James Tiptree Jr., Julie Phillips

St. Martin’s, 2006, 469 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-20385-3

Like any self-respecting late-twentieth-century SF fan, I’ve know the rough outline of James Tiptree Jr.’s “life” from my earliest readings in the genre. Every mention of his, after all, came complete with a pithy note about how “Tiptree” was really Alice Sheldon, writing under pseudonym and managing an amazing career under false pretences, misleading everyone up to the venerable Robert Silverberg. Latter story notes included a tragic postscript: Death by suicide, 1989.

Later on, as my understanding of genre and gender politics grew, it became more difficult not to see the whole story as a feminist parable: A woman out of time, taking a cover identity to achieve what The Man wouldn’t let her. Ah, if only Alice Sheldon had been born in today’s enlightened society. Ah, if only the genre would have allowed her to exploit her talents to the fullest…

But in retrospect, it’s obvious that I had never truly understood, nor even listened attentively to Alice Sheldon’s story. Story notes, encyclopedia entries and convention discussions are a rotten way to understand an author. There is no excuse now: with her densely-detailed biography James Tiptree Jr., Julie Phillips makes it possible to delve deep inside Sheldon’s life, and witness the birth of Tiptree.

For casual fans, the biggest revelation of the book is the description of Alice Sheldon as a young girl, the daughter of wealthy Chicago socialites whose claim to fame was a series of three trips to Africa (then an almost unimaginably exotic destination), lavishly described in written form by Sheldon’s mother, herself an accomplished writer. Alice Sheldon, years before Tiptree, became the heroine of children’s books written by her mother: one can only imagine the expectations placed on such a person growing up.

Her early adulthood wasn’t necessarily more placid: Sheldon re-invented herself every few years, whether it was through a hasty first marriage, a stint in the military, a long stretch as an aerial photography analyst (where she literally wrote the book on the discipline), an unusual second marriage, a few years as a chicken farmer, a brief career at the CIA, academic studies leading to a PhD… and so on. One can say many things about Alice Sheldon’s whirlwind succession of careers, but it’s impossible to say that she live a dull life. One get the impression of a woman constantly looking for something better, something more interesting.

Unfortunately, one also gets a portrait of a person with deep-rooted problems. Drugs prefigure heavily in Sheldon’s life (she battled an addiction to speed during most of her life), as do successive sentimental adventures (rarely settling in an admittedly unsatisfying pair of marriages), problems relating to her mother, a distaste of crowds and an essential lack of satisfaction with anything.

By the time she comes to science-fiction as James Tiptree Jr., almost on a lark, the field is as ready for her as she is ready for it: Her stories quickly find an audience and earn her a string of top awards even as the mystery of her identity remains. Through misdirection (but rarely outright lying, from what Phillips highlights), she’s able to pass her true biography as a male character’s fully realized past, and seduce the SF world into accepting what they were asking for: A writer with world-weary experience, yet also a sensitive man with a unique take on gender issues.

James Tiptree Jr. Is a remarkable book in many ways, but what really distinguishes it is the sheer narrative drive of the book, as it zips through Sheldon’s remarkable life to reach the apex of Tiptree’s time. Carefully but unobtrusively sourced, the biography entertains, educates and keeps up wanting more about Sheldon. Phillips had no particular SF credentials before writing this book, making the exactitude of the genre references even more astonishing. (This may be the first Big Biography I’ve read in which a vague acquaintance, David Hartwell, plays a small part.)

By the time I closed the book, I was particularly thankful for how Julia Phillips, with James Tiptree Jr., defused any reader’s attempt at being judgemental about Alice Sheldon. Her biography is so complete, so unflinching even at the most intimate details that it stands as a complete memento to the person. I can’t imagine any book outdoing this one as the definitive look at Tiptree. Indeed, I can’t imagine any literary biography about a Science Fiction writer being more impressive than this one (though if someone wants to tackle either Paul Linebarger or Harlan Ellison, they’re more than welcome to try.) There may be some further irony in that if even a biographical film is to be made about a modern SF writer, this may be it. I wonder who’ll play David Gerrold and Robert Silverberg.

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