James Tiptree, Jr. burst onto the science fiction scene in the 1970s with a series of hard-edged, provocative short stories. Hailed as a brilliant masculine writer with a deep sympathy for his female characters, he penned such classics as Houston, Houston, Do You Read? and The Women Men Don't See. For years he corresponded with Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Ursula Le Guin. No one knew his true identity. Then the cover was blown on his alter ego: A sixty-one-year-old woman named Alice Sheldon. As a child, she explored Africa with her mother. Later, made into a debutante, she eloped with one of the guests at the party. She was an artist, a chicken farmer, a World War II intelligence officer, a CIA agent, an experimental psychologist. Devoted to her second husband, she struggled with her feelings for women. In 1987, her suicide shocked friends and fans. The James Tiptree, Jr. Award was created to honor science fiction or fantasy that explores our understanding of gender. This fascinating biography by Julie Phillips, ten years in the making, is based on extensive research, exclusive interviews, and full access to Alice Sheldon's papers.
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 Working from Sheldon's (and Tiptree's) few interviews; Sheldon's professional papers, many unpublished; and the papers of Sheldon's writer-explorer-socialite mother, Phillips has crafted an absorbing m lange of several disparate lives besides Sheldon's, each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 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.