The Slow Unveiling of James Tiptree Jr.
November 6, 2014 7:56 PM   Subscribe

It began with a letter to a friend with a request: would he be willing to place a note in his fanzine, Khatru, letting people know that the reason he had been out of touch was that his mother had passed away in Chicago. The request came in 1976 from James Tiptree Jr., one of the recent stars writing short fiction. He was elusive; nobody had met or spoken with him in the years that he'd been writing, and there was much speculation about his real identity. The request was the first step toward unveiling who exactly Tiptree was: a 61-year-old woman named Alice Sheldon.
posted by Chrysostom (14 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
 
I do love me some AS/JTJr. The biography by Julie Phillips is lovely. She reminds me strongly of Julia Child, who, like Sheldon, worked for an intelligence agency and had an amazing love story of a marriage.
posted by bq at 8:39 PM on November 6, 2014 [4 favorites]


Thanks for posting this.

I was introduced to Tiptree/Sheldon as a scifi author via metafilter. Since I have read scifi for most of my life, as an adult, it is hard for scifi to introduce me to novel ways of thinking about a topic; however, Titpree's fiction does do that, which is why I have been enamored by Tiptree the author.

So I am hoping it is okay to drop in these previous metafilter posts, because Tiptree's stories are what makes this author intriguing (to me). This post has links to many of Tiptree's stories that are published online (there is also a ton of background info in that post about the Tiptree/Sheldon's life). This other metafilter post links to youtube videos of the show Welcome to Paradox; in it, the scifi stories of several authors have been adapted into various episodes. It includes The Girl Who Was Plugged in (part 1, 2 3 or in written form as the novella). Anyway, it was this particular story that piqued my interest and helped me appreciate this particular author. So I am dropping all of this in here for others who might similarly discover Tiptree via metafilter.

Re: the linked article. It was shocking to read about the end of Alice Sheldon's life (ie, mental illness and carrying out a suicide pact). But it was also inspiring to find out that starting in 1991, the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award was established, which isannual literary prize for scifi/fantasy that expands or explores the understanding of gender. Way to live forever, James Tiptree.
posted by Wolfster at 8:51 PM on November 6, 2014 [12 favorites]


I recommend to anyone with even a passing interest in science fiction Tiptree's collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. One of my favorite collections. It's a broad look at her work rather than a deep one but not weaker for that.
posted by Justinian at 8:53 PM on November 6, 2014 [7 favorites]


Minor correction to the article - the story is "Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death" (note that lack of punctuation...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:38 PM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


The biography by Julie Phillips is lovely.

I once sat an entire dinner with mutual friends next to her without knowing who she was and I had literally just finished that biography. Speaking of missed opportunities....

And yes, the biography is wonderful, one of the best biographies of an sf writer ever written.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:21 AM on November 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


Agree with Martin, the biography is absolutely brilliant and highly entertaining. Sad that there are still so many people who don't know the complete back story.
posted by Fizz at 4:46 AM on November 7, 2014


So I am hoping it is okay to drop in these previous metafilter posts...

Unless the community norms have changed radically in one of my frequent long absences, it's just about always OK to drop in previous related metafilter posts.
posted by lodurr at 6:33 AM on November 7, 2014


> I am hoping it is okay to drop in these previous metafilter posts

Yup, it's always OK to link to prior posts. One of the two, my bio-type post on Alice, is currently the 3rd "Related Posts" link at the bottom of this page. (I think the only time it would not be good to drop a "previous" link would be if it drew the discussion on a tangent, or made the thread take an aggressive turn.)


> the biography is wonderful, one of the best biographies of an sf writer ever written.

> It was shocking to read about the end of Alice Sheldon's life (ie, mental illness and carrying out a suicide pact).

The biography is indeed splendid, and Julie Phillips is very nice (I wrote to her about a a passing note in Sheldon's biography about a secretive sci-fi writing mathematician who didn't cash his checks, and she told me what she knew and where to look for more information).

But Sheldon's live takes a tragic turn at the end, and the biography does a beautiful, heartbreaking retelling of those final moments. Seriously, I'm tearing up as I write this. I'm thrilled for the life that Alice lead, but I'm still torn about her mental state throughout her life, and at the end.

But back to this article: calling it a "slow unveiling" is weird, because it was actually pretty quick, after "Uncle Tip" told some friends who knew "him" through exchanged letters about the passing of her mother. Friends and fans pieced together hints and looked for recent obituaries, and found Mary Hastings Bradley, who had one daughter, Alice Bradley Sheldon. Mary died in October 1976, and in the Locus magazine issue dated January 30, 1977 (mailed to subscribers in early March), front-page item headlined "Tiptree Revealed." (Google books preview of James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips)
posted by filthy light thief at 7:27 AM on November 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


It was a different time, I guess -- a time when banning a known pedophile from a con to protect children was regarded as controversial, but it was scandalous to obfuscate your gender to people you'd never met.
posted by lodurr at 7:44 AM on November 7, 2014 [5 favorites]


> Sad that there are still so many people who don't know the complete back story.

I think that's a good thing. Her life was very tragic, and her work was very great. You should be able to take pleasure from the work without having to know the sad part.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:11 AM on November 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


An appropriate FPP, as Gamergate seems determined to be the online equivalent of The Screwfly Solution...
posted by Ian A.T. at 9:01 AM on November 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


Yeah, but who's behind it? Remember the screwfly solution was externally caused.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:11 AM on November 7, 2014


lodurr: It was a different time, I guess -- a time when banning a known pedophile from a con to protect children was regarded as controversial, but it was scandalous to obfuscate your gender to people you'd never met.

All that was well before my time, but reading her biography, it sounds like there were still a lot of discussions going on around whether or not women could really write sci-fi well, and if men could write convincing stories about realistic women. Tiptree was held as a shining light, a proper feminist man in sci-fi who wrote convincingly about women (The Women Men Don't See is a stellar example), and unfortunately in the reveal, she wasn't universally lauded as a women who wrote great sci-fi. She conversed with fans and friends as a swaggering Uncle Tip, boasting of wild adventures (which she genuinely lived, too), and I think a lot of people got pulled into who they imagined she was.

As for her double identity, the biography covers it quickly (Google books preview): she wanted to both separate herself from her published research papers that she wrote under her own name, and selected a somewhat random male name because it was more common to see men writing sci-fi than women.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:05 PM on November 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


It's too bad I wasted my yearly "ineluctably masculine" reference in the Banksy thread a few days ago. I didn't realize we were going to have a Tiptree thread or I would have waited.
posted by Justinian at 4:12 PM on November 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


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