"Anyone who shoots a real gun at you when drunk and angry is simply not husband material, regardless of his taste in literature."
September 14, 2010 10:00 AM   Subscribe

Some lives of James Tiptree Jr./Alice Sheldon/Racoona Sheldon (somewhat previously).

I believe the biographical material is largely taken from Julie Phillips's book.
posted by enn (44 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ah. For those, like me, unable to fathom a reality in which a person is actually named "Racoona":

Alice's second pen name, Racoona Sheldon...

I feel much better about the world now.
posted by gurple at 10:04 AM on September 14, 2010


She was such an amazing woman, but I always get a bit of a chill when I think about her.

"Anyone who shoots a real gun at you when drunk and angry is simply not husband material, regardless of his taste in literature."
Hmm, I'm going to keep this in mind for when I start embroidering pithy statements on pillows.
posted by redsparkler at 10:16 AM on September 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


Love is the Plan, and the Plan is Death
posted by Artw at 10:22 AM on September 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


(I suggest using Readability with that.)
posted by Artw at 10:28 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Bill and Alice's sex was terrible, aggravated by the fact that Alice was unable to have an orgasm through intercourse. [...] and they both drank enough that they should have been able to get it right.

what
posted by Endure You Are Not Alone at 10:32 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


One of the cooler things I found in the Asimov archive at Boston University this summer was a fan letter written to Asimov from Alice Sheldon in character as James Tiptree, Jr. The "—or woman—" near the end of the letter really stands out.
posted by gerryblog at 10:48 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


What a hell of a writer Tiptree/Sheldon was, and what a sad life. I have yet to read the biography; perhaps I'm putting it off because I know it will depress me. I'm glad for the post, but I wish the linked article were better written: "An incestuous and eccentric crew, Tiptree could never see them in person, but that was no matter." Sheesh, what a sentence!
posted by languagehat at 10:51 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I keep thinking about Tiptree as one of those examples of the liminality of gender that is not easily expressed by some of the reentrenching of binaries i see mirrored in some of the more surgical transgendered work.

ase
posted by PinkMoose at 11:07 AM on September 14, 2010


Yeah, languagehat, there were quite a few clunkers like that throughout that piece, and I wonder how well-supported some of the interpretations of fact were, but it was an intriguing summary of her life nonetheless. Sheldon's full biography is worth the read, no matter how depressing it is.
posted by maudlin at 11:14 AM on September 14, 2010


The writing style of that article is very weird and a little creepy. He's got this overly familiar tone that makes it sound like he was a friend or associate of hers.
posted by octothorpe at 11:21 AM on September 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


I've read Tiptree's fiction, but I've never known anything about her until now. To me she was just another big name in mid-20th-century American SF, and the one who happened to be a woman writing under a male pseudonym. I never knew about her life or her death. What an amazing person she was. Thank you for the post, enn.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:22 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


She came out to many of her closest friends, and even wrote a letter to Robert Silverberg apologizing for allowing him to praise her for her excess of maleness in an introduction to one of her stories in his New Dimensions anthology.

I have always wondered if Silverberg knew that Tiptree was a woman, because his introduction "Who is Tiptree, What is He?" is so hilariously oblivious in its confident chauvinism. There's a line where he dismisses a theory that Tiptree is a woman because the writing is so "ineluctably masculine" and couldn't possibly be written by a woman, the same way that the stories of Hemingway couldn't have been written by a woman because they're so manly.

I wish, though, that the focus of any discussion of Tiptree wasn't always about her use of a pseudonym (even though I'm guilty of that myself). It often takes the focus off her work, which I think is seriously underrated in sf circles. I feel her influence often goes unacknowledged. It's hard, because her life IS pretty fascinating, but I think her work isn't as easily grouped into the New Wave category as it sometimes is. Personally, I think there's clear parallels between her terse, pessimistic view of societal control in something like "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" and recent popular YA stuff like The Hunger Games or The Knife of Never Letting Go. That sort of aspect to Tiptree's work often gets a short shrift when compared to her more genderbending stuff.
posted by fryman at 11:25 AM on September 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


The whole CIA thing is rather intriguing too.
posted by Artw at 11:27 AM on September 14, 2010



The writing style of that article is very weird and a little creepy. He's got this overly familiar tone that makes it sound like he was a friend or associate of hers.


The weirdness and creepiness max out in discussions about sex and alcohol. I found the article interesting, but really off putting whenever those things come up. The author was really colloquial and editorial about them.
posted by Stagger Lee at 11:43 AM on September 14, 2010


I keep thinking about Tiptree as one of those examples of the liminality of gender that is not easily expressed by some of the reentrenching of binaries i see mirrored in some of the more surgical transgendered work.

Can you elaborate on why this is? Using a pseudonym to boost sales doesn't really strike me as some sort of blow against the patriarchy or the binary view of gender or whatever.

It often takes the focus off her work, which I think is seriously underrated in sf circles.

Not in circles which involve serious readers who have an interest in the history of SF, certainly. One of the second-tier SF awards (after the Hugos and Nebulas) is even named for her. Something which isn't true even of guys like Heinlein or Asimov.
posted by Justinian at 11:45 AM on September 14, 2010


Yeah, she had an incredible life, and deserved a better article than this. I'm no prude, but I'm not sure that I needed to know what specific sex act her husband caught her performing on her female lover. I also find it weird that there's no mention of her most famous work, "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?", for which she won both the Hugo and the Nebula. Also, it's "Raccoona", with two Cs, and contrary to gurple, I think that it's a logical nickname for someone who seems to have had dark circles around her eyes from an early age.

"Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" remains, for me, one of the most disturbing SF stories I've ever read, and was even more so when I was younger and in no way prepared to deal not only with the concept that the world could survive without men, but that it might be better off in the long run. (Something that I didn't realize until I was much older was that the most disturbing aspect of the story is the implication that the plague that wiped out all the men might have been deliberately created.) Not without its flaws, but still powerful stuff.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:08 PM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Her writing was so much better than that of most of the "greats" of her time that thinking about her makes that entire period of SF publishing and criticism into the darkest of tragicomedies for me.

Her reputation grows by the year; theirs decayed into compost long ago.

She parallels Anne Sexton in that way.

Ursula Le Guin also declared Tiptree to be a man, as I recall.
posted by jamjam at 12:15 PM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


The article was a little weird in tone, and I was also on the fence about posting something that appears to be more or less a Cliff Notes version of somebody else's biography, but there was enough biographical detail that I hadn't seen elsewhere online (I haven't read the book) that I thought other people might be interested as well.

I'm really annoyed at myself for misspelling "Raccoona." I double-checked it but foolishly assumed that the article's author had it right. I've corrected the tag; maybe a mod can correct the post text?
posted by enn at 12:15 PM on September 14, 2010


One of the second-tier SF awards (after the Hugos and Nebulas) is even named for her. Something which isn't true even of guys like Heinlein or Asimov.

Very true. Though honestly the Hugos and Nebulas often just feel like the Heinlein or Asimov awards.
posted by fryman at 12:16 PM on September 14, 2010


Justinian: "Using a pseudonym to boost sales doesn't really strike me as some sort of blow against the patriarchy or the binary view of gender or whatever."

That isn't what she was doing at all. When she was writing, all the women writing SF used male pseudonyms, probably so they could make it out of the slush pile.

Her work is deeply disturbing, in ways that I've needed to be disturbed. Her life would have been a lot easier had she been born 50 or 60 years later. But she fought until the end, then left on her own terms, taking her husband, willing or not, with her.
posted by QIbHom at 12:18 PM on September 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


One of the second-tier SF awards (after the Hugos and Nebulas) is even named for her. Something which isn't true even of guys like Heinlein or Asimov.

There actually is a Robert A. Heinlein Award now - for works of Hard Sf promoting spaceflight. Not as well established as the Tiptree, of course.

(Personally I can claim to have a story fairly directly influenced by Tiptree, and none directly influenced by Heinlein. But, that said, If you're writing SF you're pretty much going to be influenced by Heinlein like it or not)

I guess you could kind of argue that any story about the reproductive cycles of aliens, like for instance Alien, is under the influence of Love Is The Plan, but that misses what's so wonderful about the story, which is how deeply it sinks into it's own point of view, how it gives a sympathetic spin to what might otherwise seem monstrous. That's why she is one of the greats.
posted by Artw at 12:24 PM on September 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


That isn't what she was doing at all. When she was writing, all the women writing SF used male pseudonyms, probably so they could make it out of the slush pile.

In the late 60s/early 70s? Not so sure of that. Certainly Le Guin was writing then, and by 1970 picking up tons of awards. Anne McCaffrey was doing her best work then, Andre Norton had been going for ages... I'd go as far as to say that by the late 70s when she dropped it the whole thing must have seemed kind of weird.
posted by Artw at 12:35 PM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I agree that the article was a bit much, but I'll love it forever for the following photo caption in one of the scanned newspaper pics:
Happy in the knowledge that he is once more on the road to good health, Herbert E. Bradley, noted explorer and big game hunter, is planning to invade the haunts of the gorilla and lion once more. His doctor assures him that three months more of convalescence will find him fit to sail for the dark continent. Mrs. Mary Hastings Bradley, his wife, who gave her blood three times for infusions that saved her husband's life, and their daughter Alice Hastings Bradley, will accompany the nimrod.
I know the original meaning of the word, but somehow the more common, colloquial meaning of nimrod fits even better.
posted by Kattullus at 12:37 PM on September 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'll enjoy looking at this. "Houston, Houston, Do You Read" was decisive in my life; I read it when I was 15, and it scared my pants off. It still amazes and unsettles me, even now, but then it was an experience that left a serious and appreciable mark on me.
posted by koeselitz at 12:40 PM on September 14, 2010


On the subject of Sheldon, gender, and sexuality, I find it interesting that her writing basically fell apart when she was outed: being known to be female destroyed her "male" voice.

It's clear from the full biography that when she was outed she was seen as a lesbian, and it is easy today to read her as a butch lesbian. My impression was that she wasn't really aware that "lesbian" was a possibility back when she was in school and during the war.

Today, she might be trans, or she might be butch. But there's no way for us to know how she would have defined herself, if she had only known what all the options were.
posted by djfiander at 12:54 PM on September 14, 2010


Yeah, enn, no disrespect, I read the post with interest and I'm glad it's an fpp, but there is some stuff in there that I do not remember from the biography -- the window anecdote among others! -- so I don't think it's very cool that the bio is the only source the blogger cites. (I do recommend reading the bio, though 'hat's suspicion is correct, is depressing as hell.)
posted by clavicle at 12:54 PM on September 14, 2010


Not having read the biography, but familiar with the Tiptree/Sheldon dynamic, I can't but wonder if she enjoyed writing as James Tiptree. Yes, she at first used the pseudonym to protect her academic work, but why persist in it for as long as she did when her SF work was getting more recognition then her academic work and women like Le Guin were getting published and acclaimed under their own names.

Also, seconding jamjam's take on her work. As time goes on, her work still reads as vital and fresh, while many of her more acclaimed contemporaries work seem stuck in a time and place long since past its freshness date.
posted by KingEdRa at 12:57 PM on September 14, 2010


There actually is a Robert A. Heinlein Award now - for works of Hard Sf promoting spaceflight. Not as well established as the Tiptree, of course.

Huh, so there is. I think I'll start giving out awards now since everyone else seems to.

That isn't what she was doing at all. When she was writing, all the women writing SF used male pseudonyms

This just isn't true. Even if it were true, it's basically making my point for me. Going along with changing your name because "women don't write SF" isn't exactly striking a blow against much of anything. Let me be really clear that I'm not being critical, I was specifically asking a previous commenter what he saw as indicative of the ambiguity of gender in Tiptree. Because that's not what I get out of Tiptree.

Back in the 30s there was likely some pressure to use pseudonyms. Catherine Moore probably used C. L. Moore to de-feminize her name. But we're talking about the frikkin' THIRTIES so this wasn't exactly a "SF problem". And even then it wasn't by any means mandatory. Leigh Brackett was pretty well known for example. By the 40s there were plenty of women writing under their own names, and by Tiptree's time it was de rigeur. Can you point out a few high or even medium profile instances of women being forced to use male pseudonyms post mid 60s? The other one I am most aware of is C.J. Cherryh being forced to add the "h". But that was as recently as the late 70s and, I think, has more to do with her name being "Cherry" than being a female. "Cherryh" is way more SFnal. Okay, it's still a bullshit reason. But "Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherry" just doesn't have the same ring to it.

Counterexamples: Andre Norton. Ursula K. Le Guin. Joanna Russ. Kate Wilhelm. Anne McCaffrey. All high profile, all writing under their own names well before or contemporaneously with Tiptree.

I believe it is fairly accepted that Tiptree did not use the male name because it was the only way to get published (as that is just plain factually wrong) but because it added an extra layer of obsfuscation between her fiction and her real identity, and anonymity was vital to her.
posted by Justinian at 1:03 PM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Leigh and Andre are also a men's names. Tiptree was writing before the 60's. She wasn't forced, she chose.

But, hey, if you want to turn her into a conservative female tool of the patriarchy, go for it. She had a rough enough life without deciding to be the poster child for second wave feminism.


I still remember the pleasant shock of finding out she was female, but even when I thought she was male, that she actually wrote female characters who were recognizably human was a treat.
posted by QIbHom at 1:07 PM on September 14, 2010


I was specifically asking a previous commenter what he saw as indicative of the ambiguity of gender in Tiptree. Because that's not what I get out of Tiptree.

Before anyone raises their eyebrows at me, yes, this part didn't quite come out right. Please allow that I am not an idiot and did not mean that I don't see any gender-related themes underpinning Tiptree's work. Expanding on what I did mean would take more mental effort than I have available at this precise instant.
posted by Justinian at 1:08 PM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Tiptree was writing before the 60's.

"Birth of a Salesman" was published in (I think) Analog in 1968. If you know of any stories published by Tiptree before that, please let me know so that I may become famous in SF circles. She did publish a story under the name Alice Bradley in 1946 but that was in the New Yorker and was a fictionalized account of people displaced during World War II. So that's certainly not something which qualifies.

But, hey, if you want to turn her into a conservative female tool of the patriarchy, go for it.

Hi, I'm Justinian, you may have seen me post about SF on Metafilter before. Or maybe not. If not, well, let's just say that it would take major head trauma before I became stupid enough to do what you suggest. Arguing that Sheldon writing under the name Tiptree was not a blow against patriarchy or whatever isn't, I hope you'd agree, the same as arguing that Tiptree was conservative, a tool, or feeding patriarchy.
posted by Justinian at 1:15 PM on September 14, 2010


Her other pseudonym waS as a masked animal. I suspect that to a certain degree she just dug on playing with deception and ambiguity.
posted by Artw at 1:29 PM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was published under the name J. K. Rowling (already an established pen name, I've heard) rather than Joanne, supposedly to avoid turning away the large proportion of boys who, according to market research, reject out of hand fantasies written by a woman.

Imagine how we all might react if some prominent woman SF writer were to be outed as a man.
posted by jamjam at 1:29 PM on September 14, 2010


In light of Artw's very perceptive comment about the hidden freight of "Raccoona", I am wondering whether "Tiptree" might not be an allusion to Raccoona, given the proclivities of raccoons to climb into treetops to evade pursuit.
posted by jamjam at 1:38 PM on September 14, 2010


I am wondering whether "Tiptree" might not be an allusion to Raccoona,

My understanding is it was just a word-at-hand she appropriated, from a brand of jam she bought.
posted by aught at 1:51 PM on September 14, 2010


That was my understanding.

Here's what she said: "A male name seemed like good camouflage. I had the feeling that a man would slip by less observed. I've had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation."

That last bit seems fairly conventional, though as pointed out writing as a man would have been far from essential she might just not have wanted the hassle, but I find the references to camoflage and slipping away rather interesting there.
posted by Artw at 1:57 PM on September 14, 2010


A thing about allusions, as Finnegans Wake may be said to have demonstrated to a point of hysterical absurdity, is that they can be to more than one thing at a time, though the fact that Tiptree branded jams and jellies appear always to have been made in Britain would seem to reduce the probability that they were ever marketed with a raccoon on the label to a disappointingly low value.

That quote accounts for the "James" part well enough alright, Artw, but "camouflage", via the path you opened up, seems to take us right back to Raccoona.
posted by jamjam at 2:59 PM on September 14, 2010


Yeah, Sheldon to all appearances chose the male pseudonym not because her stories wouldn't have been published under her own name but because they likely would have received more attention rather than less.
posted by Justinian at 3:31 PM on September 14, 2010


Thank you for posting this, I first came across James Tiptree, Jr. in a magazine (most likely Analog) I think I read one story before then reading a small notice in another issue of the magazine about the author's real name and her demise. After that date I always kept a look out for Tiptree when I went to old bookstores and even scored two books.

I had no idea about the full magnitude of her story until today.
posted by Fricka at 3:52 PM on September 14, 2010


"Houston, Houston, Do You Read" was decisive in my life; I read it when I was 15, and it scared my pants off. It still amazes and unsettles me, even now, but then it was an experience that left a serious and appreciable mark on me.

Substitute The Screwfly Solution for Houston here and this describes my experience, also. That story still gives me a sense of primal fear, and I remember feeling close to devastated when, at 19, I finished it and turned to the table of contents (it was in some anthology) to find that it was supposedly written by a male author. At any rate, she had a remarkable life, and I was devastated a second time to read about her death in 1987.
posted by jokeefe at 4:08 PM on September 14, 2010


Some of Sheldon's thoughts on gender are reflected in The Women Men Don't See.
posted by ovvl at 4:38 PM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Add me to the list of people whose lives where strongly affected by reading Tiptree stories, The Screwfly Solution and The Women Men Don't See, at different periods in my teens (14 and 17 respectively). Both dramatically altered how I thought about gender.
posted by Kattullus at 4:41 PM on September 14, 2010


I've been immersed in sci-fi fantasy books since childhood. It was a bit unsettling to read Sheldon's works for the first time a couple years ago, it makes everything that looks at ftl and doesn't look at gender seem a bit flat sometimes .

Her other pseudonym was as a masked animal. I suspect that to a certain degree she just dug on playing with deception and ambiguity.

Certainly, but so much of her work is ties in to gender that she and her personae are all nuance, facets, context that it is deeper than that.

The weirdness and creepiness max out in discussions about sex and alcohol. I found the article interesting, but really off putting whenever those things come up. The author was really colloquial and editorial about them.

"As a member of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC),
Alice was known by Davey, her ex-husband's last name. Her
dominant and aggressive style was a hit in the military,
and she quickly became a sergeant, applying to Officer
Candidate School. Though the WAAC was occupied chiefly by
tasks like making Army Christmas cards, she was still able
to earn the ire of a commanding officer. Sent to Newport
News and made a supply officer, she fucked one of her
fellow officers and wrote in her journal, 'Jesus it was
good to get my legs around a young man again!' What a
woman."

It's a more interesting pen portrait and a more human one. Compare:
"...Sent to Newport News and made a supply officer, she had
sex with one of her fellow officers and wrote in her journal, 'Jesus it was
good to get my legs around a young man again!' ... "

The first version is a more human portrait, and one Sheldon could have written. The second one is sexless, unnauanced, hollow. It wouldn't reflect that she was a person, a woman, and one who had needs, had sex, and fucked. Dry academic-ese or journaist-ese wouldn't be as true a portrait.
posted by sebastienbailard at 6:54 PM on September 14, 2010


I've been immersed in sci-fi fantasy books since childhood. It was a bit unsettling to read Sheldon's works for the first time a couple years ago, it makes everything that looks at ftl and doesn't look at gender seem a bit flat sometimes .

Heh. I was just thinking, Re:The Heinlein awards, that back when the Tiptrees were being dreamt up, that SF stories dealing with gender and sexuality were comparitively rare compared with hard science spaceflight stories, but these days they probably outnumber the decent Hard SF stories being publishes, hence the necesity of a new award.

Course, the Tiptrees have only been going since 1991 so maybe that theory doesn't really completely work.
posted by Artw at 11:24 AM on September 15, 2010


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