Join 3,572 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


"James Tiptree, Jr.: two decades of new wave science fiction (1968-88)
December 20, 2013 7:32 PM   Subscribe

"We can go to science fiction for its sense of wonder, its power to take us to far-off places and future times. We can go to political fiction to understand injustice in our own time, to see what should change. We may go to poetry — epic or lyric, old or new — for what cannot change, for a sense of human limits, as well as for the music in its words. And if we want all those things at once — a sense of escape, a sense of injustice, a sense of mortality and an ear for language — we can read the stories of James Tiptree, Jr.," the reclusive, award-winning author whose vague biography started out in the Congo, routed through a period as a painter, then service as a photo intelligence officer in WWII, and finally a researcher and teacher of "soft" sciences before getting to writing science fiction. There was another facet that was only guessed at by some, dismissed by others: the fact that "Uncle Tip," and his reclusive friend, the former school teacher Racoona Sheldon, were the same person. And they were Alice Bradley Sheldon.

Alice wrote that "Everything I've told you or anyone else is true" (Google books preview), and it was. James Tiptree, Jr. was not merely a pen-name for Alice, but a public persona for a private woman, and a way to voice her thoughts about her world, past, present and future.

Alice Sheldon was the only daughter of Herbert and Mary Hastings Bradley, Chicago socialites and explorers who took their blonde-haired daughter with them to Africa. Mary wrote of the adventures of her daughter in Alice in Jungleland and Alice in Elephantland, and their family was seen and documented in the Chicago society columns. As their only child, the Bradleys were protective of Alice, and generally soft-spoken, though Mary was also a socialite, and the center of attention in many occasions.

Alice Bradley got married at 19, eloping with William Davey a mere 5 days after meeting him. He was a young man with a similar, fiery temperament as Alice. Their marriage was rocky from the start, but Alice found freedom from the life she had lived with her parents. She dabbled in art and writing, working for a period as an art critic for the Chicago Sun, but didn't find the work fulfilling. She and William were divorced in 1941, and in 1942, she joined the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, as a way to join with women in active work, "for a part in things." At first, she found the comradeship of the women to be exciting for its potential, but was soon disillusioned at the reality of the organization, especially as it was fit in with, or under, the traditional male military structure. The WAAC was disbanded, and reformed as Women's Army Corps, and WAACs were offered an honorable discharge, or to continue with WAC.

Alice stayed with the WACs, and after reading about British photo intelligence operations, she sought out and was selected for a small intelligence department in 1943. She worked as an interpreter of aerial reconnaissance photographs, first in Washington, D.C., then oversees in the efforts to collect German intelligence data in the Spring of 1945. It was there she met Col. Huntington Denton "Ting" Sheldon, who was leading the scientific "exploitation division" where she was employed. They were compatible minds, but mis-matched in the bedroom. Alice, still struggling with her sexuality, being attracted to beautiful "doomed" girls (Google books preview). They got married in September of 1945, and left the army in 1946, the same year Alice published 'The Lucky Ones' in The New Yorker (summary only, full content available to subscribers only). But this would be her only piece of fiction published under her own name, and she wouldn't get published again for over a decade.

After the war, they retreated from the busy life of intelligence officers, and ran a chicken farm in rural New Jersey. They sold their farm in 1952, and went to work for the CIA, resuming similar roles that they held in World War II. But the work wasn't her own, and she was uncertain about her marriage. Alice left the CIA in 1955, and used her intelligence training to disappear for a period, and remained separated from her husband for a year.

Allie entered academia in January 1957 at the age of 41, and she earned her bachelor's degree from American University in Washington, D.C. in 1959, then began graduate studies in experimental psychology at George Washington University, focusing on aesthetics, perception, and human vision, a topic she had been researching on and off for years. Alice was finishing her dissertation in 1967, when she returned to writing, but opted for the escapism of science fiction that she had read as a girl, given to her by Harry Augustus Bigelow (Gbp), her "Uncle" Harry. To protect her academic reputation, she wrote the pieces as James Tiptree, Jr., taking the name from the Tiptree jams she saw on grocery store shelves one day.

The stories were written something as a lark, a generally lighthearted escape from the seriousness of her dissertation. But she did send them to publishers, and she had seven short stories published in 1968. She opened up a bank account for James Tiptree, Jr., and started responding to letters from editors in the character of "Tip," as (s)he preferred to be called. (S)he also corresponded with authors, first gushing adoration and admiration for other authors, peaking with a letter to Philip K. Dick in 1969 when he was at the height of his career and Alli as Tiptree was just starting out. Dick asked Tiptree to collaborate on something, but Alli declined, under saying (s)he the offer was "Some kind of an honor that descended on me ni a dream and is not to be taken seriously." Alli/Tiptree also wrote as equals with a young Harlan Ellison that same year, and later became "Uncle Tip" (Gbp) to Craig Strete in 1974, providing insight of a seasoned publisher to the young Cherokee writer. Tip also had a lively letter-writing relationship with Ursula K. Le Guin and Joanna Russ. The relationship with Le Guin was as a couple of like-minded older writers, slightly flirtatious, but quite serious. The latter was complex, as Russ was a young writer, and passionate about feminism in ways that Allie found hard to relate to, given the age gap of two decades.

As recognition for Tiptree grew, so did the requests for personal information, which was minimal up to the early 1970s. In the introduction to Houston, Houston Do You Read, a compilation of stories published in 1973, Harry Harrison, the editor, shared the vague but swaggering biography for Tiptree, and in the one interview James Tiptree, Jr. gave was to Jeffrey Smith, via written correspondence (Google books preview), he mentioned traveling in "places like colonial India and Africa" and time in the army and with the broad and vague government. Some connected those hazy dots to support the notion of Tiptree as a male author, while other fans pointed to what what they thought to be feminine sensitivities and an astounding understanding of women's point of views, and thought the true Tiptree was a woman.

But Alice Bradley Sheldon hid from view, living her own relatively quiet life of gardening, house chores, and annual trips to quiet, untamed cabins in the woods and vaguely remote tropical beaches with Ting, later spending more time to take care of her aging father and mother. Alice was shaken in 1961, when her father died of pneumonia, but she publicly divulged more details of the person behind the pen (er, blue-inked typewriter) when Tip shared that his mother passed away in 1976. People connected the hints to the obituary for a Mary Bradley, who was survived by her daughter, Alice Bradley Sheldon. Locus magazine officially broke the news in 1977.

Some fans felt betrayed, but Alice received many letters of support from fans and authors alike. Still, Alice's persona of Tiptree was shaken, and the tone of her Tiptree stories lacked something in the period following the revelation that James was in fact Alice, but (s)he did continue to write.

Alice suffered with bouts of depression, and quite possibly suffered from manic-depression, as she had periods of peaks, though in later years the depressions got worse. She also struggled with over-use of various pharmaceuticals, in part used to battle the bleak periods, and to regain some of those peaks. Ting was twelve and a half years older than Allie, and starting in the mid-1970s, she talked more about suicide, including discussing a suicide pact with her husband. Though he didn't suffer from the same sort of dark periods as his wife, he discussed the topic with her, as they were aging. In his last years, he lost his vision and was mostly deaf, and Allie cared for him as best she could. On May 19, 1987, Allie shot Ting while he was asleep and killed herself. He was eighty-four, she was seventy-one. She left behind fans and friends, and seventy-five pieces of science fiction, mostly written as James Tiptree, Jr., with five stories written as Raccoona Sheldon.

Alice's impact on science fiction is a lasting one. She "expanded the edges of possibility for the field" of science fiction in general, and "the field of feminist and queer speculative fiction today," which "would not exist the way that we know it" without Alice Bradley Sheldon.

Without further ado, a mere sampling of pieces from James Tiptree, Jr., available to read online:

1969
- Beam Us Home (on finding your place in the world, and beyond)
- The Last Flight of Dr. Ain (what would you do for the one you loved?)

1972
- The Man Who Walked Home (closer, closer, every step)
- And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side ("I’d trade—correction, I have traded—everything Earth offered me for just that chance. To see them. To speak to them. Once in a while to touch one.")
- Painwise ("Will they ever call me home, boditech?" No reply.)

1973
- Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death (The Old One said it. Red is the color of love.)
- The Women Men Don't See ("We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.")
- The Girl Who Was Plugged In ("In the crowd over there, that one gaping at her gods. One rotten girl in the city of the future. (That's what I said.) Watch.")

And written as Raccoona Sheldon:

1977
- The Screwfly Solution (I didn't feel frightened, I felt something important had happened. I tried to get him to sit down. But he motioned me to follow him back down the hall, to where Dr. Fay was. "You must see," he said.)

If it seems like the stories are excerpts of something larger, provided without a proper introduction to set the stage, that's Tiptree's trick. As (s)he said: "start from the end and preferably 5,000 feet underground on a dark day and then don't tell them."


In 1991, Karen Joy Fowler and Pat Murphy created James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, which is presented annually to a short story or novel that explores or expands our understanding of gender, both to honor Alice Sheldon and to remind the field of its own importance in the continual struggle to re-imagine more liveable sexual roles for ourselves. "Just ask yourself, if we weren't taught to be women, what would we be? (Ask yourself this question even if you're a man, and don't cheat by changing the words.)"

As a political statement, as a means of involving people, as an excuse to eat cookies and as an attempt to strike the proper ironic note, the Tiptree Award has been financed primarily through bake sales, mostly held at science fiction conventions. One to two pieces are awarded each year, with an additional five stories have been given retrospective awards.

The James Tiptree, Jr. Award website includes more details, including additional information on past award winners, short honor lists, and longer lists of other recommended reading (some of which are online), plus a book reading club.


One final tangent: A number of Allie's stories have been adapted over the years, with two Tiptree stories covered in NPR's Sci-Fi Radio (previously), The Girl who was Plugged In was an episode of the TV series Welcome to Paradox, and The Screwfly Solution was adapted as an episode of Masters of Horror. Additionally, some of Tiptree's works were paired with music by Connie Converse for a performance called Xenophilia (still shots of a performance and more on Constellation Moving Company's website) , and The Girl who was Plugged In was adapted as the first half of a two-act off-Broadway musical called Weird Romance, originally staged in 1992 then slightly expanded in 2003 with new songs by the original composer, Alan Menken, who has scored a number of films for Disney and other companies.
posted by filthy light thief (31 comments total) 156 users marked this as a favorite

 
Much of the background for Allie (as well as the nickname as the preferred name) are from Julie Phillips' great biography, James Tiptree, Jr., subtitled: "The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon." You can read more, including excerpts, on Julie's site, and there's more on this NPR piece.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:44 PM on December 20, 2013 [10 favorites]


Holy. Shit. Fucking awesome post.
posted by lalochezia at 7:46 PM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Thanks! But it's a quick hack of Phillips' book, which made me cry (seriously).

And if you're desperate for more Tiptree, you can dig through the Russian "Book Reader" site's collection. The formatting (and source) of the stories might be questionable, but there's a lot there that isn't elsewhere online.

But if you're looking for a taste, the pieces linked above are great, and mostly (if not all) copied with what appears to be proper permissions received.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:48 PM on December 20, 2013


Edu-core thrash punk band Bloodhag had a song about Tiptree.
posted by mcmile at 7:49 PM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Last comment from me (for a while): Joanna Russ' obit post, an AskMe question on where to start with Tiptree's stories, and my question about a mysterious citation in Phillips' book (no solutions, yet).
posted by filthy light thief at 7:51 PM on December 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Huh, no one's beat up poor Bob Silverberg yet?

Anyway - Tiptree was fantastic. The Screwfly Solution is one of the single most disturbing stories I've ever read.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:07 PM on December 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


"Ineluctibly masculine," my eye.
posted by suelac at 8:22 PM on December 20, 2013


Wow. Great post. This post is what encyclopedia entries used to look like when they were written by professionals, except they didn't have this much personality. All my favorites unto you! Thanks for the great reads.
posted by Mister_A at 8:35 PM on December 20, 2013


suelac: ""Ineluctibly masculine," my eye."

There it is!
posted by Chrysostom at 8:37 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Such a great post! Thanks! Phillips' biography was my introduction to Tiptree several years ago, and I spent the rest of that winter obsessed and seeking out as much as I could find. Between her and Octavia Butler, my SF/F horizons changed dramatically that year.

I was about to list the stories I loved, but then I realized I was just writing a bibliography.
posted by librarina at 10:48 PM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Huh, no one's beat up poor Bob Silverberg yet?

Why should we? Silverberg was absolutely right. James Tiptree Jr. was ineluctably masculine -- because Alice Sheldon wrote him that way. For someone who, at times, had wished she could be a man, the Tiptree mask was a chance to explore that presentation. Read Phillips's book!
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 12:28 AM on December 21, 2013


The Screwfly Solution is one of the single most disturbing stories I've ever read.

No shit. It's the stuff of nightmares. And, as I've probably mentioned before, one story where the putative gender of the author utterly changed my feelings towards it. With a male name on the byline, it's a horrific misogynist fantasy. With a woman's, it's the articulation of our deepest fears.

Sheldon was a fantastic writer.
posted by jokeefe at 12:41 AM on December 21, 2013 [9 favorites]


I have never read any of her work (that I know of) and I only own Up The Walls Of The World, and I was going to ask where I should start, but I see Ask.Me covered that.

But The Screwfly Solution was adapted as an episode of Masters of Horror? I must have blotted that out. I totally want to read the original now.

I'm not going to read stories online, but I have the 800p SF Gateway Omnibus of her work wishlisted for when it gets issued in 2015.
posted by Mezentian at 1:40 AM on December 21, 2013


And, as I've probably mentioned before, one story where the putative gender of the author utterly changed my feelings towards it.

How? The Screwfly Solution was published as by Racoona Sheldon, not Tiptree.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:43 AM on December 21, 2013


If you get impatient for 2015, the collection Her Stars Rose Up Forever has a good selection of her most well-known stories.
posted by Jeanne at 3:45 AM on December 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


The Screwfly Solution was indeed written under the Raccoona Sheldon persona, but I think it has been classified as a Tiptree story in some places, including on Masters of Horror. In reading about that episode, I came across this review of the short story and the episode, where the reviewer is astounded that no one really takes the wide-spread femicides seriously, and the director of the episode, Sam Hamm, who refers to the original story as a "paranoid, illogical, but nonetheless extraordinary vision." I benefited from reading Ms. Phillips' book first, which points out that the sheer casualness of it all is what makes it shocking, and the "science" that allows it all to happen seems like a small jump for a sci-fi story. Really, I think the reality of certain kinds of aggression being not far from normal makes the story more real, and more frightening.
posted by filthy light thief at 6:26 AM on December 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I regularly use the list of tiptree nominees as a to read list. It generally works out for me.

Part of my reawakening as a science fiction fan is getting to college and finding out that science fiction can be feminist, has been feminist, and had been publishing really awesome stories about gender for decades. 'The women men don't see' was a huge part of that.

Also, Jesus Christ, her titles are amazing.
posted by dinty_moore at 7:08 AM on December 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


How? The Screwfly Solution was published as by Racoona Sheldon, not Tiptree.

I read the book as part of an anthology and it was indeed credited to James Tiptree Jr. I'm positive my memory isn't faulty, as I remember how I felt when I finished it and looked again to see the author's name. I was on a train in Italy. It was a long time ago, but I do remember it clearly, as well the relief of finding out later who James Tiptree Jr. actually was.

And yes to her titles. "Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death." Amazing.
posted by jokeefe at 10:02 AM on December 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


the reviewer is astounded that no one really takes the wide-spread femicides seriously, and the director of the episode, Sam Hamm, who refers to the original story as a "paranoid, illogical, but nonetheless extraordinary vision." I benefited from reading Ms. Phillips' book first, which points out that the sheer casualness of it all is what makes it shocking, and the "science" that allows it all to happen seems like a small jump for a sci-fi story.

What still amazes me about the story is exactly this: the social mechanics that swing into action in order to justify the slaughter--shoring it up with quotes from the Bible, the segregation of women, widely accepted sexual aggression-- are all already in place. The levers and pulleys are built into society and all it takes is the last... link, whatever you call it, which turns each man into a murderer. A few moments from that story that strike me whenever I think of it: that it isn't only women who are the victims of killing-what-you-desire, but men and boys. And at the very end, when women have been wiped off the earth, the one wistful character who says that he's going to miss children, implying that it's wearing off, and that at some future point the men are going to realize what they have done. The whole thing is so horrific and so plausible-- as she writes it. Very few people could have pulled it off. Technically it's jaw-dropping.
posted by jokeefe at 10:10 AM on December 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


In reading about that episode, I came across this review of the short story and the episode, where the reviewer is astounded that no one really takes the wide-spread femicides seriously, and the director of the episode, Sam Hamm, who refers to the original story as a "paranoid, illogical, but nonetheless extraordinary vision." I benefited from reading Ms. Phillips' book first, which points out that the sheer casualness of it all is what makes it shocking, and the "science" that allows it all to happen seems like a small jump for a sci-fi story. Really, I think the reality of certain kinds of aggression being not far from normal makes the story more real, and more frightening.

Just jumping in to be pedantic and note that Joe Dante directed this episode; Sam Hamm wrote it. I was fuzzily aware of Alice Sheldon at the time that I saw the episode and quickly read a number of her stories afterward, including (obviously) this one. The episode is worth a watch. The original story is not inherently cinematic, and so changes were necessary to both expand it and flesh out the characters, to say nothing of updating it a few decades...but I think the result is very much in the vein of the source material, while being something very different.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 10:13 AM on December 21, 2013


Epic post, thanks! Huge fan, I still regret loaning out my copy of "10,000 Light Years from Home" to my brother (he loses things, you see) but I wanted to turn him on to this great fucking writer I'd found. There's a rawness to some of her early stuff, it's easy to see why everyone was shocked to discover he was really a she.

Don't know if it was mentioned in the post, but there's a good collection in print, has most of her best work.
posted by Bron at 10:36 AM on December 21, 2013


You can find most of Allie's publications around, in one physical form or another. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is the only one still/again in print, it seems.

Does anyone have much information for the 2015 omnibus? All I found was this vague overview, listing the 800 page count, and the Dec. 31, 2015 release date, with Orion Publishing Co and their Gateway imprint being credited with the release. Searching Orion Books for Tiptree turns up no news on the title, and SF Gateway doesn't have anything, either.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:59 AM on December 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


When I ran into one of the bake sales recently, I wondered why I'd missed reading much Tiptree and now from the bibliographies I see she exclusively wrote short stories. Too bad, an "actually enlightened" "Stranger in a Strange Land" SF novel would have been a good thing.
posted by sammyo at 12:42 PM on December 21, 2013


I've bookmarked this, so from now on, whenever someone wants to know about James Tiptree Jr., I can direct them here, to find out everything about her.
posted by happyroach at 1:13 PM on December 21, 2013


Tiptree did write two novels. Up the Walls of the World is out of print; Brightness Falls From the Air, the better of the two from what I've heard, is easily findable used and has a Kindle edition. I haven't read either -- I find there's only so much Tiptree I can take in a go, and I've heard they don't quite stand up in comparison to her novels -- but I'd be interested in reading them.
posted by Jeanne at 1:19 PM on December 21, 2013


Then there's The Starry Rift, a series of four related stories, taking place in the same universe as Brightness Falls from the Air. Generally, it seems Allie did better with shorter, crazy dense works, as she really struggled to expand her ideas into a novel-length work. She would create amazing worlds for a few hundred words, and by comparison, the novels felt like she had to stretch a bit.

kittens for breakfast, thanks for the clarification on the Masters of Horror episode details.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:33 PM on December 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


You can find most of Allie's publications around, in one physical form or another. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is the only one still/again in print, it seems.

I'm glad to hear that the rest of her work will be available. For a long time, only Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, originally published by the horror imprint Arkham House, was in print. As a result of that bias towards darkness, people don't realize an lot of Tiptree's output was funny stories!
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 2:14 PM on December 21, 2013


Filthy light thief Book Depository is where I got the info from, and I will be sad if it doesn't come true.
posted by Mezentian at 7:04 PM on December 21, 2013


(previously) link takes me to a restaurant website?
posted by stevil at 9:43 AM on December 24, 2013


So it does. Well, this is awkward. There's no flag for delicious.
posted by Mezentian at 2:33 PM on December 24, 2013


Here's the proper NPR Sci-Fi Radio (previoulsy) link, to replace the link to delicious Indian food.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:14 PM on December 28, 2013


« Older Collision Detection....   |   A Christmas Boner is a complet... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments