Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Rick Klaw, Fri., Aug. 18, 2006
James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon
by Julie Phillips
St. Martin's, 480 pp., $27.95In 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.