Monday, August 24, 2015

Sci-fi writer’s double life

The American science fiction writer, Alice B. Sheldon, aka James Tiptree, Jr., was born a century ago today. She is revered among sci-fi fans for her role in breaking down gender writing stereotypes - indeed her pseudonym lives on in the name of a sci-fi literary prize awarded to work that contributes to the understanding of gender. Although Sheldon did keep diaries, these have not been published. However, Julie Phillips quotes from them extensively in her 2006 biography.

Alice (Alli) Bradley was born on 24 August 1915 in Chicago. Her father was a lawyer and naturalist, and her mother an author of fiction and travel books. From an early age, she travelled a lot with her parents. In 1934, she eloped with, and married, William Davey, a student she had met a few days earlier. After trying college and also working as an artist, she divorced Davey in 1941 and returned to Chicago, where she was taken on as art critic at the Chicago Sun. The following year, she joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, and from 1943 she worked at the Pentagon as an interpreter of aerial reconnaissance photographs.

With the war over, Bradley was transferred to a different unit; and before long she had married her commanding officer, Colonel Huntington Sheldon. They left the army in 1946, and for several years ran a chicken farm in New Jersey. In 1952, they both joined the Central Intelligence Agency, though Bradley left in 1955. She also separated from Sheldon for a while, and went to study at the American University, and then at George Washington University, achieving, in 1967, a doctorate in experimental psychology. That same year she began submitting short science fiction stories - to magazines such as Analog Science Fact & Fiction, If and Fantastic - under the pseudonym of James Tiptree Jr.

According to Alice B. Sheldon’s biographer, Julie Phillips, ‘Alli chose her male pseudonym on a whim, in a supermarket, where a jar of Tiptree jam caught Alli’s eye. She was sending out some science fiction stories as a joke, and she wanted a name “editors wouldn’t remember rejecting.” But the male name turned out to have many uses. It made her feel taken seriously when she wrote about what she knew: guns, hunting, politics, war. It let her write the way she wanted to write, with an urgency that was hers. It gave her enough distance and control to speak honestly about herself.’ As Tiptree became more successful as a science fiction writer, there was an increasing amount of speculation about her identity and her gender: some thought the author rather macho, while others thought he was unusually feminist for a male writer. Thus, over time, her stories served t
o break down perceived ideas of gender-specific writing.

The first of her short story collections - Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home - came out in 1973, with others following every two to three years (four more in her lifetime). Although she tried writing novels, these were not considered as successful as her short stories. Tiptree’s identity was only uncovered in the late 1970s, but she continued to use the pseudonym for the rest of her life. Her later years, though, were not happy ones - Huntington became an invalid, incapable of caring for himself, and Alice herself suffered health problems. In 1987, having advised friends she wanted to end her life while still active, she shot her husband and then herself. They were found hand-in-hand in bed. For further biographical information see Wikipedia, National Public Radio, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, or Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Also, Julie Phillips’ James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon attracted many reviews when published by St Martin’s Press in 2006, and these can still be read online, at Book Forum, for example, or The New York Times. The book itself can be previewed at the book’s own website and at Googlebooks.

I have not been able to find out much about Alice B. Sheldon’s diary writing habits. Indeed, the only reference I can find to them comes in Phillips’ biography which says that Alice Sheldon’s friend, Jeffrey D. Smith, holds her professional papers including journals. (Smith is involved in the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, an annual literary prize for science fiction/fantasy that contributes to the understanding of gender). Phillips clearly had access to Sheldon’s diaries and journals, but although she quotes from them often, she gives very little information about the diaries themselves (nor does she give dates for all the quotes). Here are a couple of extracts from Sheldon’s diary as found in Phillips’ biography.

[From Chapter 12: War Fever]
Undated, 1941
‘My work doesn’t support me. I am a drain on my parents. They don’t mind, but it’s wrong. I should look for marriage. They don’t want me to marry, but I can’t live this way much longer. I’m no prize, either, I’m young, and pretty, and smart, but there are younger and prettier women, and what brains I have are a handicap. [. . .] All that must mean I can’t hope for one of the more desirable husbands. Shall I settle for age, ugliness or stupidity? . . . Of love I say nothing. . . I should try more salable work; “commercial” art. The times being what they are, art is a failure financially, in case I fail to marry. . . As to the mind, my lazy nature demands endless solitude and leisure to try and think, and between being nice to my parents, and these other affairs I have none. . . I could just try to make money and the devil with marriage, but my mind will crack in this unnatural life.’

[Instead, Phillips says, Sheldon found another outlet for her self-sacrifice.]
8 December 1941
‘Have given up painting for the war. There are two kinds of artists, those who paint during a war, and those who don’t. The second kind is me. There will be something to do soon.’

[From Chapter 38: I live in my body as in an alien artifact]
26 November 1977
‘I feel the sf writing is at, or coming to, an end. [. . .] But what do I DO inside? Try for ‘mainstream’ writing? A theory-research book? A diary? Some kind of weird autobiography? (Why, why?) I will NOT return to being a Bradley appendage. I feel I have one more go inside me, but what, what?’

2 February 1978
‘The distasteful proof of my sexuality is bound up with masochistic fantasies of helplessness [. . .] depressed me profoundly. I am not a man, I am not the do-er, the penetrator. And Tiptree was “magical” manhood, his pen my prick. I had through him all the power and prestige of masculinity, I was - though an aging intellectual - of those who own the world. How I loathe being a woman. Wanting to be done to. [. . .]

Tiptree’s “death” has made me face - what I never really went into with Bob [Harper] - my self-hate as a woman. And my view of the world as structured by raw power. [. . .] I want power. I want to be listened to. [. . .] And I’ll never have it. I’m stuck with this perverse, second-rate body; my life.’

Julie Phillips goes on to say: ‘What she needed, she kept thinking was “to change in some way inside myself.” She decided she should try lesbian sex. [. . .] She wrote in her journal, “I want to make love to young women, to make them come, and happy. Maybe then masturbate myself. Sex as activity. It could work. I shall start to mix it with women’s groups, looking to actualize this. I really believe I shall. I think I could make my aged self palatable enough. It was all straight-arrow.” But she didn’t do it.’

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