Reading: Julie Phillips — James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

One of a stack of books I got from the James Tiptree Jr. Literary Award Council as part of the monster job of doing their website and award database, a stack of which I have only begun to dent by reading Julie Phillips’ excellent biography of the award’s namesake, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. Strange after working for the Council for five years I hadn’t read anything of or about Tiptree (in book form, I mean), so this was a comprehensive drowning in one of the most brilliant, talented, over-achieving, plain weird science-fiction writers I’ve come across. It actually reads like science-fiction.

Grim science-fiction at that. There’s a hopelessness in her regard of life that is present from her earliest memories as a child up until her suicide at age 71 in 1987, a sense of already being old, of being already too late, of barely, only temporarily keeping at bay the entropy of the universe. Besides this comprehensive existential misery, her experience of daily life was equally as an outsider. Whether as a woman, lesbian or bisexual (or at least definitively not straight, even if she never acted on it), incapable of conforming to the social proscriptions of her gender, physically ill at ease with her body – by current nomenclature she would be claimed as both queer and trans, but she evades even these generalisations – in the entirety of her identity and sense of self is the impossibility of belonging, of feeling at home in the world. And this too collides with the unusually privileged life she had, as a child of wealthy Chicago socialites, travelling to central Africa, later in the Women’s Army Corps in photointerpretation, chasing German scientists (and so brushing alongside the history of space flight), then joining the CIA, later earning a Phd in psychology before embarking not as Alice Sheldon, but as James Tiptree, Jr. as an award-winning science-fiction writer.

It’s difficult to reconcile that charmed life with the gloom, my uncharitable self thought a cup of harden the fuck up wouldn’t have gone amiss, and yet without the protection that life afforded a woman born in 1915, it’s unlikely she would have been any different than the great mass of women at that time, pushed into marriage, second-class citizens, expected to breed, and any signs of dissatisfaction, of wanting the life the other half lived, squashed out with drugs and disapproval. Or, with her exceptional intelligence, curiosity, empathy, would have been rubbed out all the more definitively.

I haven’t read a biography for a long while, possibly one on Wittgenstein was the last. Julie Phillips does a remarkable job tying research, notes, letters, conversations, a life, into a coherent story. It’s perhaps telling, and vindication of Sheldon’s decision to write under a male pseudonym that she is so little known and regarded today. If we’re going to thrown names like Ursula Le Guin or Phillip K. Dick around when talking about sci-fi, or even the ’60s and 70’s New Wave, Tiptree deserves the same recognition.