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The Secret Gardener: James Tiptree, Jr.

By Andrew Madigan Published on March 17, 2017

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This article was updated on April 5, 2017
[Tiptree's work is] proof of what she said, that men and women can and do speak
both to and for one another, if they have bothered to learn how. —Ursula K. Le Guin
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In 1975 a collection of short stories, Warm Worlds and Otherwise, was published by James Tiptree, Jr. No one had ever met the author. The only way he could be contacted was through a P.O. box in McLean, Virginia, home to the CIA. Some believed that Tiptree was actually a pseudonym of J.D. Salinger’s or Henry Kissinger’s. His editor, Robert Silverberg, suspected that the writer was probably a federal bureaucrat in his early 50s. As for speculation that he was a woman, Silverberg found this notion “absurd,” like the work of Jane Austen being written by a man.

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In reality, Tiptree was a 60-year-old woman named Alice Sheldon, and that’s not the most interesting fact about her.

Born Alice Bradley in 1915, Tiptree was part of an intellectual, artistic, eccentric family in South Chicago. Her mother was a war correspondent and seasoned traveler who wrote novels, short fiction, mysteries, historical fiction and travel books; her father was an explorer, big game hunter, naturalist, lawyer and, if that wasn’t enough, zoo-founder. It wasn’t improbable, then, that their daughter should grow into a complex, intriguing adult.

The Bradleys took young Alice to Africa from 1921 to 1922, a journey described much later in Tiptree’s short story “The Women Men Don’t See.” She went to boarding school in Switzerland, attended Sarah Lawrence College, University of California, Berkeley and New York University without taking a degree. She married William Davey at 19, because “it was her duty as a daughter.” They divorced eight years later. Afterward, she studied for her pilot’s license, but was expelled for poor eyesight.

Working as “Alice Bradley Davey” she became a painter and graphic artist and, later, an art critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. She sold a drawing to The New Yorker, illustrated her mother’s books, and exhibited her work at the Art Institute of Chicago. Alice also submitted a painting to the prestigious "All-American" show at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC., in 1941. She was still only 27.

During World War II Alice joined the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), where she helped the war effort by designing holiday cards. She applied to Officer Candidate School, was accepted, and eventually became a Major. She worked in photo-intelligence for the Air Force.

After the war Alice married Colonel Huntington Sheldon, her Commanding Officer. They moved to New Jersey and, naturally, became chicken farmers. She graduated first in her class from Rutgers, where she studied agriculture. According to Julie Phillips in James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, she was considered the “best poultry-man” of her class. It’s no wonder, with experiences like this, Tiptree would turn to science fiction: realism was clearly too restrictive for someone with such a peculiar and provocative life.

In 1946 Alice sold her first piece, a short story entitled “The Lucky Ones,” to The New Yorker. It was credited to “Alice Bradley Sheldon.” She seemed to succeed at everything she tried, but she was also prone to restlessness. In 1952, bored with farming, the Sheldons moved to Washington, DC and joined the CIA. This lasted only a few years, as you might imagine. Alice studied at American, George Washington and Johns Hopkins universities. In 1967 she completed a PhD in Experimental Psychology from George Washington. Her dissertation examined lab rats and their “reaction to novelty as a function of context.” Her thesis adviser had recommended that she pursue another line of research, but novelty was, understandably, something Alice felt strongly about.

After 30 years of college and a brand-new doctorate, Alice metamorphosed into James Tiptree, Jr. and began her sci-fi career. Tiptree was a brand of marmalade and the male forename was meant to draw less attention to herself. She didn’t want to be another woman competing in a male-dominated field. Her first published science fiction story was 1968’s “Birth of a Salesman” in Analog Science Fact & Fiction. She landed three more stories by the end of the year.

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Tiptree’s work combines hard and soft sci-fi. The first concentrates on scientific precision, theoretical plausibility and fine technical detail, while the second deals with issues of psychology, ethics and sociology. She was also associated with the genre’s “new wave,” a movement characterized by formal, stylistic and narrative innovation. Her hybrid writing is clearly reflected in her hybrid approach to life—multiple identities, genders, occupations, husbands and settings. The critics saw this, too. They often characterized Tiptree’s work as both macho and feminist, hyper-masculine yet sympathetic to women’s issues. This duality, as well as her mischievous role-playing, was best exemplified during a "Women in Science Fiction" conference. She took part in the proceedings—conducted in writing—as a “token sensitive man.”

Her work was both popular and well received. Tiptree had a voice and a mind like no one had ever witnessed—not that colleagues, fans or publishers actually met her in person. Her work is action-packed, quick-paced, strange, funny, original and sexually charged. It’s marked by gender ambiguity and a displacement of traditional gender roles. Sex is depicted in a manner that’s equally buoyant, disembodied and ominous, evident in the story title: “Love Is the Plan the Plan is Death” (1973). In this piece, there are no human characters. Sex and love—among aliens—are cold, mechanical and rationalized. It’s not difficult to imagine, in reading such a work, that Tiptree was ambivalent and troubled in her own relationships.

Robert Silverberg compared her style to the “lean, muscular, supple” work of Hemingway. He was right, though the tone and content suggest something very different. Consider the following passage, from “The Screwfly Solution” (1977), a bizarre story about sex, aggression, scientific research, and the mass murder of women by men:

“He threw himself on the lumpy cot, his mind going back exultantly to his work. At the cost of a million bites and cane cuts he was pretty sure he’d found the weak link in the canefly cycle. The male mass-mating behavior, the comparative scarcity of ovulant females. It would be the screwfly solution all over again with the sexes reversed. Concentrate the pheromone, release sterilized females. Luckily the breeding populations were comparatively isolated. In a couple of seasons they ought to have it. Have to let them go on spraying poison meanwhile, of course; damn pity, it was slaughtering everything and getting in the water, and the caneflies had evolved to immunity anyway. But in a couple of seasons, maybe three, they could drop the canefly populations below reproductive viability. No more tormented human bodies with those stinking larvae in the nasal passages and brain…He drifted off for a nap, grinning.”

Tiptree combines sci-fi, violence, an unusual premise, and sexual politics. She examines mating and gender relationships with science rather than humanism, betraying perhaps how alien she found sex and human interaction. Men commit genocide, women are “sterilized,” sex is poisonous and clinical. The phrase “sexes reversed” jumps out at you.

As “Screwfly” suggests, Tiptree’s world is dark, filled with death and decay. Alienation, despair and loneliness are common themes. Even when there’s hope, there’s entropy and mass destruction. In “Ain,” for example, a researcher studying ecological disaster eventually destroys all of humanity in order to preserve Earth. This is classic Tiptree. The story ends in death, but not just for a few unlucky people—for the whole planet.

Julie Phillips writes: “His stories read like urgent messages from some haunted house on the corner of Eros and Mortality. Humans meet aliens — and abandon their very souls for a chance to sleep with them. A man in love with the Earth kills off the human race, including himself, to save her. A mission to the stars finds an alien egg for which the colonists themselves turn out to be the sperm.”

Off-page, Tiptree was enthusiastic about hunting, fishing, travel and guns. She was inconsistent when addressing her own sexuality, but seemed to be a bisexual who preferred women. Most people got no closer to her than P.O. Box 315 in McLean, but those who did know her described Tiptree as dramatic, dogmatic, articulate, brilliant, perceptive, a natural raconteur.

Unsurprisingly, Tiptree did not appear in public. She did answer fan mail, however, and was quite straightforward in these letters about almost everything except gender. “Tip” was affectionate, flirtatious and funny. The secret began to reveal itself in 1976 when Tiptree mentioned that his deceased mother had been a writer from Chicago. Curious fans began searching through the obituaries and eventually identified Mary Bradley as Tiptree’s—or Alice Bradley’s—mother. Many critics and editors felt duped or embarrassed, though pseudonyms—even gender-switching ones—are neither uncommon nor duplicitous. Their animosity no doubt arose from the fact that they’d deceived themselves, especially those who’d claimed that Tiptree was “obviously” a man. They were ashamed of their own faulty assumptions.

“Alice Sheldon shall appeal to the masses in the year 2017.” –Roberto Bolaño, Amulet 

After her public unveiling, Tiptree wrote two novels, Up the Walls of the World (1978) and Brightness Falls from the Air (1985), but, unsurprisingly, neither book was received as warmly as her early stories. Tiptree continued to use a wide range of pseudonyms, including Alice Hastings Bradley, Major Alice Davey, Alli B. Sheldon, Dr. Alice B. Sheldon and Raccoona Sheldon.

In later years, Tiptree was deeply unhappy. She suffered from a variety of emotional problems and tried to kill herself several times. Huntington, her husband, was legally blind, disabled and could no longer care for himself. She wanted to die but was unwilling to abandon her husband. By 1987, however, Tiptree was also in poor health. She took a gun, lay down in bed, held with Huntington, shot him and then herself.

Tiptree won many awards during her lifetime, including the Hugo (1974, 1977), Nebula (1973, 1976, 1977), Locus (1984, 1986), Jupiter (1977), and several for Japanese-language translations. She was inducted into The Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2012. Tiptree has, since her death, influenced several new generations of fans and sci-fi writers. In 1991 the James Tiptree, Jr. Award was established to recognize “works of science fiction or fantasy that expand or explore one’s understanding of gender.”

Julie Phillips argues that Tiptree needed to write science fiction, rather than traditional realism, because she was confused, alienated and searching for clarity in the darkness. She couldn’t find a way through this by writing ordinary stories. “Science fiction gave Alli a language for writing around the boundaries, for imagining what cannot yet be said. It has been seen as a masculine genre. And yet, with its metaphors for alienation and otherness, its unruly imagination, and its power to predict change, it is highly suited to talking about women’s experience.”

In the larger world outside her books, Tiptree never impersonated a man. She didn’t go by Tiptree, either. She didn’t like the name “Alice”, perhaps because she was uncomfortable in her own skin, but liked to be called “Alli” instead. An early science fiction piece was signed “Ann Terry,” though it was never published. She wrote letters of complaint and protest as “Mrs. H. D. Smith” and “Mrs. Huntington D. Sheldon.” A complicated person, to say the least.

Although “Alli” only became Tiptree on the page, her role-playing was a decisive act. As Philips argues, “Tiptree's appropriation of the male mind is even more exciting. It’s a much deeper challenge to the established narrative order, and promises a greater freedom. It questions all our assumptions about writing and gender. It changes how we look at our male writer heroes.”

Phillips seems to argue that fiction is every bit as real, and significant, as the terrestrial world. When we read Dickens, Joyce or Shakespeare, then, we have to wonder: were these books actually written by men? And that begs a second question: does it matter?

Freelance writer (food, drinks, travel, culture) and former professor (creative writing, literature, Islamic studies, US history) and magazine editor who's lived in the UK, New York, Dubai, ... Show More

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