Wednesday Mini Book Review: James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon


The revived tradition continues:

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips (St. Martin's, 2006). Exemplary biography of a very interesting character, born Alice Bradley. The book walks with steady prose and a fine storytelling sense through Bradley's time as an infant and child traipsing around Africa with her Great White Hunter/Explorer parents in the 1920s (complete with dead gorillas stored under her cot); her curious relationship with her glamorous and famous writer mother Mary Hastings Bradley; her boarding school experiences in Switzerland; her Sarah Lawrence education; her failed young loves (with some incipient lesbianism) and first marriage to a minor novelist; her WWII time with the WAACs and then with Air Force photo intelligence; her romance and marriage to investment banking scion and divorced husband of two heiresses, Col. Huntington Sheldon; her one fiction sale in 1946 to the New Yorker, her years running a Jersey chicken hatchery; her short career as an analyst with the CIA in the 1950s; and her research into perceptual psychology at George Washington University in the 1960s. She might have remained an obscure psychologist, but decided to give writing—and escape from her identity—one more try in the late 1960s.

So Alice Bradley Sheldon became known, and became a worthy biographical subject, by her pen name of James Tiptree Jr., under which she was one of the 1970s most celebrated and talked-about science fiction writers. Her reluctance and squirminess about meetings and personal details were such in the tight-knit SF fraternity (the male-identified term is used carefully) that it became understood there was some mystery to "his" identity. Alice allowed many of them to assume she was a government spook of sorts in her many correspondences with fellow SF writers. When one young fan/fellow writer tracked her down to her home, she had to slam the door in his face and deny any knowledge of "Tiptree." SF great Robert Silverberg once asserted that Tiptree's writings were "ineluctably masculine" when Tiptree's maleness was questioned.

Bradley/Tiptree formed many of the closest female friendships she ever had with other SF writers, by mail, who thought she was male. The playing out of her subterfuge and her eventual fate as writer and woman are fascinating and dramatic enough—and little enough known to non-SF fans—that I'll treat them here as secrets about a story's climax best not to spoil for potential readers.

Julie Phillips, a magazine journalist who has here produced a dream of a first book, knows all she needs to know and understands much of what she needs to understand (SF geeks may find her full understanding of that literature slightly deficient, but only slightly) to tell Bradley's story, one as twisted and complicated and ultimately as unified and sensible as a literary life, and an epic love story of sorts, ought to be. It's top-rank biography, and while obviously of special feminist and SF interest, should appeal to any reader wanting to experience a colorful and curious character in full.