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James Tiptree, JR.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon [Paperback]

Julie Phillips
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 545 pages
  • Publisher: Picador USA; Reprint edition (12 Jun 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312426941
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312426941
  • Product Dimensions: 21 x 14 x 4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 536,554 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

James Tiptree, JR. Tiptree burst onto the science fiction scene in the 1970s with hard-edged, provocative short stories. Then the cover was blown: the author was actually a 61-year-old woman named Alice Sheldon--world traveler, debutante, chicken farmer, CIA agent, and experimental psychologist. Full description

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best biographies I have read 26 Jun 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Usually I read about books, buy them and store them until I forget all about them apart from the fact that I once thought them worth buying. Then I read them without even reading the cover. So I am not going to spoil the pleasure for you buy telling you any more details. But I keep folding so many dog ears in this book to mark poignant quotes and passeges that the volume is rather rotund by now.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  31 reviews
63 of 66 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars magnificent, important biography--for world, fo SF field, for women writers and readers of SF 13 Aug 2006
By Jeanne Gomoll - Published on Amazon.com
I probably shouldn't have done any driving for a day or two after reading Julie Phillips' biography of James Tiptree, Jr./Alice Sheldon. I was too distracted with thoughts of this life, this complicated amazing person, that had suddenly elbowed itself into my own. I'll never again be able to tell that thrilling, easy story that I've told way too often -- of the woman who wrote under a man's pseudonym and who, when she decided to write under a woman's name, couldn't get published without Tiptree's recommendation. That story now feels like the gloss it is, and so much less interesting that the real one. It's a holographic biography -- At times I felt like I could freeze the action. put down the book, and walk all around this 3-dimensional, fully fleshed out person. Ali revealed slices of herself to most people, seldom letting them see more than the single persona; she was constantly disguising herself, always performing, even for herself. Readers of Julie's biography are privileged to a much wider view: sadly, a view Ali never may never have allowed herself. The room had been lit up and the photo had become a hologram, the voice had become many voices.
28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perhaps the Ultimate Biography 22 Dec 2006
By Guy W. Salvidge - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is a delight. I would go so far as to say it is the best biography I have ever read (not that I've read a great number). Philips has presented an exhaustive but not exhausting account of the life of Alice B. Sheldon, aka James Tiptree Jr., aka Racconna Sheldon. This is a comprehensive work at over 400 pages of smallish print. One gets the feeling that Philips has done the job almost to perfection.

What makes this book so amazing? Firstly, the subject, Alice Sheldon, is fascinating. This is much more than a biography of a science fiction writer (although it is that too); it is a chronicle of a difficult and ultimately tragic life. It would be hard to read this book and not feel for Sheldon, who 'lived inside her body as though inside an alien artifact.' Sheldon's lack of comfort in her own body is palpable in these pages. One can sense her dis-ease. Philips presents this difficult material sympathetically, correctly asserting that Sheldon's life is indicative of the changing landscape of sexual politics in twentieth century America.

The various sections of Sheldon's life are interesting in themselves. For example, the chapters on Africa are fascinating, as is the material on Sheldon's mother, Mary Hastings Bradley (who I'd never heard of, although she was a famous writer in her day). 'Alli's' life is overshadowed by that of her successful mother, and the older woman's presence hangs over these pages. By the time we finally get to Sheldon's own writing career, more than half the book (and half her life) is over. This enables us to see the ephemeral figure of 'James Tiptree Jr.' in the context in which he was concieved.

One funny thing about this book is that Tiptree's writing career is made to seem almost like an afterthought, or a not-entirely successful experiment. This is strange because most readers of this book will come to it thinking of Tiptree as one of the greatest writers in SF history (which 'he' is). But although Tiptree garnered the Hugos and Nebulas in quick time, none of it was much comfort to Sheldon. Here, again, one can sense Sheldon's dissatisfaction with her creations. A slight criticism of this book, in my mind, is that Philips spends little time addressing the themes and ideas in the stories themselves. It is almost as though the author of the biography does not quite appreciate the value of the stories to the extent that many of Tiptree's readers do. Stories like 'A Momentary Taste of Being' and 'Her Smoke Rose Up Forever' are surely some of the greatest in the English language.

It may be that in not coming from a SF background, Philips sees Tiptree's writing in the context that Sheldon herself may have seen it in. OK I am speculating, but Sheldon was clearly not content with having written these fabulous stories. As Philips makes clear, Sheldon 'meant it' when she wrote about death again and again. The ending to this book, which deals with the circumstances of Sheldon's murder of her husband 'Ting' and then her suicide, is simply shocking. Not knowing the details of Sheldon's death in advance, I was floored by this ending. This make me realise that while a reader such as myself finds enlightenment (or even redemption) in Tiptree's fiction, Sheldon herself drew little comfort from it.

This is an essential book, not only for those interested in Tiptree's SF career, but also for anyone interested in twentieth century history. It is useful especially in regard to the history of the so-called 'sexual revolution,' which came a few decades late for Alice B. Sheldon.
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating. Disturbing. You don't need to be a Tiptree fan to read this. 17 Sep 2006
By Esther Schindler - Published on Amazon.com
I read a few stories by James Tiptree Jr., but I never went out of my way to do so. If you're wondering how much you'd get out of reading this biography if, like me, you didn't know enough to be a fan... don't worry. The book is fascinating enough on its own.

Julie Phillips did a remarkably good job of collecting the details of Alice Sheldon's life, and in presenting them in a way that brought this woman to life. Ali was interesting in her own right: independent (yet overwhelmed by her accomplished mother), creative and artistic (but somewhat directionless), willing to take risks (some foolhardy, others courageous). Some of the story is disturbing, because this woman was -- in a bunch of ways -- rather screwed up. But it's also a positive story, because she didn't let herself be a victim to her weaknesses.

What struck me particularly about Ali Sheldon's story was the woman's need to separate her identities into very different personae. After struggling with the social roles available to her, she remarkably managed to turn the prism of her personality conflicts and sexual confusion into the most creative of efforts: to create new and groundbreaking science fiction stories that, ironically enough, often dealt with "women's issues" from the outside.

Tiptree lived only in his/her writing, either as an author or as a snail-mail correspondent. (Just imagine what "he" would have done with e-mail and online forums.) Tiptree created close friendships that respected the author's desire for anonymity (though most people thought it was because he worked for the CIA or another government agency) -- raising good navel-gazing questions about how one can be close to another person and not know the most "intimate" facts about them.

And it's that issue of "identity" and "who are we, when all people know of us is what we present?" that's so compelling... even if you could care less about the science fiction literary scene.

This is an excellent book if you're intersted in SF history, and obviously if you're a fan of James Tiptree Jr.'s fiction. But it's a darned good read if your only interest is in how creative people get that way... and what it may cost them.
25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars (In)Visible (Wo)man 18 Dec 2006
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
A few weeks ago, Julie Phillips published James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon.

Last week I spotted Richard Ellmann scouting the MLA conference for penniless, amoral grad students who might be willing to swap a hit for a really good letter of recommendation.

Just kidding: he's been dead for almost 20 years. Nevertheless, the premiere literary biographer of our day has a serious rival. His specialty was bringing difficult figures to luminous life on the page. Julie Phillips has done the same for a character who seems too far-fetched to be real: the blonde Chicago debutante who became a chicken farmer, the first white child to trek through the Congo who grew up to be a suicidally depressed devotee of Dexedrine, the Army major and CIA analyst who was also a gifted artist, the battered teenage bride who earned a PhD in psychology, the reclusive male SF writer who turned out to be a middle-aged housewife in McLean, VA.

It would be easy for a biographer to get lost among the many masks of Alice B. Sheldon, or to be dazzled into idolatry by her flashing surfaces. Or, most likely, to choose one mask, one surface, as the Real or True or Important one, relegating the others to obscurity. Phillips never makes this mistake: she deals fairly with all the faces she mentions, and she examines the interplay of masks, emotions, gender identity, sexuality, and behavior with genuine insight.

Alice Bradley's parents were characters straight out of a 1920s film: dashing socialites who were also daring explorers. Her mother, Mary Hastings Bradley, was a superb raconteuse, expert markswoman, noted beauty, and very successful writer of both popular fiction and travel/adventure books. (I wonder if this book will bring her writing back into fashion.) Alice's father was a prosperous lawyer and a naturalist.

Their expeditions took them through Africa and India, mostly on foot, and they brought their small daughter Alice along. Generally 6-year-old Alice was carried in a litter; she learned early to say, "Put me down!" in a number of local languages. Less excusably, Mary used her daughter as a central figure in two books about their safaris. (Alice in Jungleland and Alice in Elephantland, which young Alice herself illustrated.)

Alice's experience of those early travels included helplessness in the face of constant danger (she alone of the party had no gun) and unspeakable terror at the death she saw all around her. In contrast, she was treated with wonder by the Africans, who had never seen a white child before, much less an adorable blonde Shirley Temple, and with patronizing affection by the various white dignitaries who entertained the explorers whenever they reached a city. (Yes, they packed plenty of evening clothes for these festivities. This was before the days of excess baggage charges.)

That disconnect between how Alice experienced the world and how others saw her role would have been difficult enough, but her parents subscribed to the Victorian ideal of presenting a tough and cheerful front in any adversity. Alice could not share or show her feelings, and it apparently never occurred to her parents that she might be frightened or disturbed.

Back in Chicago, Alice grew up to be a debutante so impatient with the process that she eloped five days after her presentation to society. She and her husband (an aspiring novelist) moved to Berkeley, where she worked seriously at painting until the marriage crashed and burned. After World War II started; she joined the WAACs, traveled, used her administrative talents, and became one of the first photointelligence analysts. She also met Huntington "Ting" Sheldon, a divorced father of three a dozen years older than herself, whom she married.

The couple spent four years raising chickens, then joined the CIA. Alice, now called Alli, was still restless. She became increasingly fascinated by visual psychology and after several years went back to school, earning a PhD with her research into the psychological appeal of novelty and familiarity. But teaching drained her, and research funds were hard to get. She'd hit another dead end.

Then she turned into a man.

James Tiptree, Jr., was born of a jar of Tiptree's jam and Alli's obsessive need for camouflage. Already a published writer (she'd had a story in the New Yorker, no less), now Alli was writing something light and playful: science fiction. She didn't have to take it seriously, and she had a male identity that would allow her to simultaneously mask and reveal her real self.

Becoming Tip allowed her to say things women were not permitted to say--everything from potty humor to bleak, despairing visions of death. It gave her authority and camaraderie and respect, all in short supply for women in the 1960s. And it allowed her to express her long-burning, long-frustrated desire for women.

The masquerade went well beyond just publishing stories; she kept up lengthy and intimate correspondence with other SF writers and fans, all the while speaking as a man. Yet she told the truth in almost every other way--drew on her own biography, for example, to create Tiptree's life and interests. For most of ten years she managed to maintain the illusion.

Tiptree wrote a series of blistering short stories that won SF's highest awards. He was lauded as a rare male feminist. But eventually the disguise became a burden. After creating a female alter ego (Raccoona Sheldon, a pleasantly dotty retired schoolteacher to whom she assigned a family-fettered life in Wisconsin), Alli was still dissatisfied.

Then her seriously ailing mother, now well into her nineties, died in Chicago. The obituaries made it easy to link the reclusive SF writer whose mother had been a writer/explorer with the lone listed survivor. Tip's secret, Alli's secret was out.

After that, writing became more and more difficult for Alli, although the weight of awards and being taken seriously had dragged at her for a while. As she and Ting grew older, frailer, her depressions continued. He had agreed to a suicide pact when they couldn't go on. One night in May 1987 Alli decided it was time for them to go: he was blind, she was despairing, and the suicide note had been waiting for almost eight years.

She called friends to let them know her plans, but the police arrived before she could do anything. She must have been a hell of an actress, because she persuaded them to leave. Ting (apparently) went to sleep. She shot him in the head.

Then she called his son to tell him the news.

As the police scrambled to return, Alli wrapped a towel around her own head (she'd been bothered by the messiness of Ting's death), lay down next to her husband, took his hand, and shot herself dead.

Everyone should read this book. I don't mean "all SF fans" or "all readers" or "all people who think about gender." Everybody. This biography is that good.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Must-Read Biography of a Woman Men Didn't See 13 Nov 2006
By V. Germann - Published on Amazon.com
The first Tiptree story I ever read, long ago, was "The Women Men Don't See." There was no blood, no gore but the effect was nonetheless like the proverbial bucket of cold water. "Who IS this person," I thought, to write like this? And then there was "Love is the Plan and the Plan is Death" and I was hooked, permanently, on the intellect behind these stories.

And so, now, thirty years later, I at last get to meet this person, and finally have some dim understanding of who James Tiptree, Jr. really was. I say "dim understanding" because as good as this biography is it still leaves the reader haunted, haunted by the dramatic yet tragic life of U.S. mid-westerner Alice Sheldon, who saw things the rest of us didn't see, and then tried to tell us about them.

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