In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Alice Sheldon’s birth, and in recognition of the enormous influence of both James Tiptree Jr (Sheldon's pen name) and Sheldon herself on the field, Twelfth Planet Press has published a selection of thoughtful letters written by science fiction and fantasy’s writers, editors, critics and fans to celebrate her, to recognise her work, and maybe in some cases to finish conversations set aside nearly thirty years ago.
Marleen S. Barr
Aliette de Bodard
L. Timmel Duchamp
Valentin D Ivanov
Alex Dally MacFarlane
Tansy Rayner Roberts
Lynne M. Thomas
And bonus reprint material including:
archived letters from Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ and James Tiptree Jr./Alice Sheldon
excerpts from The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms by Helen Merrick
excerpt from Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction by Justine Larbalestier
anessay by Michael Swanwick
A celebration of the life of a fascinating writer
Letters to Tiptree (ed. Alisa Krasnostein and Alexandra Pierce), produced on the occasion of Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr.’s 100th birthday, is not exactly a festschrift, not quite a memorial volume, certainly not a biography. Let’s just call it a celebration. Although it has no direct connection to Julie Phillips’ in-depth biography James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, It probably would not exist—certainly not in this specific form—without the existence of that work, which details the startlingly implausible life of the author.
This book centers around a collection of—quite literally—love letters from current SFF writers addressed to Sheldon/Tiptree in various sets of her identities, and explaining what her existence, her work, her reception, and her struggles meant to them personally. The next, shorter section includes several sets of correspondence between Sheldon/Tiptree and some of her closest correspondents at the time the identity behind her nom de plume became public. That is, these are the letters where Sheldon identifies herself as Tiptree to Ursula K. LeGuin and Joanna Russ, sharing her fears that the revelation will destroy their friendships, and then the return letters from those writers, embracing and supporting her, and their continued correspondence in the aftermath. And finally there is a collection of introductions from collections and editions of Sheldon/Tiptree’s work after that time, discussing the literary and gender politics that Sheldon/Tiptree’s existence and reception revealed, at a time when data from that sort of controlled social experiment could have the greatest impact on the field. Also included are more recent academic papers looking back on her legacy.
This is not quite a work of literary scholarship, neither is it a work of biography. It is, as I say, pure love letter. As such, it supplies an essential completion to an understanding of Sheldon/Tiptree’s place in the field and her impact on readers and writers that goes beyond the sheer excellence and brilliance of her writing.
I didn’t have the experience of the dual-vision of Sheldon/Tiptree that is recorded in the latter parts of the collection (and some letters in the first part). The exposure of her identity occurred right around the time I was starting to pay attention to authors (as opposed to simply reading every book in the SFF section of the library). But I remember vividly reading some of her work in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when all this was going down and feeling that sense of frustrated kinship of what it means to have to re-invent and mask yourself to have your work judged on anything resembling an even playing field. It's also daunting to consider how little we've moved beyond the day when an author who is--or is believed to be--male will have their work treated as cutting-edge and groundbreaking, when the same work written by an author who is (or is believed to be) female can have it dismissed as "women's writing" and self-indulgent. And yet, to set Sheldon/Tiptree aside as simply unequivocal and incisive proof of that phenomenon would be to buy into a notion that her body of work exists as commentary, as meta-text, rather than as something that should be read, evaluated, and honored for its objective brilliance.
So I feel a bit weird that this "review" is more meta-text commentary than a discussion of content. Let's just say that this is a valuable and fascinating celebration of the work and lessons of a great writer.