Review: “James Tiptree, Jr.” by Julie Phillips

Thumbs up for James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips. Biography.

I don’t generally like to know too much about authors, in the same way that I can’t stand acknowledgements or prefaces: I’d rather not see behind the curtain, please; just tell me the damn story. But in reading the biography of Alice Sheldon I am safe from suffering disillusionment, as I am not really a fan of her (his) work in the first place. Naturally, this begs the question of why I’d read a book on her at all. Well, because she was a fascinating woman, and in this book, Phillips makes all of her facets glimmer. Born in 1915, Alli was one of the first white girls to travel Africa, tagging along with her writer-explorer-hunter mother; throughout her life she was a debutante, an artist, an army officer, a photo analyst for the CIA, and a psychology researcher; also a loving wife, a conflicted feminist, a struggling daughter, a stymied lesbian, a Dexedrine addict, a depressive, a raconteur par extraordinaire and a glorious letter-writer. But what she is remembered for is being James Tiptree, Jr, an alternate identity she adopted late in life in order to write science fiction. Don’t expect this to be an uplifting book, but it is absolutely riveting. If you’re at all interested in the history of science fiction; or the history of feminism; or just like a ripping story of a vivid, multi-layered, struggling person, you should put this on your reading list. I never have the patience for biographies (of writers or anyone else) but I couldn’t put this down. (As a plus, it made me massively thankful I was born in the 1980’s.)

“Bunny was right about the strain,” she wrote home. “[The army tries] to make you over, you know, you are plunged, or rather jerked by the ears into a rarefied air, and you see cosmic eyes of Weighings in the Balance staring at you – Now or Never, Real Life – and also you get sick.” Everyone had the flu, and it snowed, and Alice worked. She wrote letters to [her love interest at the time]. In the barracks in the five a.m. darkness, she listened to radio reports on the siege of Stalingrad. She tried to act like officer material, and sometimes failed. Asked to give a brief lecture on “Paragraph Ten of the Infantry Drill Regulations,” she “climbed onto the two-foot-high speaker’s stand, announced my topic, glanced at the hall of faces, threw up decisively, and fainted crash to the floor, blacking both my eyes. (I was later told it was voted Most Interesting Format.)”

If you enjoyed this post, please share it!