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The Woman Behind James Tiptree, Jr.

2 August 2018

From JSTOR Daily:

When popular science fiction writer James Tiptree, Jr., acclaimed as an epitome of masculine writing, publicly revealed in 1977 that she was actually Alice Bradley Sheldon, readers were gobsmacked. “Tiptree” was known to be a pseudonym, but readers in the know had assumed it was the pen name of a guy in the CIA who couldn’t reveal his identity.

Alice Sheldon (1915-1987) certainly had a rather unconventional career. She worked in Army intelligence during WWII, when she became an expert in reading aerial photographs. For a time, she raised chickens. She did indeed work for the CIA. In fact, Tiptree’s biography was accurate except for the gender. At the age of forty, Sheldon went to college, eventually earning a PhD in experimental psychology in 1967. Then she took to writing science fiction. Her first story was published in 1968 under the Tiptree byline. She also used a number of other pen names, including Raccoona Sheldon.

. . . .

Sheldon called the name “James Tiptree, Jr.”—inspired by a brand of jams—”good camouflage.” Among her reasons for the masquerade: “I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation.”

. . . .

Kirkpatrick pays particular attention to the story “The Women Men Don’t See,” in which the male narrator thinks a mother and daughter going off with aliens are literally crazy for leaving Earth. “What women do is survive,” says the older female character to the narrator, “We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.” The narrator cannot comprehend why these two women would want out of a world where they aren’t seen as fully human. And he just doesn’t get why they don’t want to be “rescued” by him, either.

Link to the rest at JSTOR Daily

PG notes that Amazon offers a  large collection of books by James Tiptree, Jr. , including one with an introduction from Ursula K. Le Guin and another that is part of a collection of stories by Hugo Award Winners (Houston, Houston, Do You Read?: “futuristic piece that takes a dim view of male sexuality.”)


8 Comments to “The Woman Behind James Tiptree, Jr.”

  1. I wonder why none of them are available electronically?

  2. Her works are available electronically, but not in the US the last I looked. I have all of them.

    I didn’t like the article at all. I have read all of her works, starting in my teens. She is perhaps my favourite Science Fiction author. She lead a remarkable life and would be a very interesting person to sit down for dinner with. Sadly this is no longer possible.

    Certainly feminism is one of a number of recurring themes in her work, but by no means the only one. The mere adoption of the male pen name and the surrounding obscurity serves as an indictment of the sexism prevalent in publishing at the time. Please don’t be put off from reading her stories under the mistaken impression that they are feminist diatribes full of misandry. They are not. There is no evangelising. Simply some very thought provoking themes and ideas.

    I highly recommend her work. Actually it’s time I re-read some of them. Perhaps “The Screwfly Solution” or “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death”, which I think are amongst her best.

    • Quite a good writer. (Unfortunately, I only have one “Tiptree” in my collection – the rest are Racoona Sheldon.)

      I need to remember, though, to trademark my name(s) should I ever become even moderately famous. The majority of the winners of the Tiptree Award took the mild misandry and vastly amplified it – while learning nothing from the writing quality. Sad.

      • I couldn’t agree more. I find most awards these days to be worth very little. Politics has always played a role, but it seems to me that most awards have become far more about the politics than the quality of the writing. Unfortunately the Tiptree awards are no exception. Having been established for the purpose of rewarding works of Science Fiction or Fantasy which expand or explore one’s understanding of gender, what chance did they have. IMHO they are far more about the politics than the quality. I haven’t read every story awarded or recognised but I am yet to come upon a single one which comes even close to the standard achieved by one of the true greats of the genre.

    • Unfortunately, one of Tiptree’s most famous stories most certainly is a feminist diatribe full of misandry. When I read ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ for the first time (being then, as I recall, a boy of about twelve or thirteen), the full force of the diatribe hit me right in the face. If I had to summarize what the story appeared to be saying, it would be this: ‘Men are useless. Men are an obstacle. Men’s sexuality is offensive and disgusting. In the perfect society there will be no men, and no room for any. The only right act for a man is to feel utter shame and contempt for himself, and die so that he no longer pollutes the perfect world of women.’ These points are made successively by blatantly obvious set-piece scenes in the course of the story, ending with the suicide of the last male human being.

      Imagine being given that to read immediately before the onset of puberty.

  3. We moved a month ago and I disposed of most of the my 3K plus library (as we moved to a place less than half the size and I’m getting old. I won’t reread most of those and I was keeping them more for sentimental value. I did, however, keep my James Tiptree, Jr books, including one limited edition I have wrapped in plastic to protect it until I reread. She’s terrific and one of the authors whose short stories I recommend when fools say “SF isn’t real literature.”

    I just reread “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” (a sci-fi depiction of a non-theistic hell) and I still get surprised by her wonderful prose, phrasing, imagination. You can read it here: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/tiptree_01_18_reprint/

  4. I remember when I was reading Brightness Falls From the Air in the early 90s, it was still being reported that he/she was a transexual, or hated being a man so much that he had had a botched surgical procedure, or something weird like that.

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