James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

~by Julie Phillips
2006 James Tiptree, Jr. Award Winner
2006 National Book Critics Circle Award Winner
2007 Hugo Award Winner

I first found out about Julie Phillips biography James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon when I was browsing the New York Times one morning over breakfast. The review was positive, but more importantly (for me, anyways) this was the first time I had even heard of Tiptree. I was somewhat astounded to discover an important, groundbreaking, and award-winning author of science fiction that I knew literally nothing about.

Soon after reading the article I came across for the first time the Tiptree Award, which is given to science fiction and fantasy works "that expand or explore our understanding of gender." This piqued my interest even further and so I picked up a copy of the book even though it was about a year and a half before I actually got around to reading it.

Alice Bradley Davey Sheldon, a native of Chicago, grew up traveling the world. Over the course of her life she played many different roles: loyal daughter, artist, army officer, CIA agent, devoted wife, academic. But most famous was her persona as a writer--James Tiptree, Jr. A secretive man who wrote brilliant science fiction and whose writing was so "masculine" that for nearly a decade very few even suspected that he was really a woman. Phillips biography is complete and detailed in telling the story of the life and death of this incredible and complex individual.

It is obvious that Phillips has done her research. She conducted interviews, read correspondence, pursued both primary and secondary sources, and familiarized herself with the work of Tiptree and Sheldon. Everything is documented and she often lets the materials speak for themselves, extensively quoting primary sources and incorporating interpretations of the fictional writings flawlessly into the text in a way to shed light on the reality of Sheldon's life. Also included is a detailed index, a bibliography, and an extraordinarily helpful guide to Tiptree's and Sheldon's publication history.

The book is actually much longer than it first appears; both the print and the margins are small. But while the length is noticeable, Phillips' writing is immensely readable. It is a biography, and obviously not a novel, but I was compelled to keep reading to see "what happens next." Two things in particular struck me as being especially well done (besides the fantastic research): One, the inclusion of years in the chapter titles helps tremendously in keeping the timeline straight; and, two, the use of names and pronouns when referring to the various aspects of Sheldon's identity help clarify and situate the context of the subjects being addressed.

I see a lot of myself in Alli Sheldon, so this book holds additional meaning for me. I have never read any of Tiptree's work before but am definitely more than interested to now. Unfortunately, most if not all of it is out of print with only sporadic resurgences. Luckily, I stumbled (quite accidentally) across a beautiful copy of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (an illustrated "best of" collection that Sheldon helped to select) at a local used book store. While Sheldon's story will particularly interest those familiar with science fiction, anyone who enjoys reading biographies will appreciate this expertly executed one. Phillips has not only written a brilliant and well researched biography, but has also provided an intense examination of gender and feminism in science fiction, female writers, and, most importantly, personal identity.

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