"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:
- 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?)
- 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.")
("Will they ever call me home, boditech?" No reply.)
- 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:
- 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
), 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.