January 21, 2007

BOOKS: James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, Julie Phillips (2006)

I'm not generally a big fan of biographies, especially of creative people. I would rather let the art speak for itself, so you won't find me at author readings, or "special appearance by the director at the 8 pm show!" events.

But y'know, if all biographies were as interesting and well-written as this one, I'd read a lot more of them.

James Tiptree, Jr. took science fiction by storm in the late 1960s with a series of dazzling short stories; among Tiptree's themes was the battle between the sexes (and make no mistake, in Tiptree's stories, it was indeed a battle). In award-winning stories like "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" and "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?," Tiptree gave us men and women who couldn't understand one another -- could barely acknowledge each other's existence (one story was called "The Women Men Don't See") -- and rarely did anyone get a happy ending or find true love.

Tiptree was a recluse, communicating only by letter; there were no phone calls or author photos. In 1976, it was revealed that Tiptree was actually Alice Sheldon, a 60ish research psychologist and retired CIA analyst. This was a shock to many and an embarassment to some; the author/critic Robert Silverberg had contemptuously dismissed rumors that Tiptree was female, saying that there was something "ineluctably masculine" about his writing.

Sheldon lived a fascinating life. She was the only child of Chicago socialites and world travelers; they took her on three trips to Africa before she was 15, and this was in the 1930s, when Africa was a wilder and more dangerous place than it is today. Her mother, Mary Bradley, was a moderately successful author, and Alice provided illustrations for Mary's childrens' books about Africa.

She struggled all of her life with what we'd now recognize as depression or bipolar disorder; as a young woman, she felt strong romantic attraction to female friends (she apparently never acted on those urges, and by the time of her second marriage, seems to have either repressed them or stopped talking/writing about them).

She had a hard time finding her place in the world, spending time as a newspaper art critic, a WAC photoanalyst during WWII (and the same job with the CIA after the war), a research psychologist, and various other jobs. It took her until her 50s to find her voice as a writer, and she was convinced that the only reason anyone took her writing seriously at all was that that voice was (perceived to be) male.

The loss of her anonymity hit Sheldon hard; she wrote almost nothing for two years, and when Tiptree stories did appear again, she believed (and most critics agreed) that they were not as good as the stories written before the revelation of Tiptree's identity. Sheldon died in 1987 in a murder-suicide pact with her ailing husband.

Julie Phillips spent ten years working on this biography, which is remarkably thorough and detailed. She almost never leaps to "she must have thought" conclusions, or does armchair psychology that can't be justified by the facts at hand. She does a fine job of summarizing Tiptree's stories and themes for those who haven't read them (so you needn't feel that this biography is for science fiction fans only).

Phillips' portrait of Alice Sheldon is sympathetic without being sycophantic. Sheldon struggled at length with the role of women in society, and with the challenges faced by women who weren't content with the standard roles allotted to them; her life is a fascinating social history of women's roles in the twentieth century.

Very fine work, and highly recommended.

1 comment:

Randall said...

NIce review, Keith. I read a lot of Tiptree and have been looking forward to the book. You've moved it a little further up on my wish list (still waiting for a used copy to show up on Amazon).