Review: James Tiptree Jr, by Julie Phillips

I have discovered that what I like in a biography is lots and lots and lots of quotations. When I was reading Julie Phillips’s excellent biography of Alice Sheldon, I kept reading bits of it out loud to Mumsy, and Mumsy said, “This is an autobiography?” It’s not, but Julie Phillips has brilliantly pulled together a multiplicity of letters, journals, and papers to create a wonderfully vivid picture of Sheldon’s life.

To step back slightly: James Tiptree, Jr. was the pseudonym of science fiction writer Alice Sheldon, a woman who wrote fantastically creepy sci-fi stories about sex and death and gender and danger for ten years before being unveiled as a lady. Her parents took her to the unplumbed (ish) (at the time) (by white people) depths of Africa when she was small, which ill prepared her for the regular life of an American woman. She was unhappy with the restrictive models of gender and sexuality available to her, and she struggled to find a career that suited her independence, intelligence, and perfectionism, as well as her constricted, conflicted ideas of what women could do and be.

The main thing with someone as clever and prolific in her letters as Alice Sheldon seems to have been is to get out of her way. Phillips quotes liberally from her sources, while restraining the all-too-common biographer’s tendency to analyze cause and effect ad nauseum. The book is all the better for it. Here’s Sheldon’s synopsis for a book she’s considering writing during World War II:

The gal has a Horrid Secret. Wish I knew what it was. As I see it, the guy, a stuffy bachelor, falls for her in a condescending way; the gal turns out to have a no good spouse, and was about to commit suicide when run into. (They find a loaded revolver in her pocket.) … So the husband turns up, and is repulsive, and the good guy is stuffy, and the gal shillies a bit and then repudiates both of them and goes out to Do Good By Herself–all in the middle of World War No 2.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the conflict between Sheldon’s obvious aesthetic preference for iconoclasm and her desire to be liked. Not only is she ambivalent about most of the choices available to her, but she also has a hard time committing fully to any of the choices she does make. She marries suddenly after having met her husband once, at a dinner–evidently more because marriage is the next recognized life step than because of any true connection she had with the man. Throughout her life, she struggles to find a role for herself on the edge of what is acceptable. Before her career as a writer begins, the closest she came was getting a degree in behavioral psychology when she was in her forties.

It’s remarkable how important Sheldon’s writing career is, given that it only occupies ten years out of her seventy-one. It’s important because we want to read her stories (they’re awfully good), but for Phillips’s purposes (and more relevant to the book), it’s important to Alice Sheldon. The years when she’s living that double life — the good girl married matron who keeps chickens, and the popular science fiction writer who corresponds profanely about men and stories with a myriad of writers and fans — are plainly the years that are most fulfilling to her. Her joy in the freedom her alter ego gives her shines through the letters she writes in that period, like this one to Ursula LeGuin:

Dear Starbear,


Your letter of 8 1 73 just arrived and only by the grace of fate and some minor automotive problems have you been spared from receiving an incoherent telegram proposing immediate elopement to Madagascar.


You are beautiful.


But after sobering up I came to the sad conclusion that there could be certain problems for example with your spouse and children, and it might be that they do not sell Geritol in Madagascar, or oil for my wheelchair, and so on. And that perhaps even if these obstacles could be overcome, I could probably expect at best to receive a ticket saying No. 142, kindly wait turn … But the vision of us strolling forever beneath the giant blossoming urp trees, while ring-tailed lemurs weave around us in orchestration of our discourse of agreement … will remain with me.


By which I mean, dear Lady, that every word of your letter fell into my ears with the silvery plonk of total understanding.

Even if you aren’t a reader of biographies in general (I’m not), I recommend James Tiptree Jr. It will, I expect, accomplish the goal of making you want to read Tiptree’s stories. I am reading a book of them now, and they are awfully good. More later, maybe, but in case I don’t get around to a review of her stories, I recommend “The Screwfly Solution” as a good place to start.

Brightness Falls from the Air, James Tiptree Jr.

The beginning: A group of humans — including two who should not have ended up there, and seem to be (but are they?) furious about the mistake (if it is one) — gather on the planet Dameim to witness the passing of a star whose explosion many years ago destroyed an entire race of aliens. Focused closely on the logistics of such a large group, the three guardians stationed on the planet do not act decisively enough to prevent a murderous plan from being set in motion.

Tiptree’s writing is admirably clear and entertaining, considering that so many of the early passages here are exposition. There’s still a feeling of intentionality that I like a lot, and I also feel — y’all know how this sometimes happens? — this sort of love-at-first-sight-y kind of feeling about her writing.

The end (spoilers in this section only, so skip it if you don’t want to know): Oh man. What a great ending. Evidently I have missed quite a bit of action, but it looks like Cory has been aged several decades by powers unknown, and more wonderfully, it looks like the beauty of the Dameii is due to some sort of malignant beauty space virus. I can’t describe exactly but Tiptree describes it wonderfully. And there’s this:

People say be realistic. As though reality needs encouragement…[I’ll] tell you, Pace…reality doesn’t need friends.

I want to have that sewn onto a pillow. My love-at-first-sight feeling about James Tiptree Jr has only been magnified by this ending. Malevolence under a guise of beauty is one of my favorite creepy things.

The whole: I love being excited about a new author. I love, love, love it. This could only be better if James Tiptree Jr had written a whole bunch of novels, instead of only two plus a lot of short stories. Short stories are not as good for me as novels. But if the internet is to be believed, Brightness Falls from the Air is a lesser lesser lesser work of Tiptree’s, and her short stories and novellas are where the real action is at.

At first blush, the book seemed like it might be too wacky, what with the tottery old doctor, and the mentally unstable noblewoman with her ailing twin, and the adorable and competent young royal, and the porn stars that dream of becoming interplanetary soldiers (see how I made it sound way too wacky, just by describing it?). Reading the end sorted out my fears on that front. Although the book ends happily in some ways, it’s the kind of happy ending that involves a tremendous amount of compromise — the happiness is far from unqualified, and what there is of it might fall apart in the next minute.

(Also contributing to sorting out my fears on that front: learning from the internet that this was James Tiptree Jr.’s last book before she shot her husband and then herself, leaving behind a suicide note that she had composed years earlier. I was sure the internet was making all this up in aid of adding color to an already colorful life, but no. It is real.)

And of course, I am on record appreciating books that tell the entire story under one assumption, and then at the very end, sometimes quite casually, they drop in a remark or two to make it clear that what you thought was happening was never really what was happening, and with that knowledge you have to look at the book a whole different way. Brightness Falls from the Air is one like this, and it made me want to rush out and read everything Alice Sheldon ever wrote.