one that I want is very much impossible, and where the demands of the status quo have calcified to the point of being unappealing to even the mainstream…what luck has unfairly befallen me. What an injustice to Alice, who could have used the break.

I’m rarely roused to feminist ire. I was raised without the notion of inferiority and my personal manifest destiny has never been trampled by Man; I identify conceptually, but there’s precious little fuel for my fire. Reading about Alice B. Sheldon has been revelatory, because unlike suffragettes and Gloria Steinem, she was like me (although, clearly, a genius). The way she considered the world, her conflicts, her totally self-sufficient, inscrutable personal universe, her disastrous relationships, her little perversities and vices, her interests and fears — it’s like reading about a more interesting version of myself. To discover that this woman, this lost sister, had to waste a single instant of her precious time on Earth fighting against entrenched patriarchies — in the army, in the CIA, in academia — it’s intolerable. I imagine myself in her situation, just trying to be my weird self in a world full of boring expectations, and it makes me feel hopeless, too. Alice might’ve given up on being creative if she hadn’t become James Tiptree Jr.

Which, incidentally, makes me even more thankful for Science Fiction (G bless it), a jolly universe full of stringy-haired Futurians, who immediately recognized the Tiptree voice as that of a fellow outsider, and lavished understanding praise upon its violent, sexed, fresh vision. Harlan Ellison told Tiptree, “Nobody touches you!” Philip K. Dick admitted to being “humbled and nettled” by Tiptree, whose work he found “damn good.” Alice scrapped for her whole life against a conservative world that didn’t get her, and here she was, in her fifties, as a man, finally got.

By the time her secret was uncovered, Tiptree was a legend, and she had placed herself at the vortex of a massive sea-change in the depiction of gender in science fiction. By pulling the wool over everyones’ eyes, she revealed the truth. And it took a lie to do it.

NEXT BOOK: CLIFFORD D. SIMAK’S A CHOICE OF GODS

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One Response to The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

  1. Jen Elliott says:

    so remarkable and you captured it too. i felt that way reading Djuna Barne’s NIGHTWOOD.

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