February Books 17) James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

17) James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips (.co.uk, .com)

This is surely a model of how to write a biography. Although her subject died in 1987, Julie Phillips has been through all her private papers, done the necessary bureaucratic sleuthing through her career, dug into her parents’ background, interviewed the elderly first husband and many other relatives and friends, reflected on the wider social and literary currents of the time illustrated by the main narrative, and supported it all with extensive notes.

But that’s not enough to make a successful biography. To do that you have to not only know your subject; you have to have chosen someone who is in some way fascinating in their own right, and be able to communicate that fascination to your readers. Phillips has done that admirably. I haven’t read a lot of Tiptree’s work (having said which, there isn’t so very much to read), but I think you could safely give this book to someone who had never heard of her, even someone who never reads science fiction, and sill expect them to enjoy it.

Most readers, however, will have bought this book largely to find out more about Tiptree/Sheldon’s writing; we don’t get anything about that until halfway through, but I don’t think anyone will be bored by the first fifty years of Sheldon’s life – privileged Chicago upbringing, childhood safaris to Africa, a Christmas elopement and disastrous first marriage, World War II and the CIA, psychological research, a better choice of second husband.

And then the decade of fame as SF writer James Tiptree, Jr, producing strange, memorable stories, winning Hugos and Nebulas for them, engaging in intimate correspondence with the luminaries of the genre, but all under a pseudonym which was eventually exposed. I had not realised, however, that the Hugo and nebula for “Houston, Houston, Do You Read” both came after the revelation of her true identity.

The one weak point in Phillips’ analysis has been well illuminated by Farah Mendlesohn: she doesn’t convincingly explain Sheldon’s attitude to sexuality – in fairness, a complex question, and one to which we will probably never know the real answer (although Farah’s answer is more convincing than Phillips’).

I am in a rush this morning in Georgetown, just a few miles from where Alice Sheldon and James Tiptree lived and died, so don’t have time to write more about this brilliant book. But we are promised that the paperback will include more photographs, and more of Sheldon’s own art, so I may find myself buying it all over again.

(Also, it has been interesting to read this alongside Elizabeth Bear’s Carnival over the last few days.)

Top UnSuggestions for this book:

  1. Confessions of a shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella
  2. Pet sematary by Stephen King
  3. Angels & demons by Dan Brown
  4. MLA handbook for writers of research papers by Joseph Gibaldi
  5. The runaway jury by John Grisham

One thought on “February Books 17) James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

  1. I’m disappointed in the new companion, Raine – which is a shame, because I am normally very positive about companions. I really liked Raina in Thin Ice, and I like the concept of this character… possibly it’s just that the build up of 20+ years on the catburglar companion has run its course? Plus, it was already done (not well) with Christina De Souza, PLUS the best thing about this story, the pre-credits sequence involving Raine, a safe to be cracked, and the Doctor, was completely spoiled by the ‘extras’ of the previously story…

    Mostly what I don’t like is that Raine’s voice is so similar to that of Mel. Now, unlike many Doctor Who fans, I have no beef with Bonnie Langford or Mel, but I think the time has well passed for a character whose main characteristic is ‘perky,’ and I find the similarity really distracting. I’d rather have new adventures with Ace and Mel!

    So yes, after being quite excited about this run of stories, and really enjoying Thin Ice, I am pretty disappointed.

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