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The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon
Julie Phillips
St. Martin's Press, 470 pages

The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon
Julie Phillips
Julie Phillips was born in Seattle, but spent parts of her childhood in California and New Hampshire. She got started writing for Seattle Weekly, then moved to New York, where she wrote about books, film, feminism, and women's sports (including fast-pitch softball and the National Cheerleading Championships) and briefly covered the Yankees for the Village Voice. She has written for Newsday about books, Interview about movies, and Mademoiselle about boyfriends and how to clean your room. Her original articles about feminist science fiction and James Tiptree Jr. appeared in Ms. and the Voice Literary Supplement. She lives in Amsterdam with her family.

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A review by Richard A. Lupoff

When James Tiptree, Jr., first appeared in the March 1968 issue of Analog with the short story "Birth of a Salesman," he might have been regarded as just one more of the hundreds -- I should probably say thousands -- of writers who have popped up in the science fiction field, attracted a certain amount of attention, and then disappeared back into the big world of bankers and bakers, factory workers and chemists and schoolteachers from which we storytellers emerge. But Tiptree did not disappear.

Over the years that followed, Tiptree produced a series of dazzling, moving, highly distinctive stories while maintaining a privacy and distance from the usual hail-fellow-well-met atmosphere of the science fiction community. Tiptree did correspond with a number of other writers, notably Ursula K. Le Guin, Vonda McIntyre, Philip K. Dick, and Harlan Ellison, as well as the fan publisher Jeffrey Smith.

As the years passed and Tiptree's body of work grew and won increasing attention from serious readers and critics, curiosity grew about this mysterious figure who refused ever to attend a convention or even to meet with colleagues and admirers. Fellow author David Gerrold managed to obtain Tiptree's home address, went there and rang the doorbell. He was greeted by a middle-aged woman who denied being Tiptree, denied knowledge of Tiptree, and sent Gerrold on his way.

Of course Gerrold had gone to the right address and the woman with whom he had his brief encounter was Mrs. Alice B. Sheldon, the person who wrote as James Tiptree, Jr., Raccoona Sheldon, and a few other less-used names. Tiptree was picked on a whim -- it's a brand of fruit preserves -- and the Junior was allegedly suggested by Sheldon's husband.

Alice was born to a distinguished Chicago couple, the Herbert Bradleys. Alice's father was a millionaire businessman; her mother, a popular novelist and sought-after Chicago society matron. The senior Bradleys traveled through Chicago on safari, hunting big game, shooting still photographs and motion pictures from which emerged several books as well as a sort of private natural history museum in part of their Chicago home. Little Alice traveled with her parents on safari as early as 1921, when she was six years of age.

She early showed creative talent, writing and illustrating books based on her African adventures. As she grew into a strikingly tall, blonde woman, she fought against the limitations that she perceived as being placed on her because of her sex. She married, moved with her husband to the West Coast and enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley.

According to Julie Phillips's biography, both Alice and her husband pursued a "liberated" life style. Alice took a great many lovers of both sexes. Her marriage was not successful, and when the United States entered the Second World War, Alice joined the army, rising eventually to the rank of captain. She also met Colonel Huntington "Ting" Sheldon, who became her second husband.

Decades later, as facts about Tiptree's true identity began to emerge, it was reported that she had been an OSS operative in Europe during the war. In fact, Phillips's research shows that Alice Sheldon was indeed an OSS op, but she worked as a photo interpreter, a far cry from the cloak-and-dagger work that had been rumored.

Considering that Tiptree lived so secretive a life, it is amazing how much information Phillips managed to unearth. Her book is nothing less than a marvel.

One might pick a few nits with it. Okay, I'm no angel, I'll do it.

There are points where Phillips goes overboard with her research and wanders into TMI (Too Much Information) territory. One such is the period of the late 1940s when the Sheldons bought a chicken hatchery in New Jersey and operated this business while Alice raised a flower garden. Well, okay. But in all honesty, this is TMI.

Phillips seems to have only a tentative grasp on the procedures by which Hugo Award winners are selected. And she makes the charge repeatedly that the science fiction magazines which published most of Tiptree's stories were edited and published for teen-agers. Phillips provides no documentation to support this statement, and in fact it is of highly dubious validity.

It's true that some of the science fiction magazines of past eras -- one thinks of the Palmer-Hamling-Browne pulps and digests of the 40s and 50s -- Amazing Stories, Fantastic Adventures, Other Worlds, Imagination -- and a few others like Astonishing or Planet Stories. But the magazines for which Tiptree wrote -- Analog, Fantasy and Science Fiction -- were edited for and aimed at an older and more mature audience.

But these are very small flaws in a very large, very impressive work. I know that Phillips will send me back to the bookstore to find some of Tiptree's collections. She did write one or two novels, but she was as her greatest strength in the shorter forms.

Tiptree was a quirky and sometimes difficult author, but she was one of the most noteworthy science fiction writers of her generation. Julie Phillips has done her justice in this book, certainly one of the most important nonfiction works in or about the science fiction field in recent years. If you're a collector, you might want to seek out the 2006 hardbound edition, the one which I have used. But for general reading purposes, I would suggest the later paperback which contains some revisions.

Copyright © 2009 Richard A. Lupoff

Richard A. Lupoff is a novelist, short-story writer, critic, and sometime academic. His most recent books are Visions (currently in production by Mythos Books) and Quintet: The Cases of Chase and Delacroix (Crippen & Landru). He is also the Editorial Director of Surinam Turtle Press, an imprint of Ramble House.

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