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Tiptree, James, Jr

Entry updated 19 February 2024. Tagged: Author.

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Pseudonym of US psychologist and author Alice Hastings Bradley Sheldon (1915-1987), who was widely assumed to be a man, despite the deep rapport "he" displayed for women in stories like "The Women Men Don't See" (December 1973 F&SF). "James Tiptree Jr" flourished from 1967 until her identity was exposed in 1977. Beginning in 1974, she also wrote several sf stories as Raccoona Sheldon, and some earlier non-fantastic work under other names, including her first fiction, "The Lucky Ones" (16 November 1946 New Yorker) as Alice Bradley. But Sheldon's literary career (she took the name of her second husband at some point after 1945) began much earlier than 1946. As a child, she was taken more than once to Africa on safari, her first such experience being chronicled by her mother, Mary Hastings Bradley (1882-1976), a prolific author who made her daughter a public figure in Alice in Jungleland (1927), a travel book for children which included photos of young Alice visiting parts of Africa not yet fully "discovered" by Westerners; this volume included several illustrations plus an illustrated cover properly credited to Alice Hastings Bradley, the first of Sheldon's several names to see print. For years afterward she was referred to in public (her parents were prominent in Chicago society) as Alice in Wonderland. This first mask – significantly of a fantasy figure (see below) – was imposed by others; she seems to have herself selected the many further impersonations that marked her emotionally extreme and eventful life, details of which are recounted in Julie Phillips's highly competent James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life of Alice B Sheldon (2006).

After much turmoil, and after relatively short stints as a professional painter, and as an art critic who published as Alice Davey (her first married name), Sheldon joined the US Army in 1942, eventually going into air force intelligence and working for a time in the Pentagon. She joined the CIA in 1952 but left in 1955 and attended college, acquiring a PhD in experimental psychology in 1967. In that year she began writing as James Tiptree, Jr, taking on the persona of an emotionally robust and engaging middle-aged man with Pentagon experience whose only oddity was that no one had ever met him. Nicknaming herself "Tip" in her widespread correspondence, she had found a voice to speak in. But just as in her later use of the transparent pseudonym Raccoona Sheldon, she both hid and exposed her true identity. Known in childhood as Alice in Wonderland [see above], she may now have repeated the charade by naming herself Tip. L Frank Baum's young protagonist in The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), is an emotionally robust and engaging lad named Tip (short for Tippetarius), "as strong and rugged as a boy may be". Only at the end of the tale does he discover that he is has been magicked into the semblance of a boy, that he is in truth Princess Ozma under a spell, and will rule Oz for many books. Initially bereft at the imminent loss of "his" identity, Tip is only slowly reconciled to becoming a princess in Wonderland with "robes of silken gauze". By nicknaming herself Tip Sheldon seems almost to be proclaiming to her correspondents – who may have been reminded of Ozma and her secret through the founding in 1960 by Frank Drake (1930-2022) of a SETI project known as Project Ozma – that Tiptree was a woman in disguise. The loss of that retroactively fragile cover a decade later, when her true identity was unmasked, killed "Tiptree".

Though she wrote some novels, Tiptree/Sheldon will be best remembered for her many extraordinary sf stories. Her first efforts – beginning with "Birth of a Salesman" in Analog for March 1968 – were not, perhaps, very remarkable, showing some dis-ease and an intermittent tendency to protest too vehemently that she – the Tiptree telling the tale – was just folks, and that her work was "just" Genre SF. But within a few years she shot into her prime, and between 1970 and about 1977 produced at great speed and with great concentration her finest work. Almost all of her best stories appeared during her lifetime in four collections – Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home (coll 1973; reset with many fewer errors 1975), Warm Worlds and Otherwise (coll 1975), Star Songs of an Old Primate (coll 1978) and Out of the Everywhere, and Other Extraordinary Visions (coll 1981). A later, very thorough selection, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever: The Great Years of James Tiptree, Jr. (coll 1990), edited by Jim Turner in consultation with the author shortly before she died, also concentrated on the work from this seven-year period, during which, as John Clute argued in his introduction to the book, she created a singularly intense array of examples of American sf in its prime, making this volume one of the most important collections of sf short stories published in the twentieth century. A recent collection, The Voice That Murmurs in the Darkness (coll 2023) edited by Karen Joy Fowler and Jeffrey D Smith, does not seem to be designed to attempt to replace the earlier book.

The Girl Who Was Plugged In (in New Dimensions 3, anth 1973, ed Robert Silverberg; 1989 chap dos) – which won Tiptree her first Hugo – and Houston, Houston, Do You Read? (in Aurora: Beyond Equality, anth 1976, ed Vonda McIntyre and Susan J Anderson; 1989 chap dos) – which won a Nebula and a Jupiter Award – are standalone releases of work from her prime; both tales also appear in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. Byte Beautiful: Eight Science Fiction Stories (coll 1986) assembles an odd mixture of early and late work. Crown of Stars (coll 1988) restricts itself almost exclusively to the stories Tiptree wrote in a final splurge of creative energy in the mid-1980s, only excluding The Color of Neanderthal Eyes (May 1988 F&SF; 1990 chap dos). Meet Me at Infinity (coll 2000) assembles previously uncollected fiction and nonfiction.

Several themes interpenetrate Tiptree's best work – Sex, Identity, Feminist depictions of male/female relations, Ecology, death – but the greatest of these is death. It is very rarely that a Tiptree story does not both deal directly with death and end in a death of the spirit, or of all hope, or of the body, or of the race. "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side" (March 1972 F&SF), for instance, seems initially to read as a straightforward rendering of the effects vastly superior Aliens have upon Homo sapiens. Only retroactively is it made clear, through the telling sexual and Anthropological analogies worked into the basic story, that these effects are utterly ravaging; that humans on a Space Station significantly known as Big Junction, when exposed to aliens there, become afflicted with a fatal cargo-cult mentality, and are bound into a sexual submission, a longing for Exogamy, whose likely outcome is species death. In "The Last Flight of Doctor Ain" (March 1969 Galaxy; rev in SF: Authors' Choice 4, anth 1974, ed Harry Harrison), only gradually do we begin to realize – through a reportage-like, impersonal reconstruction of certain events – that the unseen woman whom Doctor Ain is apparently accompanying across an Earth wounded by Climate Change and pollution is actually the Earth herself, personified in the Doctor's mind as Gaia; and that, as he passes around the globe, he is infecting mankind with a redesigned leukaemia virus, hoping – probably in vain – that this Pandemic will save her, whom he loves, from the human species, which he does not. In what may be Tiptree's finest and most intense longer story, "A Momentary Taste of Being" (in The New Atlantis, anth 1975, ed Robert Silverberg), the human race, en route to the stars, discovers that its racial role is to act as gamete in a cosmic coupling, and that the drives that make us human are merely displacements of that central mindless imperative, Exogamy wrought to its uttermost. It is one of the darkest Genre-SF stories ever printed. In shorter compass, it is matched by others, like "On the Last Afternoon" (November 1972 Amazing), "Love is the Plan the Plan is Death" (in The Alien Condition, anth 1973, ed Stephen Goldin) – which won a Nebula – "The Screwfly Solution" (June 1977 Analog) as by Raccoona Sheldon, also a Nebula winner, "Your Faces, O my Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!" (in Aurora: Beyond Equality, anth 1976, ed Vonda McIntyre & Susan Anderson) as by Raccoona Sheldon, and "Slow Music" (in Interfaces, anth 1980, ed Ursula K Le Guin & Virginia Kidd).

Tiptree's most famous single story, "The Women Men Don't See", may appear to escape this pattern, as only the male narrator seems bound to a quietus, while the two women he travels with – but fails, symptomatically, to comprehend – seem to escape starwards into a new life. But the ironies of the tale are very evident, and characteristic of Tiptree's inconsolable complexities of vision. It may be true that the ageing and surprisingly sympathetic narrator may represent a suicidal blindness on the part of males; but the women who tell him that they "live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world machine" and who choose to leave are, in fact – by electing to become companions of utterly unknown Aliens in the depths of space – also expressing the power of thanatos upon our species: for the best they can hope for – if Tiptree intends us to understand the implications of the tale in terms of the iron-hard reading of genre conventions of which she made such concentrated use – may be to become cherished specimens in a Zoo. The tale's last sentence – "Two of our opossums are missing." – is justly one of the most famous in a genre where resonant endings are not uncommon. Tiptree's surface was often airy and at times hilarious – as in "All the Kinds of Yes" (in New Dimensions II: Eleven Original Science Fiction Stories, anth 1972, ed Robert Silverberg) – and her control of genre conventions allowed her to convey the bleakness of her abiding insights in tales that remain seductively readable; but she was, in the end, incapable of dissimulation.

There were two novels and two collections of linked stories. In Up the Walls of the World (1978), apparently written around the time her health began to break, she deliberately broadened her techniques in the fabrication of an extraordinarily full-blown Space Opera whose three venues – the interior "spaces" of a vast interstellar being derangedly destroying all suns in its path; an alien planet inhabited by skatelike telepathic flying beings whose sun is being destroyed; and contemporary Earth, where a government-funded experiment in ESP begins terrifyingly to cash out – interpenetrate complexly and with considerable narrative impact. From Telepathy to Cosmology, from densely conceived psychological narrative to the broadest of Sense-of-Wonder revelations, the novel is something of a tour de force. But stresses – particularly a sense that the whole structure was willed into existence – do show; and Brightness Falls From the Air (1985) demonstrates how difficult it had become for her to maintain control over the intensities of her vision, which had, if anything, darkened as the 1980s began. In this novel an assortment of characters variously confront – on a distant planet where they have gathered to witness the nova light of the "Murdered Star" – the fact that death agonies felt by another species generate a literal nectar for our own; but moments of overt sentimentality, as well as excesses of subplotting, tend to intrude. The Starry Rift (coll of linked stories 1986) assembled loose, somewhat sententious tales set in the same universe; and Tales of the Quintana Roo (coll of linked stories 1986) gathered a mild sequence of visions of the eastern coast of southern Mexico.

Like the novels, the short fiction of Tiptree's last years, though substantial by the standards of other writers, suffered from an increasing incapacity of their narrative voice and structure to contain emotion. The best of them are perhaps "Yanqui Doodle" (July 1987 Asimov's) and "Backward, Turn Backward" (in Synergy 2, anth 1988, ed George Zebrowski). Alice Sheldon's life, whose dramas had so visibly shaped the ten years of her prime as a writer, also ended in drama. She had been married to Huntington Sheldon (1903-1987) since 1945; in his eighties he began to lose his sight. In 1987, herself in precarious health, she shot him (in apparent accordance with a pact they had much earlier agreed upon), telephoned his son to tell him what she had done, and then killed herself.

In 1991, the James Tiptree Jr Award was founded in part – or so it was understood by the world at large – to proclaim not only her radiant career as an author but also her extraordinarily complex life and death, her crucial, central urgency as a human figure we should pay attention to. In 2019, however, this understanding was trashcanned by a Tiptree "Motherboard" decision to change the name of the James Tiptree Jr Award to the Otherwise Award; this new, otherwise forgettable name contains an apparent nod to Tiptree's use of "otherwise" to describe worlds that are not warm, as per the title of her second collection, Warm Worlds and Otherwise, or otherwise. The reasons for the excising seem to focus on accusations that Huntington Sheldon's death was a case of "caregiver murder" and that it was unacceptably painful for many in the twenty-first century to publicly recognize one accused of such a murder. This narrative has not been universally accepted; but nor has it been universally accepted that a genuine Suicide pact was consummated. Previous winners of the James Tiptree Award have been invited – but not pressured – to change the name of the honour given them. It is apparently the case that few have.

Tiptree/Sheldon was honoured with a posthumous Solstice Award (see SFWA Grand Master Award) in 2010 and inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2012. [JC]

see also: Asteroids; Astounding Science-Fiction; Biology; Cyberpunk; Entropy; Gods and Demons; The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; Media Landscape; Mythology; Optimism and Pessimism; Perception; Post-Holocaust; Psychology; Satire; Scientific Errors; Time Travel; Women SF Writers.

Alice Hastings Bradley Sheldon

born Chicago, Illinois: 24 August 1915

died McLean, Virginia: 19 May 1987


collections and stories

about the author


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