James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon
There's a delicious, multi-layered irony about the soul-sister kind of relationship I seem to have developed with this book, its subject and even its author. The sheer depth, detail and passion of it hits me --- sears me to the core, in fact --- through all the successful and failed places I've ever been to in my own psychic and material universe.
At the same time, Julie Phillips's astonishing and magnetic JAMES TIPTREE, JR.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, strikes chord after empathic chord about the universal aspirations and detours of smart women trapped in an insanely stupid world.
Long before anyone (including yours truly) knew that the eccentrically brilliant science fiction author James Tiptree, Jr. was a woman, fans were lamenting that "he" wasn't more prolific --- yet another irony in the crazy mosaic that defined Alice Sheldon's mercurial existence, for had she finished everything she started, her word-count would almost certainly have rivaled or exceeded that of sci-fi icons like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Ursula K. Le Guin.
Reduced to its rudest simplicity, however, Alice Sheldon's lifelong "problem" was that she was way too good at way too many things for way too long. Can you imagine that as the epitaph for at least a dozen women you know? Julie Phillips spends nearly 500 pages exploring this problematic gift of inexorable excellence; how it tantalized and drove Sheldon, beginning right from childhood, to go "where no nice lady writers have gone before" (apologies, Mr. Roddenberry!).
Most surprising to those of us who have known and devoured Sheldon/Tiptree's incomparable speculative fiction --- containing some of the most memorable aliens you'll find in anyone's galaxy --- is that her writing career seemed destined for anything but the vast reaches of outer space or futuristic what-if-ness.
She had tried the travelogues and fashionable novels at which her energetic and adventurous mother, Mary Hastings Bradley, excelled, as well as urbane short stories, essays, satires, commentaries, classified government reports, military manuals, scientific monographs, poetry, technical analyses, academic theses, statistical records...you name it. And everything to which she turned her voracious intellect was invested with a relentless attention to detail.
Some might argue that this was perfectionism run amok, perfectionism swollen into looming procrastinating barriers, but Phillips reveals how it also helped shape an imagination destined (finally, in middle age) for fiction's unexplored realms. Moving episode by episode through the turbulent decades of Sheldon's much-traveled life, Phillips brings a supple rhythm to the ever-unfolding layers of her subject's search for the one true niche in the cosmos that she could call her own. (I know I'll re-read masterpieces like "Up the Walls of the World" or "Her Smoke Rose Up Forever" with heightened perception after this.)
Every so often, I had to metaphorically pinch myself to redefine the boundary separating powerful fiction from factual recounting. That's the kind of breadth Phillips had to span in order to encompass a life so concentrated and intense, it seems scarcely possible that one individual (regardless of her penchant for aliases) could have lived it --- and tragically, have taken it by her own hand.
In the best of all possible universes, perhaps Alice Bradley Sheldon might have written scores of first-rate, genre-defining science fiction wholly in her own person and lived to a ripe-old age in the process. And perhaps she might have created her own visible public space among the pantheon of great writers who admired her from the distance she zealously maintained as the elusive Mr. Tiptree. But perhaps she might also have disappeared without a trace, turning her back on tokenism and chauvinism with equal disdain.
Fortunately for the acerbic and enigmatic James Tiptree, Jr. "he" drew the attention of one of the finest literary biographers ever to bless legions of sci-fi fans who've longed for a little light on a mysterious life. Julie Phillips has produced with obvious love, respect and ample genius of her own a truly definitive biography that honors its subject in every way.
It may be the only book of its kind that I'll want to re-read immediately; that's my new definition of "life-changing."
Reviewed by Pauline Finch on August 8, 2006