Title: James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon
Author: Julie Phillips
Published: 2006

If you go to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, you can see a huge gorilla beating its breast. It’s stuffed of course. It was shot on Mount Karisimbi in the Belgian Congo in November of 1921.

Alice B. Sheldon was on that expedition. She was six years old at the time. In fact she was the first white child many people in the Congo had ever seen.

This was just one of many extraordinary experiences in the life of Alice Sheldon. Besides exploring Africa, she was a debutante, a chicken farmer, a WAC, a CIA agent, a psychologist and of course a writer. (Her mother, Mary Hastings Bradley, was also a writer of some renown. I just discovered that she’s still in print, believe it or not.) Sheldon was ferociously intelligent, stunningly beautiful, deeply conflicted and often very depressed.

I have not read many biographies. In fact, I can’t remember reading a single one. This may well be the first. I mention that because I don’t have much to compare this with, but it seems to me a tremendous book. It’s well-written and impeccably researched, but most of all it tells a fascinating story.

The first half is enormously engrossing, but it kicks into a higher level when James Tiptree, Jr. is “born” in 1967. As ingenious as many of Tiptree’s stories are, I’m convinced that Tiptree himself was Sheldon’s greatest invention. His persona is remarkably compelling, and he allowed her to write some astonishing stuff. He carried on a voluminous correspondence with lots of contemporary authors, always under the guise of being Tiptree. Everybody wondered who this mysterious guy was.

Eventually, of course, he was exposed as a she, and minds were blown. Alas, we can’t have that experience now, but the tale is still fascinating and more than a little disturbing. That befits the Tiptree/Sheldon worldview.

We come trailing not clouds of glory, but shreds of placenta on which are written pain, suffering, and death.

Verdict: Best book I’ve read in a couple years, and definitely deserving of the many awards it’s accumulated. Check it out.

The Octavia Science Fiction Book Club will discuss this book Saturday, February 9, 2008 10:30 a.m. at Octavia Books. The club meets on the 2nd Saturday of each month.

  1. Interesting. I remember really liking – and being baffled by – much of Tiptree’s 1970s work in Analog when I was a kid. When it was finally revealed that he was a she, something clicked – the themes in Tiptree’s work reflect the work of other 1970s SF writers that are women, such as LeGuin, and the use of and interest in biologically-oriented SF themes was a wonderful and instructive contrast to the two other streams of 1970s SF that dominated Analog at that time – dystopia and neo-rightist hard SF.

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