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

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James Tiptree, Jr. burst onto the science fiction scene in the 1970s with a series of hard-edged, provocative short stories. Hailed as a brilliant masculine writer with a deep sympathy for his female characters, he penned such classics as Houston, Houston, Do You Read? and The Women Men Don't See. For years he corresponded with Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Ursula Le Guin. No one knew his true identity. Then the cover was blown on his alter ego: A sixty-one-year old woman named Alice Sheldon. As a child, she explored Africa with her mother. Later, made into a debutante, she eloped with one of the guests at the party. She was an artist, a chicken farmer, a World War II intelligence officer, a CIA agent, an experimental psychologist. Devoted to her second husband, she struggled with her feelings for women. In 1987, her suicide shocked friends and fans. The James Tiptree, Jr. Award was created to honor science fiction or fantasy that explores our understanding of gender. This fascinating biography, ten years in the making, is based on extensive research, exclusive interviews, and full access to Alice Sheldon's papers.

469 pages, Hardcover

First published August 8, 2006

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Julie Phillips

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Profile Image for Lightreads.
641 reviews534 followers
December 4, 2013
Alice Bradley Sheldon. In rough order: she walked over a thousand miles through then uncharted Africa, was a society debutante, eloped, enlisted and then worked her way up to an army Captain in World War II, was a painter and an art critic, became a chicken hatcher and then a CIA analyst, traveled the world, became a doctor of psychology, wrote some of the most searing and extraordinary science fiction short stories I have ever read, played out a complex gender identity shell game with her male pseudonym, had an epistolary affair with Joanna Russ, shot her husband and then herself.

Damn I wish someone else had written this book. I would seriously pay cold hard cash for Hermione Lee’s version. Because this is an extraordinary story about someone with a rich, turbulent life, with complicated and contradictory ideas of gender, and who maintained multiple personas and voices. Phillips had access to Alice’s papers, conducted extensive interviews, and is a deft writer. And I could not trust her.

The overarching problem is her lack of critical tools. The best biographers have all the intensity and knowing of a spouse, but the coolness of a surgeon. They have to love the subject, know her flaws, and be able to cut her open and let her entrails steam in the same sentence, without ever changing tone.

Phillips didn’t have that. She is untrustworthy in that hard-to-spot way where she rushes or elides things that make her uncomfortable. Like, okay, you can’t give me half a paragraph on an incident from Alice’s tumultuous twenties where she apparently turned to prostitution and barely escaped a knife-wielding customer with her life, and then trot hastily on to the next thing, determinedly never looking back. That would be absurd in any biography; in the biography of this woman, who wrote so much about sex and violence and gendered sex and violence, it’s fatal.

Things like that. And her lack of consistency or control with questions of gender. I mean, you cannot write a biography of Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr. without bringing an educated, consistent, interrogated framework of gender to the table. Or so I thought.

And the lack of critical faculties sometimes betrayed Phillips into total fail. She takes Alice’s late-life account of the sexual advances her mother made on her when she was a teenager at such unquestioning face value that she actually says that Alice acknowledged some responsibility for what happened, and then blithely carries on for the rest of the book accepting that as true. Because obviously if the fifteen-year-old victim of what was at the least sexual predation victim blames herself, well whatever she says goes, right?

I just, argh. I’m harping. But this book could have been so brilliant. The subject is so extraordinary, the material so rich. And I really enjoyed it for everything I learned about Alice. But all the ways Phillips failed just kill me.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,107 followers
December 1, 2019
This biography of Alice Sheldon is brilliant. Brilliant, but sobering.

I didn't imagine there would be such depth and investigation going into Alice's life, but not only do we get the character of it, but we get the whole glorious, convoluted, conflicted joy, sadness, and understanding of this person.

I mean, sure, the later-life effects of her writing under the well-respected pseudonym of Tiptree and her increasingly difficult dodges she had to perform to keep her secret from all of fandom and the friends she made from other authors was pretty fun, sad, and freaking fantastic. But when we see all of this through the eyes of her personal feminism and the resulting blowback in the SF field, the whole subject takes on a very poignant and relevant light.

She was very conflicted on the whole subject and it shows.

She led a rich life, from being the daughter of a popular novelist, living in Africa during the heyday of the Great White Hunter legends as a kid, to always knowing she never BELONGED anywhere, of how she was driven by rage as a woman while always having to put on a happy face, to her days as a professional painter learning from the greats, to her short stint as a critic, her joining the military during WWII, to her life as a chicken farmer, to her time as a CIA analyst, to her time as a psychological researcher on perception, to her much later career as an SF author.

What started as a joke turned into a name thrown into fame. She was a man who finally understood women! (Never mind that so many of the stories are DARK, dystopian, highly sexualized male-dominated stories full of institutional and personal abuse... and both sexes were to blame.)

The biographer gave us everything in Alice's life. Her lesbian desires, never fulfilled, her rebellious decision to elope with a man who was just as angry as her, to finding deep companionship with her second husband while never really getting what she really desired. Compound this with her agreement with him to form a suicide pact when things got to be too difficult, and then, at the end, after much illness and depression, she kills her husband and then herself, the picture becomes quite as dark as her fiction.

But this is not the whole story. Of course. She suffered lifelong depression and rage at the world, but it was science and the drive to build something lasting that brought her the most joy. Her core belief revolved around anti-entropy. I thought it was beautiful. She was always rational and deliberate. How she went about saying goodbye to everyone was as thoughtful as it was heartbreaking.

I've never read a more multi-faceted and rich biography. Of course, I can also blame the woman who is the subject of it for giving so much interesting fodder in the shape of her life.

Yes, it's a difficult life, too, but it was full of something really special. It might even go a long, long way to redefining our understanding of history. From a humanist perspective.

Just. Wow. What an interesting person.
Profile Image for Meagan.
334 reviews185 followers
February 26, 2020
#1 out 12 for my non fiction goal for the year

This was my non-fiction read for January

I liked it but could have been shorter and more focused. Too much information on what the people in Tiptree's life (her mother, U.K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ) were doing, thinking, feeling. Like "I don't care can we get back to Tiptree please". It was too repetitive sometimes. I skipped like 4 chapters. However, I loved reading about Tiptree (She is literally one of my faves!) and getting a deeper understanding of her stories and body of work. Were there some things I wish I didn't learn? Yes, but I expected that and it didn't effect my rating. One major thing I didn't like was the romanticization of the exploitation of Africa. Overall I think the author was clever (sometimes) and a lot of stuff was framed interestingly BUT the author just didn't know what to cut out so she just dumped all of it into the book.

I plan to read "Letters to Tiptree" next and eventually reread "Her Smoke Rose Up Forever" and get into some of her other collections. My ultimate goal is to one day read all of her work in order of publication date 😜.
Profile Image for Jessica.
Author 6 books198 followers
May 28, 2011
My first acquaintanceship with James Tiptree was some years ago when I heard that the James Tiptree Award was being given to Kelly Link, a writer I admire. What an odd name. Who was he?

He was a she, I found out. A writer of science fiction. How strange...and utterly fascinating.

I'm not a science fiction fan, have read very little of the genre, but had the good fortune to fall into an online group of writers about 10 years ago (prior to the time of goodreads, facebook, blogs, etc; it's since all but disbanded). Primarily made up of writers of SF, slipstream and such--people like Keith Brooke, Jeff VanderMeer, Forrest Aguirre, and others--I came to appreciate, and understand a little better, the attraction of this genre.

There are few women practitioners: Ursula LeGuin, Joanna Russ, and Octavia Butler come to mind. And yet...there was James Tiptree. How I wish I'd come across his works before. Alice Sheldon, the only child of a mother who was also a successful author, grew up going on long exploratory trips in Africa as a child. A blonde child and a girl, she was the quintessential outsider.

Julie Phillips follows the trajectory of Sheldon's life, her time in the Women's Corps in WWII, her work in image detection in the early incarnation of the C.I.A., her years as a poultry farmer in New Jersey, her rebirth as James Tiptree, Jr., science fiction author.
In the process, much is revealed about the struggles of an unconventional woman in marriage, in a society where career options for women were few and narrowly imagined.

The birth of Feminism, the Women's Movement, is also covered and we sympathize with Tiptree's uneasy place in it. Tiptree was able to keep his identity completely concealed for a good number of years, and few had reason to doubt he was other than a man. In fact, his fiction was praised for its manliness...a man who also understood women! But eventually, after a number of years, he is outed.

"Of course the revelation did change how people read Tiptree. First, it embarrassed a lot of men who had said women couldn't write science fiction. There was then, and to some extent still is, a persistent feeling both in and out of science fiction that women's writing is different from men's and somewhat less equal. Even now, women writers are told off for being "too domestic," or frowned upon when they write fiction that challenges, exhilarates, or disturbs. Women's writing is still seen as less potent than men's. Yet men who didn't think they liked fiction by women admired Tiptree, and had acclaimed him for the very energy and drive they said women lacked." (433).

I was going to give this 4 stars (thought it'd have surely been 5 if I'd already read Tiptree's fiction), but when I got to Alice Sheldon's death--the details of which I'll let you find out for yourself--I was surprised at how upset I was. I felt so sad, angry, confused. I knew then this was a 5-star biography.
Profile Image for Rick.
Author 8 books50 followers
October 3, 2007
In the late 1960s, a new writer emerged on the science-fiction scene, producing powerful stories that explored the role of sexuality and gender unlike any author before. James Tiptree Jr. tackled often-controversial themes with humanity and compassion. He won several literary awards and garnered recognition both in and out of the sci-fi field. Although Tiptree corresponded by letter with fans and several notable writers – Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Harlan Ellison, and Philip K. Dick, among others – no one had met the elusive author or even spoken with him on the phone. In 1976, James Tiptree Jr. was exposed to be Alice B. Sheldon, a woman in her mid-60s. Tiptree continued writing and publishing until her 1987 suicide. In her legacy, she would remain an enigma.

The first biography on the author, Julia Phillips' James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, successfully explores this extraordinary life. More than a mere genre writer, Alice B. Sheldon had explored Africa by the time she was 6; run a chicken farm; helped, while in the Army, pioneer the skill of analyzing aerial photographs of potential military targets; and worked for the CIA – all before embarking on her writing career under the Tiptree pseudonym. Sheldon's mother, Mary Bailey, wrote popular African travelogues, one of which, Alice in Jungleland, the young Sheldon illustrated.

As Phillips unfolds the many incredible aspects of Sheldon's life, a troubled and unhappy woman emerges. She unhappily grew up in the shadow of her famous and successful mother. Sheldon lived during an era when, regardless of her ambitions and intelligence, a woman was expected to marry, be a dutiful wife, and have children – none of which she aspired to. She suffered from chronic bouts of severe depression.

Meticulously researched and beautifully written, Phillips parts the veil and reveals the woman that was James Tiptree Jr. Far more than providing a biography of an important and influential literary figure, she introduces us to one of the most fascinating and complex personalities of the 20th century.

(Originally appeared in The Austin Chronicle, August 16, 2006.)
Link: [http://www.austinchronicle.com/gyroba...]
Profile Image for  Ariadne Oliver.
114 reviews15 followers
August 30, 2019
I really enjoyed this biography. Alice B. Sheldon is probably best known for the science fiction she published, mostly under the name of James Tiptree Jr. Apparently it caused quite a stir when it came out that a woman had written these stories. But even before that, she had a fascinating life: She was a member of several expeditions to Africa as a child, was part of the military during world war II, worked for the CIA for a while, got a doctorate in psychology, was married twice, but also attracted to women throughout her life.

This book gives a detailed account of her life and also analyses her writing. Because of this it contains spoilers for much of her works. Her relationship with her parents, her grappling with her gender and sexuality and her life-long struggle with depression were especially influential for her and also shaped her writing.

It was fascinating how she used her pseudonym, how it shaped her interactions with other science fiction writers and fans and what an impact it had on her when her identity was found out.

I liked that Phillips left room for nuances. She obviously researched and interviewed a lot of people and sometimes there are differing view points. She tries to offer explanations, but acknowledges that some things can't be settled for sure.

James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon reminded me a lot of Ruth Franklin's Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life which I also loved. Now I have a craving to read more biographies like these, but don't think I have any on my unread book pile. Will have to investigate. Recs are welcome!
Profile Image for Alan.
1,124 reviews112 followers
August 4, 2020
Despite my lifelong love for science fiction, I must acknowledge that the genre has a shameful history. Not a secret one, no; SF's failings are widely known, though they're no less tragic for all that. Science fiction began, you see, perhaps more so than any other genre, as literature written by—and for—straight white men. For boys, really—aimed at (and frequently written by) adolescents who had not yet discovered the full range of human interaction, and therefore were (and, all too often, still are) uncomfortable with literature that encompasses that range—and, especially, with fictions involving women.

Right from the start, of course, there were notable exceptions. Frankenstein, for example, struck me as a very motherly science fiction story, a poignant and heartfelt meditation on parental irresponsibility and the ungrateful child. After all, Frankenstein's monster is only slightly more appalled at his parentage than any stereotypical modern teenager would be.

But such outliers were, at least to begin with, few and far between.

Which brings us to James Tiptree, Jr., who published a stream of stories in the 1960s and 1970s, in magazines and later in collections with evocative titles like Brightness Falls from the Air, Star Songs of an Old Primate and Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home, stories that grabbed SF readers by their... throats. Tiptree was a mysterious virtuoso who interacted with editors, fellow writers, and SF fandom alike solely by exchanging letters; a writer who impressed the heck out of Harlan Ellison (never easy to do); the author Robert Silverberg famously called "ineluctably masculine" (p.2)... an author who was in fact one of those outliers.

Because, ultimately, James Tiptree, Jr. was only (only!) a pseudonym, a persona carefully constructed by a gifted writer whose secret identity was Dr. Alice Hastings Bradley Davey Sheldon, Ph.D., more commonly known as Alice B. Sheldon.

She liked to be called "Alli."

Which brings us to James Tiptree, Jr., Julie Phillips' amazing biography, from which I learned Alli's favored nickname as well as many other details about her utterly fascinating double life.


This review has been more than eleven years in the making. I read Phillips' extraordinarily complex and rewarding biography for the first time in 2007, a few months before I joined Goodreads, and I actually started this review back in May 2009, in response to some early interest from a fellow Goodreader (sorry, Lettie!)... but at the time, and for more than a decade thereafter, I did not feel I could do it justice.

I'm still not sure I'm up to the task... but I can say that Phillips' work has only acquired additional resonance and meaning for me as I've aged, and that the many remaining infelicities in this review are not, at least, because it was any kind of rush job.


Phillips' biography begins with Sheldon's childhood as the daughter of the wealthy and well-known Chicago power couple Herbert and Mary Bradley. It's a good place to start—and though Phillips proceeds chronologically thereafter, that linearity is continually informed by Alli's own later views, both as herself and as Tiptree.
Besides, a competition with a parent is doomed from the start: you're a loser if you fail, a traitor if you win.
It took Alice most of a lifetime to find a way out from under the shadow of their good intentions.
—later on p.42
I found the above observations quite illuminating—for, after all,
Your family is in the best position to betray you.
—which is one of mine, actually, although it strongly echoes Jenny Holzer's Truism, "even your family can betray you"
Holzer also, by the way, observed that "abuse of power comes as no surprise"—and see also: "Holzerisms: 50 Aphorisms for the 21st Century", by Julian Hanna and Yanina Spizzirri.

But I digress, as is my wont.

I'll commit other digressions later.


Alli's parents made a name for themselves on the lecture circuit after several expeditions through Africa. They brought Alice along on these safaris despite her tender age. And although her parents were never merely clueless white explorers (Phillips notes on p.55 that "The Bradleys could no longer fail to acknowledge Africa's {colonial} politics"), those travels did help to inform Tiptree's authentically world-weary air of experience, as did Sheldon's service in the U.S. military as a member of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (which became the Women’s Army Corps), and her later intelligence work for the Pentagon, interpreting aerial reconnaisance photos.

Phillips also explores Sheldon's sexuality, something it seems Alli herself did not examine in depth:
Alice never had an affair with a woman; she was always drawn to girls and women who didn't return her love. She loved men, slept with them, married them, depended on them, sought their interest and attention. But loving women is one of her stories, a submerged plot within the public plot of her two marriages, another secret identity.
This duality helps explain how the original founders of the Tiptree Award (which is, as of October 2019, known as the Otherwise Award) could choose the name of a fictional male for the honor. (Those founders, by the way, are two other writers whose work I admire greatly: Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler.)

Not all of the men Alice loved were keepers, though. About her first husband, Bill Daley, she wrote:
"Anyone who shoots a real gun at you when drunk and angry is simply not husband material, regardless of his taste in literature."

Another comment in this section, which appears in isolation and is not referred to again, also stood out to me:
She went out of her way to sleep with black men, partly out of political solidarity, possibly as a way of replaying her parents' African adventures: "My contact with negroes {...} has refreshed all my early African memories."
—p.98 (from Sheldon's Journal, 5/21/1941, as cited on p.418).

One thing Phillips repeatedly makes clear about Sheldon is that she was extraordinarily adept at compartmentalization...
"I am convinced that we are born with desires which it is impossible to satisfy, and only by a violent effort in the direction of artificiality and paradox can life be enjoyed at all."
But then, if Alli had been able to just be herself, we would never have gotten Tiptree. More about that later.

I doubt Alli would ever have listened to (or even heard of) the 1980s alternative band Violent Femmes, but even so I believe many of their lyrics would have resonated with her:
You know that I want your loving
Then Mr. Logic,
Mr. Logic tells me it ain't never gonna happen
And then my defenses say, well, I didn't want it anyway
But you know sometimes I'm a liar
—"Promise" (1983)

Or maybe,
I was with a girl,
But it felt like I was with a boy.

I can't even remember
If we were lovers
Or if I just wanted to...
—"I Held Her In My Arms" (1986)
But I digress... again.


Alli's life was not entirely composed of pain and suffering. There's plenty of humor, too—consider this wry observation, from the start of Sheldon's writing career as a reviewer for the Chicago Sun:
Anyway, her editor wouldn't let her take reviewing seriously. She later described him as a classic drunken newspaperman who kept a pair of shears next to his scotch bottle and, when she handed him a new column, "eyed it in silence with the reds of his eyes shining over the bags and then took up the shears and cut off the last third, which was where the point was." She started to have fun.


James Tiptree, Jr. is consistently lively and entertaining. More than once, Phillips' account echoes Tiptree's own humorous, self-deprecating style:
For a while Alice hoped to become a pilot. A few American women were already ferrying planes in Britain, while others were calling for an American women's corps. In the spring of 1942 she began taking flying lessons, despite the high cost, $10 an hour. But her eyesight wasn't good enough. She got through the eye exams by memorizing the answers of the person ahead of her, but after "landing the plane 20 feet above or below the ground several times" she washed out of flight school.

She gave Major, the red macaw, to the Brookfield Zoo, where he was inspired to lay an egg, and so turned out to have gender troubles of his own.

Sheldon's life wasn't always amenable to such wry interpretations, of course. This savage and entirely accurate assessment resonated strongly with me, for example:
Incredible how the top dog always announces with such an air of discovery that the underdog is childish, stupid, emotional, irresponsible, uninterested in serious matters, incapable of learning—but for god's sake don't teach him anything!—and both cowardly and ferocious. {...} The oppressed is also treacherous, incapable of fighting fair, full of dark magics, prone to do nasty things like fighting back when attacked, and contented with his place in life unless stirred up by outside agitators. {...} Once I learned the tune I stopped believing the words—about anybody.
—As Tiptree, on p.147
This insight seems to me to lie at the heart of Alli's story—and it also seems to go together with this quote, from substantially later:
"{...}which side I was on. The bottom side. When the jackboots kick in the door, it's me they're coming for. My fantasies are of escape, not of wearing the jackboots."
—p.303, in a letter to Joanna Russ

Sheldon earned her Ph.D.—and her doctoral study in the psychology of rats provided material for Tiptree's insightful and even prescient tale, "The Psychologist Who Wouldn't Do Awful Things to Rats." As Phillips notes,
Liking rats, Alli became even more disgusted with the kind of experimental psychology that involved cruelty to animals.

James Tiptree, Jr. isn't entirely perfect, though. Julie Phillips uncritically repeats many clichés about SF, for example—and the irony of this passage was especially head-turning:
Science fiction is inclusive. It is read by boys with faces full of acne and brains full of cyberspace, girls with stringy hair and fierce imaginations, awkward people, brilliant people in search of like minds.


Tiptree's masculine persona seemed to take on a life of his own...
Commenting on Robert A. Heinlein's attempt to write from a woman's point of view in I Will Fear No Evil, Tiptree noted, "Maybe having the macho to do such a horrible bad taste disaster is the mark of a real writer. {...} The good taste that holds your tongue from making the little unlikable lapses is also the castrating inhibition that keeps you from really saying anything."
This is in contrast to the work of Sheldon's lifelong correspondent, Ursula K. Le Guin, whose books (like the sociofictional tour de force—not a novel, which is why it has been so widely misunderstood—that is Always Coming Home) appeared under her own feminine name. In another letter to Joanna Russ, Tiptree said that Le Guin
"radiates something {...} maybe it appeals to my Victorian background, in which crises were handled in the third person. Some kind of invincible non-immediacy."

Le Guin herself consistently comes across as wise and funny... when she found out who Tiptree was, she wrote to Sheldon,
"I suppose there are some who resent being put on, but it would take an extrordinarily small soul to resent so immense, so funny, so effective and fantastic and ETHICAL a put-on."


I haven't said much about Tiptree's own fiction, I know. Part of that's because it's been far too long since I read any. I will, however, mention what I think is her most powerful tale (certainly it's the one I find most memorable): "The Screwfly Solution," which, though actually published under Alli's other pseudonym, Raccoona Sheldon, is the quintessential Tiptree story. Its quietly inescapable apocalypse, coming down in a mist from above, still gives me chills.


It's impossible for us to know, now, what would have happened had Alice Sheldon felt free to write as herself. She brought Tiptree into existence because she couldn't just be herself, and Tiptree served her well—he pushed back, hard, at the stereotypes and limitations of SF at the time. Tiptree was a great writer, enormously influential... although I can't help thinking that maybe—just maybe—Alli's own unfettered voice might have turned out to be even better.

Tiptree's life—his useful life, anyway—ended prematurely; he was definitively exposed as a pseudonym in 1977.

Alli's own life ended prematurely as well, by most reckonings, when she killed her ailing husband and then herself a decade later.

Phillips does not shy away from these facts, either, although they are reported as a relatively brief coda to the richness and excitement of Sheldon's double life.


More than 70 pages of Acknowledgements, Bibliography, Index and other ancillary material round out James Tiptree, Jr., underscoring Julie Phillips' level of scholarship and the depth of her research. And while I don't think it's possible for a single volume to capture every salient detail of even a humdrum life (which Sheldon's certainly was not!), I do think Phillips hit all the high and low notes of Alice B. Sheldon's life just about perfectly.
Profile Image for Jan Priddy.
753 reviews145 followers
May 25, 2018
I had mixed feelings about this bio. This is both because of the writing by Philips and because of the subject. I was very sorry to learn Phillips is the official biographer of Ursula K. Le Guin.

According to this biographer, Alice Sheldon struggled with personal issues concerning her future, her depression, her grief caring for her mother, and her need to contribute meaningfully to the world. I can relate to that, but I never cared much for Tiptree's writing and discovering that he was a she back in the day neither surprised me nor caused me to reevaluate the work. She had the advantages of money and travel and glamour. She worried too much about aging. She was afraid to be alone. I get that too. She offered me nothing to aim for, and nothing about gender roles or the ugliness of humanity I did not already know. Her books did not offer hope, and I was looking for hope.

Phillips got off base almost immediately in my reading. There is a great deal about cannibals Tiptree's mother supposedly survived in her African travels, likely inventions added to help her mother sell her stories, but Phillips makes no effort to clarify the authenticity of these tales. This acceptance without question continues throughout the book, resulting in what is perhaps the greatest weakness of "official" versions of a life. It is the reader who must then go hunt up details and rethink the framing of events.

As a result, this "meticulously researched" biography but was an unenlightened slog for me. Sheldon had an amazing life, but there is nothing remotely amazing here. Sadly, I might like Sheldon less because of it. I certainly became weary of the words "serious" and "seriously" repeated sometimes several times on a page in the middle—Alli was more or less serious, took thing more or less seriously. Mary becoming weaker, one of many facts repeated unnecessarily, and without any growing insight. At nearly 400 pages, the biography is often redundant, and I would have better enjoyed a book of perhaps 250 pages. From Philips, I might have enjoyed a longish essay best of all.

Many people loved the author James Tiptree, Jr. without meeting him, and others loved Alice Sheldon. I could never stand that other alias name, Raccoona, which sounded silly to me. I am sorry for Alli's suffering and her struggle to be herself, or even to clearly define what that self was. This book reviews her struggles in staggering detail without offering useful analysis, insight, or enlightenment to me.

She murdered her husband while he slept and then made last calls to let people (including his son) know before shooting herself. She held his hand in death.

One person who admires her work claims, "She taught us that you can't be afraid to be that bleak." I guess, considering everything, maybe we should be afraid of being that bleak. Maybe, like Alli, we should all want more.

During the period James Tiptoe, Jr. was publishing, I began reading SF. I read the old macho classics such as Foundation and Dune, and I began looking for a vision of the world as I hoped it could become. I was a feminist and anti-war and from a modest home. I was an artist and also enjoyed cooking and baking. When I began my undergraduate program at the University of Washington, I had never once been assigned a novel written by a woman and I determined to change that. I worked in the University Book Store in Seattle where I received a discount. I walked up and down the aisles of "Science Fiction & Fantasy" and looked for books written by women and any book with a woman on the cover, so long as that woman was not being carried by a man in a spacesuit.

I read Le Guin and Russ and Tiptree and all the rest. The earlier novels of Le Guin were smarter and certainly better written than what most men were writing, but no more respectful of women. In Asimov's Foundation a character is accused of having a certain number of followers and responds, "I believe you are counting women and children." Of course that put me off. So did "Weak as women's magic" in the first of the Earthsea books. I read most of Le Guin, but she was not my favorite in the 70s.

I read Women of Wonder and the follow-up volume. I tracked down more stories and novels by the authors I admired. I have those books and Aurora, Beyond Equality on my shelves to this day. Dreamsnake remains a favorite. Alexis Panshin's award-winning Rite of Passage is out of print but I bought enough second hand copies to teach the novel for a few years. I have read it at least eight or ten times. Vinge, Gloss, and others joined them as favorites.
Profile Image for Ignacio.
1,120 reviews206 followers
August 5, 2022
Es un misterio cómo este libro pudo traducirse, más cuando se editó. El anterior libro de Tiptree, Jr. aparecido en España tenía ya 20 años a sus espaldas, y su nombre se había ido perdiendo entre las estanterías de las librerías de viejo al igual que otros tantos autores de su época. Sin embargo, una pequeña editorial (Circe) tuvo los arrestos de publicarlo y nos permitió acceder al trabajazo de Julie Phillips. Con una traducción y una corrección mejorables, toda una lección sobre cómo se cuenta una vida y se utiliza para explorar la creatividad de una escritora que brilló como una supernova y revolucinó la ciencia ficción con una serie de historias frenéticas, provocadoras, ambiguas, insidiosas, vibrantes... Supongo que a quien no conozca su obra le dirá más bien poco, pero quien haya leído un puñado de sus relatos y conozca mínimamente a los autores con los que mantuvo relaciones epistolares lo van a disfrutar. Mucho.
Profile Image for Bryan Alexander.
Author 4 books292 followers
September 15, 2015
"those 8 years in sf was the first time I could be really real"
-Alice B. Sheldon (367)

This is a powerful, vital biography of one of modern sf's greatest writers. It sheds light on an unusual life and career, while illuminating science fiction genre history _and_ connecting with major issues of our time around gender, identity, and science.

I read Tiptree/Sheldon's stories and novels during the last decade of her life and following years. As a teenager they awed and confused me. As a college student they wowed me even more, as my understanding deepened and I immersed myself in the American and British New Waves. I remember learning about the deaths of Sheldon and her husband. In my late 20s I taught one story, "The Girl Who Was Plugged In", in a graduate class. I knew something of that period's genre history, but didn't know enough about Tiptree, so was happy to be gifted with this biography. (If you're new to Tiptree/Sheldon, here's my review of the best short story collection.)

Julie Phillips takes us through Alice Sheldon's life, starting with her extraordinary mother and ending with her tragic death in 1987. Phillips gives us Alice's (always "Alli") privileged upbringing, including multiple African safaris as a girl (!), her education, first marriage, army career in WWII, second marriage, CIA stint, PhD in psychology, then the late in life stellar career in science fiction. Throughout Phillips immerses us in Alli's voice through her journals and always industrious letter-writing. We hear Alli being ferociously creative, deeply reflective, wracked by desires for love, sex, career, and impact. She keeps shifting her focus on different ways of being, ever seeking the right way for her to be in the world, and never ultimately finding it. She kept developing new identities, new masks for the world. Her last years seem to have been an agony of ferocious pressures on her marriage, her body, her sexuality, her friendships, and her creativity. It's an amazing read, an in-depth character study.

I was surprised to learn many details, such as Alli and her second husband's brief career as chicken farmers, or that she wasn't really a top-level lifelong CIA agent, or that she did major work in photo intelligence during WWII. I didn't know she came from such privilege (see below). It's amazing to think of her working and exploring in the Third Reich's ruins. Her drug intake was epic, akin to the more celebrated levels of Phil Dick. And I was unaware of her many close (if mostly epistolary) relationships with contemporary sf authors. I'm still trying to imagine what a Phil Dick-James Tiptree collaboration could have looked like (he offered, she didn't reply) (237).

Phillips does a fine job of connecting biography to art. I'm normally skeptical about this form of criticism, but The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon makes convincing arguments for "Tiptree" drawing on events and preconceptions in Allie's life. Her connections to feminist writers gave me new insights into the works of Russ, Leguin, and more. To her credit, Phillips also delves into the major stories and two novels on their own terms, farther than most biographers would go, revealing her to be a perceptive reader.

Phillips is also a fine nonfiction writer. She chooses superb passages from Alli's writing to cite, and reflects on them with subtlety and perception. For example,
"I love you so damn much it hurts," she wrote [to her parents in 1957], and her parents' friends were impressed by her loyalty. She did love them, but it did hurt. (191)

She teases out meanings from the many Sheldon texts, connecting them to diverse aspects of her biography. Moreover, Phillips isn't afraid to show Sheldon in a negative light, as when she learns that she hates teaching (206).

Phillips is also capable of disagreeing with Sheldon, despite her obvious admiration for her subject. Tiptree often wrote with an emphasis on biology's fierce power, and Sheldon as a psychologist and intellectual in general often saw evolution overpowering everything before it. But Phillips falls on the cultural side of this argument (292).
Despite all Alli's worrying at the biological foundations of male and female, her performance reminds us that gender is a social construct, one made by writers and readers both. (373)

One of the ironies of Allie's career as Tiptree is that she insisted most on the biological, essential nature of gender at the moment she seemed to be proving that it was all an act, that gender was what you said it was after all. (294)

(I'm more on Tiptree/Sheldon's side, personally. Despite my training and professions as a cultural worker, as the UN says, and even after raising myself on 1970s sf and politics, I think we're been learning too much about the brain and human development to not credit the biological side. Plus much of current culture seems hell-bent on reifying gender division.)

The only criticism I have of the book is its blindness about Sheldon's class privilege. She was born into serious wealth - hence a succession of private schools (including a Swiss boarding school), international expeditions, lavish living spaces, coming out as a society debutante, and of course experiencing no material want as a child and teenager. Sheldon never lost this powerful money support through her life. When Alli announces her intention to wed a second time, her mother reacts with the powers of the 1%:
As soon as Mary heard the news she wrote her friend Lila, and former Mrs. Henry Luce, and asked her for the New York lowdown on her prospective son-in-law. Sources at Time could find nothing terrible on Ting in their files.(134)

While Phillips shows us her subject exploring and shifting careers, at no point does Sheldon select one because it will pay the bills. Later in life Tiptree/Sheldon "liked being paid", but clearly didn't need the money (233). This placed the author in a very unusual position as a writer, especially one writing as a woman in a field that sometimes devalued female authors. It would be good to learn how that shaped her approach to fiction. It would be useful to know how Sheldon reflected on being wealthy, if she did at all. Intersectionality is hard to do.

Otherwise, I strongly recommend this biography to anyone interested in science fiction, or contemporary women authors, or to readers who like well-written biographies. It's vital for anyone concerned about feminism in the 21st century, because, among other things, it shows previous instances of many debates we're still having, from biology versus culture to the representation of women in sf.
Profile Image for Sarah.
Author 110 books756 followers
February 4, 2009
I don't read a lot of biographies, but this is one of the finest I have ever read. I had read some of Tiptree's stories as a teenager, and I knew that he was actually a woman, but I assumed that it was a case like Andre Norton or George Eliot, a woman publishing under a man's name. The complexity of Alli's relationship with her alter-ego Tiptree, and of Tiptree's relationships with others, was compelling.
The book asks many fascinating questions about gender and identity and self (taken as three different things, or combined), about a writer's obligation to his or her work, about science fiction, and about the differences in the ways we are perceived by others versus the ways we perceive ourselves.
As full of plot-twists, triumph, and tragedy as any novel.
Profile Image for Stuart.
722 reviews269 followers
May 8, 2022
One of the most complex and conflicted writers of SF, a moving and insightful portrait
Definitely one of the best SF author biographies I've read, along with "Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick". There's no question that Alice B. Sheldon had a unique upbringing, a searingly bright but restless and troubled artistic passion and intellect, and an incredibly varied and fascinating life. It holds the weight of tragedy, but much artistic integrity and struggle as well. If you have read her stories and then read this, you will both gain great insight and immediately want to revisit them for a more enriching second reading.
Profile Image for Nancy Oakes.
1,939 reviews750 followers
May 11, 2009
I must confess that I've never read any of James Tiptree Jr.'s work, and that I had no idea who this person was prior to picking up Phillips' book. That didn't seem to matter, however, because this was one of the most well-written biographies I've read in quite a long while. Alice Bradley Sheldon was a most interesting subject -- and Phillips does an excellent job in researching, putting together and presenting Sheldon's life both as herself and as James Tiptree, Jr., a writer of science fiction whose works were very well known even though Tiptree himself remained somewhat of an enigma even among his contemporaries in the world of SF writing. I won't go into detail here, because many other reviewers have done so quite well, and there are multiple places on the internet to find details about Sheldon.

Phillips' analysis of Sheldon's background, her insecurities, her search for who she really was and wanted to be is very well done. But this isn't just a cut and dried biography. It's a look at a woman trying to find herself through many different persona: daughter of Chicago society parents, eloping at an early age and divorcing, then going into the Army Air Corps, then moving along to work in the CIA, marrying again, obtaining a PhD to do psychological research, and becoming an egg farmer, to name a few. Phillips' argument is that Sheldon knew none of these roles ever truly fitted her, and that by taking on the role of Tiptree, a male science fiction writer, she had finally found a way to give herself an outlet for the person she'd always wanted to be. But even then she still got very caught up in her own turmoil about identity as her Tiptree persona consistently grew in stature and landed him a bit of fame along with awards (Hugo, Nebula); Alice had to devote more of her own lessening energies into maintaining it while trying to keep Alice Bradley Sheldon a secret.

Very well written; I had a lot of difficulty putting it down once I got started. When I can pick up a biography of someone with whom I'm not even vaguely familiar and not want to put it down, that's saying something about the author's writing. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who wants an intelligent read.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
1,215 reviews105 followers
August 23, 2014
As an aspiring author, there's a part of me that's a little bit jealous of Alice Sheldon. The daughter of socialite explorers, when she was six, she went on Carl Akeley's safari to collect the gorilla that currently stands in the diorama at the American Museum of Natural History. She was a debutante, a painter, a scientist, and a CIA officer. She had a celebrated career as a science fiction author, nominated for and winning multiple awards and engaging in long, deep epistolary relationships with several of my author heroes. She had a fascinating life.

She was also deeply troubled and often miserable. Possibly bipolar in a time where they didn't have effective medications, she was occasionally ushered into psychotherapy. But while brilliant and occasionally high achieving, she was a woman who spent most of her life pre-women's lib--which meant that it didn't seem to occur to her therapists that maybe part of the problem was that she was smart and ambitious and not particularly cut out to be a housewife. She was terrified of motherhood, with an overbearing mother of her own, but after an early abortion left her infertile, later found herself mourning having that choice taken away from her. If she had been a man, she probably would have made a perfectly fine scientist or military officer. As a woman, her contributions were repeatedly dismissed. She managed feats of verbal pyrotechnics while writing under a man's name; once her identity was revealed, she struggled to write without her comfortable male voice.

In the end, you end up pitying her more than anything else. She was fantastically privileged, more so than most of her peers, but the freedoms it gives her merely seem to give her more room to flounder. Born a little to early to really join the feminist movement, she struggled to relate to her younger, fierier peers. Born far too early to be accepted, she was probably either a lesbian or at least bisexual but found herself doomed to a messy, unsatisfying sex life that seemed to give her great grief. She formed some of her closest relationships and most found her place while pretending to be someone else. She longed to be acknowledged for herself, but after her secret came out, couldn't figure out how to navigate without that mask. Tiptree is a fascinating figure, but in the end, deeply tragic. Phillips handles her story with sensitivity and deftness.
Profile Image for Michael Burnam-Fink.
1,507 reviews230 followers
December 1, 2021
In the 1970s, James Tiptree Jr stunned the world of science fiction with a series of dazzlingly provocative short stories, tying up sex and death and xenophilia. Tiptree carried on a deep correspondence with major figures in the field-Philip K Dick, Ursula K LeGuin, and Joanna Russ. Tiptree was an urbane older gentleman who cultivate an air of mystery as an international traveler who worked for an intelligence agency based in McLean, Virginia and loved guns and fishing. Tiptree was described as ineluctably masculine in anthology introductions, scifi's own Hemingway.

Of course, Tiptree didn't exist. He was the pseudonym of Alice Sheldon, a 60 year old woman and fascinating character in her own right. Phillips traces Sheldon's life-story and literary career, trying to draw out the distress at the heart of her soul.

Alli (her preferred nickname) grew up as a child of privilege in the 1920s. Her mother, Mary Bradley, was a socialite, author, and explorer. At 6 years old, Alli accompanied her parents on a 1400 mile trek across Africa to investigate the Mountain Gorilla, a fantastic journey made possible by hundreds of African porters. Long treks in colonial Africa and Asia were interspersed with a smotheringly protective childhood in Chicago and Wisconsin. Alli was a precocious youth, but her mother was a commanding if distant presence, and Alli never really fit in at a succession of expensive finishing schools. She read Astounding Stories and dream of traveling to Sirius, while struggling with anger, depression, and sexual urges the straight-laced morality of her upbringing left her unable to comprehend. As Philips puts it, Alli was faced with a double-edged sword. She could not do anything worthwhile and become a failure, or she could surpass her mother and become a traitor.

Alli chose a form of rebellion available to rich and pretty debutants, a quick marriage at 19 to William Davey, a Princeton student with poetic aspirations and a drinking problem. The two of them moved to California to continue their studies, and their lives spiraled into chaos. They drank, used drugs, had affairs, abused each other. Alli got pregnant and had an abortion. Their artistic skills didn't match their ambitions, as Davey's long autobiographical novel wandered, and Alli failed to find her voice as a painter in her psychological turmoil. The couple separated in 1937, and were divorced by 1940.

The Second World War offered a chance to serve, and Alli enlisted in the WAAC, where she eventually became a photo-intelligence analyst. 1945 saw her posted to Europe, part of a project to exploit captured Nazi images, where she wound up marrying her commanding officer, Col. Huntington Sheldon. Ting was a stable older man, a former bank who's solid façade concealed a lively inner life and tragic past (a prior wife had gone insane, and he'd essentially abandoned her and their three kids). Alli and Ting tried to run a chicken hatchery, then sold it and wound up back in intelligence at the CIA, where Ting was fairly senior on the analytics side for 17 years, and Alli worked for 4 before quitting. She went back to school, finishing her undergrad and a PhD in psychology, but at the end she was too odd, too old, and too female to make it as an academic in 1967. But she'd written some science fiction stories in the throes of finishing her dissertation, and as Tiptree, she sold. The stories were good!

And what followed was a decade of astounding productivity and deep relationships forged through letters to other authors. Tiptree cultivated a mystique, with Allie and Ting's fishing trips to Canada and Mexico transformed into secret missions to unknown destinations on CIA orders. In the 1970s, science fiction was struggling with feminism, and Tiptree served as an example of a man who got it, who could write women despite unimpeachable manly credentials. But when Tiptree mentioned that his mother, an African explorer, passed away in Chicago, some of his correspondents got newspapers and connected it to the obituary of Mary Bradley, survived by her daughter Alice Sheldon. The gig was up, and while the scifi community forgave the deception, but without the mask Sheldon had trouble finding her voice again.

A major theme of the book is that being Alli was exhausting and frustrating. Alli was too smart and too opinionated to sit back and be a good wife as society demanded. Her lifelong struggles with depression made it hard to maintain friendships. Sex and gender is at the heart of this book, and Phillips is clear that Alli was always more attracted to women than men, but that this attraction was something she never really acted on. Terrified of death and aging, she resolved to make herself sexless for most of her marriage to Ting, and apparently succeeded. I think "lesbian" is a fair descriptor of Sheldon, but a deeper read on gender is trickier. Tiptree was accepted as one of the guys, where Alice would have always had 'woman' prefixed to 'author'. Being someone else let Alice be confident and flirtatious in a way that was hard under her own name. She seemed to have such a commitment to absolute Truth that being able to take a step away and say "well, it's not the truth, but it's Tiptree's version of the truth" was a game that made writing and friendship possible. While Sheldon had a deeply negative to ambivalent relationship with her own femininity, it's hard to separate being a woman from being a woman in 1930s America, which was objectively pretty awful.

And its hard to separate Alli's pained identity from her own struggles with depression and drug addiction (Dexedrine as an anti-depressant, valium to take the edge off the dex, and morphine for arthritis. They just pumped housewives full of drugs). As Alli and Ting aged, she began to get more obsessed with death and with avoiding the slow decline that had claimed her mother. Ting, a decade older, declined first, becoming nearly completely blind. And in May 1987, she killed him and then herself, leaving a suicide note dated 1979. A dramatic end for a dramatic life.

There are flaws in this biography. Phillips takes an uncritical look at Sheldon's wild youth, leaving open key questions like whether Sheldon ever had a successful same-sex relationship against allegations that her first husband caught her going down on another woman at a party and threw her through a window, putting her in the hospital. A possible incestuous encounter with her own mother is similarly impossible to verify, though a similar plot point in the novella A Momentary Taste of Being is evidence in favor, given how much of Tiptree was drawn from life. And despite the ample letters, an adequate summary of Tiptree's role in the 1970s science-fiction community doesn't quite emerge. It's good, but not perfect.

Still, Alli is a fascinating character, and while I'm sympathetic for her pain and wish it were lessened, at least we got some first rate stories out of it.
Profile Image for Phoenixfalls.
147 reviews80 followers
March 9, 2010
It is very hard, when reviewing a biography, to separate liking for the book (as a book) and liking for its subject. In this case, I liked Sheldon less than I expected to -- the section of the book when she is working for the CIA and then working towards her Ph.D I read very slowly, as I kept getting annoyed with her. Much though she struggled with her gender, her sexuality, her relationship with her parents, she remained the product of privilege, and she never seemed to see that.

But the biography is extremely well done -- messy, yes, with big gaping holes where there is no real record of what went on, but still a wonderfully detailed portrait of a life that spans Victorian, colonial America to post-Civil Rights era modern America and a person who took active part in all of those disparate, disjointed ages. Sheldon was raised with Victorian ideals of service and a woman's place in the world, went on safari in Africa at age six, was a bohemian artist in the 30s, fought in WWII, helped form the CIA, sympathized with the Civil Rights movement and was a conflicted member of the womens' lib movement, and all BEFORE she created the persona of Tiptree, who (with Ursula Le Guin and several others) made SF more literary and raised questions of what the role of women was to be in the genre. Her end was tragic, and one of the few things that bothered me about the biography was that her suicide note was not provided. The truly wonderful thing about this biography is how much Phillips allows Sheldon (and all the other people who touched and were touched by Sheldon's life) to speak through her own words -- her writing, her letters to friends, her journals all are quoted liberally throughout.

My only other quibble about this book is the end notes. Phillips clearly wrote this book with as much care as a scholarly paper, but all of her detailed source notes and the extraneous information is buried at the back of the book in end notes. I did not discover them until halfway through reading, and I despise the physical process of flipping back and forth, so I tried to simply read the notes for each chapter as I completed it, but even that was too confusing because they were annotated merely as to page, not line (or within the text). I finally gave up on that process as too unwieldy and read them all at the end, but I am sure that I missed some of the connections.

Still, this is an impressive work, as Sheldon's is an impressive life, and I hope that it finds wide readership.
Profile Image for Jlawrence.
305 reviews143 followers
January 16, 2011
Alice B. Sheldon led a fascinating life - taken by her parents on African safaris when a young child, became a frustrated painter and published art critic, did photo-intelligence work during WWII which lead to a job in the CIA after the war, and earned a doctorate in experimental psychology.

And that was all before she wrote award-winning science fiction under the pen name of James Tiptree, Jr.

This biography does a great job chronicling Sheldon's tumultuous life, balancing anecdotes, letter excerpts, quotes from friends and loved ones with analysis of Sheldon's psychology and writings. Sheldon initially chose the pseudonym as a kind of lark, but her Tiptree persona soon took on a life of its own. Tiptree's voice was strong and unique, combining what seemed an unmistakably 'male' voice with well-rounded female characters and complex takes on feminist themes, and the best Tiptree stories melded hard science fiction and social and psychological themes seamlessly.

Sheldon, as Tiptree, was secretive and refused to meet anyone in person, but nonetheless developed strong friendships with many sf writers of the era, including Ursula K. Le Guin, Harlan Ellison, Joanna Russ, entirely through letter-writing. (These engrossing exchanges make up a large portion of the book). Sheldon wove in facts of her real life into what Tiptree revealed to others, but only the ones who got the most personal in their exchanges - Le Guin and Russ - ever suspected the mystery man might be a woman. In fact, Ellison and Robert Silverberg both wrote praise-filled intros to Tiptree stories talking about how the secretive Tipree *had* to be a man, based on his writing.

It was only through her mother's death and obituary that Tiptree sleuths were able to figure out her identity and out her. After losing the powerful mask of Tiptree, Sheldon only a few times wrote as strongly again, and a decade later heartbreakingly succumbed to the depression that'd been plaguing her for decades by taking her husband's and her own life.

Phillips gives us the troubled, fiercely intelligent, many-sided Sheldon, warts and all, and the only place where her analysis seems to misfire is in missing an important (and to me very explicit) nuance in the ending of one Tiptree's most important takes on feminism, the story 'Houston Houston, Do You Read?'.

Otherwise, fascinating and moving for the individual it reveals, and for the questions raised by Tiptree/Sheldon about what masculine and feminine mean, in fiction and in life.
Profile Image for Brittany.
1,253 reviews132 followers
May 21, 2019
This was a difficult book to read. Mostly because Sheldon's was a difficult life to live.

Raised by eccentric, charismatic parents, Sheldon had amazing early adventures including several safaris to Africa, back when that just wasn't something women did, especially not small girl children.

Early prone to confusion regarding her sexual identity, impulsive behavior, mood swings, and depression, Sheldon struggled with adulthood. She alternated between viewing her childhood as a paradise lost and as the crucible that had nurtured her neuroses. She lived life bravely, rawly, and loudly.

The events of her life—service in WWII; explorations into art, espionage, and teaching; her heartbreaks; and her brilliant career as James Tiptree, Jr.—make a fascinating framework. But it's Sheldon's inner voyages that make the book so captivating. And not always captivating in a good way.

Phillips is a perfect biographer. Intuitive, insightful, and analytical when it comes to her subject, but she manages to remain a little aloof. She doesn't canonize or fall in love with Sheldon. She sticks to the story and offers comprehensive context.

Sheldon was early tempted by suicide. In many was, her life was a life of suicide deferred. I wasn't expecting the end when it came, but her murder of her husband, consequent phone calls, and then suicide was one of the hardest scenes I've ever read. All the harder for it being true.

This isn't an easy book. It's not a fun read, though it has very fun moments. It's dark and deep and raw and true. Which is just what Sheldon would have wanted.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Corinna Bechko.
Author 190 books117 followers
October 15, 2015
I was convinced to read this biography after a friend told me it was a "real page turner." That is a perfect description, and one that I can't honestly apply to too many other biographies. I had been blown away by Her Smoke Rose Up Forever but knew very little about Tiptree/Sheldon previous to this. What a fascinating life! Such a troubled person, but also smart and talented, not to mention uncompromising. Julie Phillips handles everything with compassion and understanding, and I very much appreciated her careful use of names (never referring to Tiptree as "she" for instance, something that it seems would have been anathema to the book's subject).
Profile Image for KJ.
350 reviews17 followers
March 7, 2018
For a biography of a completely unknown figure to me, it read like a novel - complex and insightful - and, just as important, created in me an interest to know more. I started alternating the biography with the short stories being referenced, and loved them.
Profile Image for M..
Author 7 books57 followers
August 11, 2014
Read Tiptree's Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, then read this biography. Especially if you are driven by rage at gender violence, your paradoxical embodied existence, and are a feminist type of sf fan. My 'review' here is comprised of quotes from the book and some related thoughts from other places.

From a long tumblr thread about Spock, involving Tiptree, who developed a raging crush on him:

My original ref to Tiptree in this thread is indeed from Julie Philips’ biography on her. I picked it up after reading Tiptree’s short story collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. Reading the biography after, for me, confirms and lays out the sources of the numerous running themes throughout her work: intense disdain/helplessness towards the power/gaze of men, deep-seated internalized misogyny and alienation towards women (while desiring them at the same time), depression that the world races towards destruction (at the hands of male sexual aggression), a strangely cloaked sense of gender dysphoria, etc. The biography thoroughly lays out how Tiptree/Alli had an incredibly isolated life, a potentially sexually coercive/abusive relationship with her mom (a high society Victorian safari/travel writer), deep-seated rage at the institutionalized power of men and lack of power of women, and allllllll this homo desire that had No Way Out. Alli concludes on her own that women are an oppressed class, then constantly has issues viewing herself as a woman and repeatedly attempts to classify what a woman is. She constructs this theory for herself that there are two sexed genders, Men and Mothers (she is neither?)…and all of it’s riding on these old essentialist biological terms looking at primate behavior (Donna Haraway style), and it’s sad. She has a letter writing friendship (as Tiptree) with Joanna Russ who wrote The Female Man, and Russ constantly is like TIPTREE I LOVE U BUT UR SEXIST, CHECK URSELF, and Tiptree is like o fuck wat is this feminism??? Alli is basically 60 years old before she starts questioning who the fuck she is, why she feels the way she does, why she bifurcated her personality into this male persona (Tiptree the writer), and if she can reconcile it back into herself without the overwhelming desire to kill herself winning out first. It’s some deep shit, to say the least.


To grow up as a “girl” is to be nearly fatally spoiled, deformed, confused, and terrified; to be responded to with falsities, to be reacted to as nothing or as a thing—and nearly to become that thing. -Alice Sheldon


Reading a report about child sexual abuse, she [Tiptree/Sheldon] found herself aroused, and was upset. She wrote in her journal on February 2

The distasteful proof that 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.

A little later she wrote, “No doubt about it, I do not ‘match’ my exterior. I live in my body and my social presence as in an alien artifact. It commits me to a way of life that is not mine; could I somehow bring the inside out, fuse it? Not so much sweetness and cordiality; not so much desire to be admired and loved.”

— Chapter 38: “I Live In My Body As In An Alien Artifact” (1977)
Profile Image for Keith Bowden.
291 reviews13 followers
September 22, 2008
Julie Philips' book is wonderfully engaging from start to finis, documenting not only Alli's life but the environments in which she developed. Those environments include: growing up among the wealthy elite (weathering the stock market crash of '29 and the Great Depression well enough); going on three African safaris by the time whe was 15; struggling toward and against attention; confusion over her desires for women; life-long addictions to cigarettes and dexedrine (and other prescriptions); struggling against accepted gender roles through times when there simply was no public support of it; her bi-polar cycles of mania and depression; life in the formative years of women in the military (WAAC/WAC in WWII) and continuing in the newly-formed CIA; and, the impetus of the book, her years writing revolutionary popular fiction under the pseudonym of a man.

Alli's expriences helped redefine and breakdown suppositions and stereotypes of gender. Hers was a firmly "masculine" voice in science fiction during the "new wave" of the late '60s/early '70s, but with an understanding of the feminine perspective at the height of the women's movement of the time. Her stories gave voice to her Sapphic impulses through xenophilia, and to her depression in fatalism.

Alli not only wrote fiction under a male name, but corresponded with many fans and contemporaries under that guise, continuing the masquerade, fooling everyone. Though there was much speculation as to the identity of "James Tiptree, Jr." (in which she felt she became the son her father never had), no one had any real evidence for any supposition until Alli's mother died in 1977. ("Tip", when discussing his life in his correspondence, was fairly honest and truthful in all regards except his own gender.) Some of his fellow writers had staunchly opposed - in print - the idea that Tip was a woman.

Alice's Tiptree personna never really recovered from her "outing". As her husband, 15 years her senior, became blind, her depression and fear of life/longing for death overwhelmed her. In 1987, at 71, Alli shot him in his sleep, then killed herself.

An interesting schitzophrenic sidenote to the book is the interchanging of pronouns and names describing the same person. Julie Phillips was quite natural about it and there was no confusion whatsoever in knowing that the "he" at the beginning of a paragraph is also the "she" at the end of it, in referring to the Tiptree personality, Alli herself, or her female pseudonym, Raccoona Sheldon. That's some trick in itself.

By the end of the book, when Alli died, I felt the loss. Phillips made Alli's life so vivid that you could see it, got to know her and empathise. Simply a brilliant biography of a brilliant, troubled woman.
Profile Image for Nicholas Whyte.
4,798 reviews180 followers
April 8, 2009
http://nhw.livejournal.com/816992.html[return][return]This is surely a model of how to write a biography. Although her subject died in 1987, Julie Phillips has been through all her private papers, done the necessary bureaucratic sleuthing through her career, dug into her parents' background, interviewed the elderly first husband and many other relatives and friends, reflected on the wider social and literary currents of the time illustrated by the main narrative, and supported it all with extensive notes.[return][return]But that's not enough to make a successful biography. To do that you have to not only know your subject; you have to have chosen someone who is in some way fascinating in their own right, and be able to communicate that fascination to your readers. Phillips has done that admirably. I haven't read a lot of Tiptree's work (having said which, there isn't so very much to read), but I think you could safely give this book to someone who had never heard of her, even someone who never reads science fiction, and sill expect them to enjoy it.[return][return]Most readers, however, will have bought this book largely to find out more about Tiptree/Sheldon's writing; we don't get anything about that until halfway through, but I don't think anyone will be bored by the first fifty years of Sheldon's life - privileged Chicago upbringing, childhood safaris to Africa, a Christmas elopement and disastrous first marriage, World War II and the CIA, psychological research, a better choice of second husband. And then the decade of fame as SF writer James Tiptree, Jr, producing strange, memorable stories, winning Hugos and Nebulas for them, engaging in intimate correspondence with the luminaries of the genre, but all under a pseudonym which was eventually exposed. I had not realised, however, that the Hugo and nebula for "Houston, Houston, Do You Read" both came after the revelation of her true identity.[return][return]The one weak point in Phillips' analysis has been well illuminated by Farah Mendlesohn: she doesn't convincingly explain Sheldon's attitude to sexuality - in fairness, a complex question, and one to which we will probably never know the real answer (although Farah's answer is more convincing than Phillips').[return][return]I am in a rush this morning in Georgetown, just a few miles from where Alice Sheldon and James Tiptree lived and died, so don't have time to write more about this brilliant book. But we are promised that the paperback will include more photographs, and more of Sheldon's own art, so I may find myself buying it all over again.
Profile Image for Lisa Feld.
Author 1 book21 followers
May 9, 2016
Normally, I read biographies slowly, a few pages or a chapter at most per day. I inhaled this one in three days. I thought I knew Tiptree's story: the award-winning author turned out to be a woman, Alice Sheldon, but after she was unmasked she found herself too inhibited to continue writing as herself, and finally committed suicide. All of that is true, but the full story is more complicated and more interesting than I could have guessed.

I'm hugely admiring of Phillips for what she's accomplished here: she's researched Sheldon and her circle thoroughly, quoting her mother's published works, society gossip columns about the family, diaries, interviews with school chums and stepchildren, and of course Sheldon's writing and her extensive correspondence with some of the biggest names in science fiction. But everything is so beautifully put together that I got sucked into the story and absorbed details without being fully aware of how much information I was taking in. I found myself reading passages to friends in delight and amazement, describing her experiences as a child on safari, or her explosive first meeting during WWII with the man who would become her second husband. Phillips also lays out when Sheldon wrote particular stories in terms of what was happening in her life, which adds an extra layer of richness to Tiptree's famously complex writing. But Phillips also knows when to let the material speak for itself. Without being told, I could feel the difference between Sheldon's tired, directionless writing as herself, the crackling focus of even her personal journal during the Tiptree years, and then the heartwrenching return of that dull, interminable language when she loses Tiptree.

Throughout, Phillips is clearly sympathetic to Sheldon without being blind to her faults, making this both a wonderful companion to Tiptree's writing and a flawless standalone work in its own right.
Profile Image for Kirsten.
2,131 reviews91 followers
October 3, 2011
This is an excellent biography of a fascinating, difficult figure. It left me with a lot of complicated thoughts about Sheldon and her life, as well as deep sadness -- she seems to have been one of those people who always had to do things the hard way.

I have a lot of respect for her mind and for her fiction, and I can understand why she has been adopted as a poster child for discussions of gender and SF. But I wish Phillips had discussed the troubling and complicated circumstances of Sheldon's death in more detail, difficult as it may be. What keeps churning in my mind is the troubled idea that if James Tiptree, Jr. HAD been a man, and he committed a murder/suicide, it would be a lot more difficult for those who admire him to name a feminist award after him. I know one can argue that it's ifferent, there are different politics and social constructions at play, there are some answers one could give. But it's incredibly sticky and I wish that Phillips had discussed that more, because ultimately, you've got someone who seems to have decided that they knew better than their partner when it was time to die, and that is something that's been at the center of discussions about violence perpetrated by men on women for quite some time.

I'm being hard, I know. I actually have a lot of empathy for Sheldon. I know she struggled with mental illness and that she and Ting discussed her suicidal impulses on many occasions. It's all terribly complicated, and as with most such situations, it's a mistake to reduce it to a political issue. But it seems like it's worth mentioning, at least.

And of course, I love her work and I loved, LOVED reading the arguments between her and Joanne Russ and Ursula Le Guin. Their correspondence is thrilling, and it's so exciting to read about a time when there was such a shift in attitudes in the SF community.
Profile Image for Nick.
152 reviews77 followers
October 12, 2009
What a wonderful biography of a truly interesting person. Alice Sheldon was born to parents who took her game-hunting in Africa three times when she was a child/ya. She debuted in Chicago society and married an F. Scott Fitzgerald wannabe. After that rather short marriage she went into the military and intelligence work. And in her forties she began writing science fiction under the pen name of James Tiptree, Jr. As Phillips points out in this fascinating biography, she gave the science fiction community what it was wanting at that time, a male feminist sci-fi writer. (Not everyone was wanting such a thing in the late 60's/early 70's: Phillips relates how both Playboy and Cosmopolitan turned down her story "The Women Men Don't See" yet it was snatched up by the first sci-fi editor who saw it.)

I've been reading on this book for a long time because every sentence is so chock full of information that you want to read slowly and savor it. It's such a thrill when Phillips gets to explaining the stories to relate their themes to the events and concerns of Sheldon's early life. And always there is the omnipresent "double life" that Sheldon creates. Her writing under a man's name does not so much become a feminist critique as it is a continuation of her constant search for identity; she feels she has to "become" different people (and different genders) in order to say different things. It's an admitted psychosis and one which troubled her all her life. But she became a writer of fascinating science fiction, and this biography does her justice.
Profile Image for Martha.
109 reviews16 followers
February 15, 2009
While reading James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, I couldn't help but wonder if it will be possible to write such a well-supported, detailed biography of any of our contemporary authors fifty years from now. Throughout her life - decades before she began publishing as James Tiptree, Jr. - Alice Sheldon was an avid correspondent. She wrote to family, friends, politicians, newspapers and authors. The amazing thing is that she routinely kept copies of many of these letters. Also, many of the recipients of her letters also kept them. Thus, Julie Phillips was able to write a detailed, insightful biography based on evidence from primary sources. Do any authors today really keep ALL of their outbound and inbound email? Do they start doing so thirty years before they start publishing? I doubt it. I grieve the amount of potentially important archival material about authors is that is lost daily, with the dominance of digital communication.

Oh, yes, and this is a fabulous book about a great SF author, SF in the 1960's, female identity in the mid-Twentieth century and a woman with a complicated gender and sexual identity.
Profile Image for Kate O'Hanlon.
336 reviews32 followers
January 7, 2013
Born in 1915, Alice B. Sheldon travelled through Africa as a child, was married and divorced before she was my age, served her country in the Army's photo-intelligence during WWII, raised chickens commercially, then joined the CIA with her husband. And all that happened before she became an award winning science fiction writer under the pen name James Tiptree Jr. and had the 70s sf establishment completely fooled as to her real identity.

All this is by way of saying that you don't have to have read Tiptree's fiction* or even necessarily be a sf fan to enjoy this biography.
Sheldon's life is fascinating for all sorts of reasons, though it especially dinged my interest in women's history. The ways in which Sheldon's life is curtailed by her sex are really well drawn out without Phillips having to hit us over the head with them. Alice's dashed hopes for the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) and her response to the anti-feminist backlash in the 1940s were particularly interesting and affecting.

*I haven't, but I certainly will now.
Profile Image for ambyr.
909 reviews80 followers
October 21, 2015
Easily the best biography I've read. Phillips has done a meticulous job assembling the details of Alli's life, but the real star here is Alli herself--and Phillips knows when to stand back and let her voice shine through. When I get my hands on a paper copy, there will be quotes. Alli's life history is fascinating (she lived a bewildering number of almost entirely separate lives), but even more than that I was taken by her philosophic insight into the nature of human interaction and the search for meaning.

One flaw: Phillips has no interest in examining the question of Alli's gender identity, accepting her unquestioningly as a woman who struggled with the strictly limited gender roles of her generation even when Alli's own words strongly suggest there was more to it than that. I understand the reluctance to label someone trans when the concept was too alien to their vocabulary for them to ever use it themselves, but a more in-depth discussion of why Alli did and didn't identify in certain ways would have strengthened the book.
157 reviews117 followers
August 9, 2016
What an excellent biography of James Tiptree fot there to ever be. It's hard not to gush about this to much, but it's a really good read. If you're interested in the life of a writer, go read this now. If you're interested in the life of feminist writer, go read this now. Interested in science fiction or feminist science fiction, go read this. My dad liked this, too.

So I reread this in May 2016 for discussion in Riverside. And it's my feeling and comment that some of the other readers DID NOT GET IT. Some were hostile and resentful about reading this in the first place, and they held close to those emotions for the discussion. A reader all but said there was no practical reason for her assumption of a nom de plume; he continued that since Alli was an untreated manic depressive who during a depressive episode killed herself and her husband why would we be reading about her at all.
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