No one knows what the body can do. -Spinoza

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Iconic Photo: Photo 28

Alice B Sheldon, aka James Tiptree, Jr., writing

It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing. I don’t think the novels of Jane Austen could have been written by a man nor the stories of Ernest Hemingway by a woman, and in the same way I believe the author of the James Tiptree stories is male. -Robert Silverberg

In 1967 a new voice in American Science Fiction began publishing, James Tiptree, Jr.. It was widely understood that the name Tiptree was a pseudonym, but it was generally assumed to protect the identity of an intelligence official that couldn't be exposed because of their working for the government in top secret matters. As a result, Tiptree was able to publish for years successfully without making public appearances, though the author regularly corresponded with both fans and other science fiction writers.

Fans would often ask Tiptree for biographical details. The author regularly complied while at the same time avoiding references to gender. Finally, in 1976, in a letter with a fan Tiptree mentioned the death of his mother and revealed that she was also a writer and had lived in Chicago. Fans took the information and used it to locate the obituary and its accompanying family information. In this way, sci-fi fans discovered the name of Alice B. Sheldon. In looking up further information about Sheldon they further found the biographical details provided by Tiptree were consistent with Sheldon's life. Soon after the revelation that James Tiptree, Jr. was actually a woman writer a number of other well-established authors in the sci-fi community suffered embarrassment for having argued strongly in years previous that based on the perspective Tiptree had brought to certain topics he couldn't possibly be a woman.

In this way, Tiptree brought an awareness of the realities of gender to the world of sci-fi, a previously masculine dominated field both in terms of writers and topics. Originally, Sheldon had worried that the revelation of her gender would negatively impact the public's or critic's views of her writing. Gratefully her role as a beloved writer had been well-enough established at that point that such adverse side effect was not overwhelming.

It had been true that the person the name Tiptree was meant to protect really had worked as an intelligence officer for the CIA. Alice B Sheldon was also known to be an staunch gun collector, and avid traveler. It just hadn't been true that Tiptree was the psuedonym of a man. Sheldon explained that after working for an extended period for the government, and earning a PhD in experimental psychology, she began to feel a yearning for a new career. She began writing science fiction on a sort of long standing interest but sent stories in for publication initially as a whim. Together her and her husband concocted the psuedonym taking the last name Tiptree from a jar of jam. In short order Sheldon surprised herself by making a successful living as a writer. Able to give up her other careers she focused full-time on writing and communicating via letter with the science fiction community. Sheldon explained that her use of a man's name was not intended to trick anyone as much as it was meant to keep her "under the radar" so to speak. In such a masculine field she thought her work would be more comfortably read if it too appeared to be written by a man.

Sheldon was able to continue writing as James Tiptree, Jr. for another decade after the revelation of her actual identity. She died at the age of 71 at the same time as her beloved, then 84 year old, husband.

Today the James Tiptree, Jr. Award for Science Fiction is given annually to a writer that has importantly used science fiction to explore considerations of gender.

To read more about Alice B Sheldon, read her biography, JAMES TIPTREE, JR.: THE DOUBLE LIFE OF ALICE B SHELDON by Julie Phillips, or a review of it in the New York Time Book Review

To read James Tiptree, Jr.'s writing consider the omnibus collection HER SMOKE ROSE UP FOREVER

A male name seemed like good camouflage. I had the feeling that a man would slip by less observed. I've had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation. -Alice B Sheldon

[Tiptree's work is] proof of what she said, that men and women can and do speak both to and for one another, if they have bothered to learn how. -Ursula K Le Guin

1 comment:

  1. Shiloh had posted a comment here that I received in email but apparently somehow got deleted. Below is a cut-and-paste of what she wrote. It's a valuable addition to the discussion on Tiptree.

    "I see you emphasizing the triumphs in her life in this post, and I appreciate that. There was tragedy too. Despite being an individual who was by all accounts stunningly charismatic and accomplished, Sheldon struggled with depression her whole life. Writing and maintaining epistolary relationships as Tiptree provided crucial relief. After being outed, she had difficulty writing. Passing as a man in her publications and her letters offered an outlet that was no longer available after the anonymity was destroyed. She did continue to write under the Tiptree pseudonym for some time, but published only a little. Some of the work she destroyed. She had difficulty maintaining her spirits, complaining not only of a loss of voice: "I experience my body and my social presence as an alien artifact" she writes in her journal not long after Tiptree was outed as Sheldon. She constantly worried that her friends and readers had preferred Tiptree. She preferred Tiptree. But without the anonymity, she couldn't have him back. Sheldon was somebody who lived a much more complicated life than the world around her made room for. The triumph is that, against all odds, she still found a way to express herself. For a time. That loss is the tragedy. Her fiction often enough involves narrative arcs of the stranger within, of alienation at home, of being irreconcilably different from oneself--and glimpsing a possibility of a life that embraces and lives out that difference, only to suffer the pain of having that possibility of expression taken away. Her most famous story in this vein, "The Girl Who Was Plugged In," is often cited as one of the inaugural texts of the cyberpunk genre."