James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

by Julie Phillips

Publishers Weekly Journalist Phillips has achieved a wonder: an evenhanded, scrupulously documented, objective yet sympathetic portrait of a deliberately elusive personality: Alice Sheldon (1915-1987), who adopted the persona of science fiction writer James Tiptree Jr. Working from Sheldon's (and Tiptree's) few interviews; Sheldon's professional papers, many unpublished; and the papers of Sheldon's writer-explorer-socialite mother, Phillips has crafted an absorbing melange of several disparate lives besides Sheldon's, each impacting hers like a deadly off-course asteroid. From Sheldon's sad poor-little-rich-girlhood to her sadder suicide (by a prior pact first shooting her blind and bedridden husband), Sheldon, perpetually wishing she'd been born a boy, made what she called "endless makeshift" attempts to express her tormenting creativity as, among others, a debutante, a flamboyant bohemian, a WAC officer, a CIA photoanalyst, and a research scientist before producing Tiptree's "haunting, subversive, many-layered [science] fiction" at 51. Sheldon masked her authorship until 1976, and afterward produced little fiction, feeling that a woman writing as a man could not be convincing. Through all the ironic sorrows of a life Sheldon wished she hadn't had to live as a woman, Phillips steadfastly and elegantly allows one star, bright as the Sirius Sheldon loved, to gleam. 16 pages of b&w photos. (Aug.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

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Book list Over the course of an abbreviated but prolific 20-year career, the late James Tiptree Jr. earned a well-deserved place in the pantheon of sf with a series of brilliantly original tales featuring a distinctive, apocalyptic flavor. Stories such as The Girl Who Was Plugged In and The Women Men Don't See have become staples of sf anthologies and university literature classes. Despite frequently featuring well-rounded female protagonists, Tiptree kept his true, female identity as Alice B. Sheldon (1915-87) a closely guarded secret until relatively late in her life. Phillips' long-overdue biography probes the mystery behind Sheldon's clandestine lifestyle while mapping out the many adventurous turns in her continuously reinvented identity as she changed roles from graphic artist and CIA agent to psychologist and award-winning author. Beginning with Sheldon's childhood spent tagging along to Africa with her mother, noted travel writer Mary Bradley, Phillips follows Alli from her formative years in a Swiss girls' school to her years working in a Pentagon subbasement to, finally, her almost whimsical turn as an sf author and eventual, premeditated suicide with her husband. Phillips draws on extensive interviews with surviving relatives and literary colleagues as well as Alli's revealing letters to write a compelling, sympathetic portrait of one of speculative fiction's most gifted and fascinating figures. --Carl Hays Copyright 2006 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright American Library Association. Used with permission.

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