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James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon Paperback – June 12, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Journalist Phillips has achieved a wonder: an evenhanded, scrupulously documented, objective yet sympathetic portrait of a deliberately elusive personality: Alice Sheldon (1915–1987), who adopted the persona of science fiction writer James Tiptree Jr. Working from Sheldon's (and Tiptree's) few interviews; Sheldon's professional papers, many unpublished; and the papers of Sheldon's writer-explorer-socialite mother, Phillips has crafted an absorbing mélange of several disparate lives besides Sheldon's, each impacting hers like a deadly off-course asteroid. From Sheldon's sad poor-little-rich-girlhood to her sadder suicide (by a prior pact first shooting her blind and bedridden husband), Sheldon, perpetually wishing she'd been born a boy, made what she called "endless makeshift" attempts to express her tormenting creativity as, among others, a debutante, a flamboyant bohemian, a WAC officer, a CIA photoanalyst, and a research scientist before producing Tiptree's "haunting, subversive, many-layered [science] fiction" at 51. Sheldon masked her authorship until 1976, and afterward produced little fiction, feeling that a woman writing as a man could not be convincing. Through all the ironic sorrows of a life Sheldon wished she hadn't had to live as a woman, Phillips steadfastly and elegantly allows one star, bright as the Sirius Sheldon loved, to gleam. 16 pages of b&w photos. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Bookmarks Magazine
Julie Phillips, a journalist, took a decade to complete James Tiptree, Jr., her first book. Drawing on Alice Sheldon's voluminous papers and more than 40 existing interviews with the author, Phillips ably handles the contradictions of Sheldon's personae, negotiating with uncommon grace and confidence the complexities of a woman best known as a man. Although Sheldon's readers may already know the story behind her strange life, Phillips keeps the material fresh. James Tiptree, Jr. will find fans even among those who have never read science fiction. The quality of the writing and Phillips's insights are apparent from the single criticismthat the biographer may have delved too deeply into Sheldon's life.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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brilliant, beautiful, talented but very broken woman who became the
successful and edgy science fiction author known as James Triptree,
Jr. It's amazing that the author was able to find so much material
and interview so many people who knew this mostly-reclusive woman, and
achieve such depth of understanding of her. How I wish that Alice had
found a truly insightful psychiatrist who could have led her to face
herself, get off speed and treat her emotional problems directly.
Sadly she saw male doctors who all-but-ignored her sexuality, and her
fear and attraction to death.
Minor quibble: the author repeatedly states that Alice is "flirting"
with her correspondents in her letters to science fiction authors,
editors, etc. Nothing that she quoted seemed to me to be flirting,
just compliments and praise, with little innuendo.
Anyone who enjoys biographies, especially of interesting and
strong-but-tragic women, will love this book. Unfortunately it's
a tragic story that caused me to cry several times. Nevertheless
I loved it.
What makes this book so amazing? Firstly, the subject, Alice Sheldon, is fascinating. This is much more than a biography of a science fiction writer (although it is that too); it is a chronicle of a difficult and ultimately tragic life. It would be hard to read this book and not feel for Sheldon, who 'lived inside her body as though inside an alien artifact.' Sheldon's lack of comfort in her own body is palpable in these pages. One can sense her dis-ease. Philips presents this difficult material sympathetically, correctly asserting that Sheldon's life is indicative of the changing landscape of sexual politics in twentieth century America.
The various sections of Sheldon's life are interesting in themselves. For example, the chapters on Africa are fascinating, as is the material on Sheldon's mother, Mary Hastings Bradley (who I'd never heard of, although she was a famous writer in her day). 'Alli's' life is overshadowed by that of her successful mother, and the older woman's presence hangs over these pages. By the time we finally get to Sheldon's own writing career, more than half the book (and half her life) is over. This enables us to see the ephemeral figure of 'James Tiptree Jr.' in the context in which he was concieved.
One funny thing about this book is that Tiptree's writing career is made to seem almost like an afterthought, or a not-entirely successful experiment. This is strange because most readers of this book will come to it thinking of Tiptree as one of the greatest writers in SF history (which 'he' is). But although Tiptree garnered the Hugos and Nebulas in quick time, none of it was much comfort to Sheldon. Here, again, one can sense Sheldon's dissatisfaction with her creations. A slight criticism of this book, in my mind, is that Philips spends little time addressing the themes and ideas in the stories themselves. It is almost as though the author of the biography does not quite appreciate the value of the stories to the extent that many of Tiptree's readers do. Stories like 'A Momentary Taste of Being' and 'Her Smoke Rose Up Forever' are surely some of the greatest in the English language.
It may be that in not coming from a SF background, Philips sees Tiptree's writing in the context that Sheldon herself may have seen it in. OK I am speculating, but Sheldon was clearly not content with having written these fabulous stories. As Philips makes clear, Sheldon 'meant it' when she wrote about death again and again. The ending to this book, which deals with the circumstances of Sheldon's murder of her husband 'Ting' and then her suicide, is simply shocking. Not knowing the details of Sheldon's death in advance, I was floored by this ending. This make me realise that while a reader such as myself finds enlightenment (or even redemption) in Tiptree's fiction, Sheldon herself drew little comfort from it.
This is an essential book, not only for those interested in Tiptree's SF career, but also for anyone interested in twentieth century history. It is useful especially in regard to the history of the so-called 'sexual revolution,' which came a few decades late for Alice B. Sheldon.
She began writing as a man, almost as a lark. As with many SF writers, she took a pseudonym to avoid attracting attention in her "day job". She stayed a "man" until unmasked in the late '70's.
Phillips does a great job with her biography.
Most recent customer reviews
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