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James Tiptree, Jr. and the Tiptree Awards

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, Julie Phillips, St. Martin’s, 2006, 469 pp.

Writing a biography of a writer is a tricky thing. A professional writer will have produced hundreds of thousands or even millions of words, both as sold to publications as well as in letters to other people. Such a mountain of fictional words can be daunting to analyse. In addition, most writers have some amount of self-awareness, and will be busy analysing their own lives and their own work; it’s very tempting to piggyback on this, to the possible detriment of original analysis. The life of James Tiptree, Jr. -- with an overwhelming amount of public and private wordage -- is therefore not an unusual challenge for the biography of a writer, but it's still a challenge.

I’ve also noticed that biography, in general, can be a tricky thing. Does a life wrap up into neat little packages, complete with a message and a narrative trajectory? Possibly, but those would be the atypical cases. Narrative is tempting, though, since it's an old and venerable human impulse. The alternative -- to present a shapeless mass of anecdote, arranged chronologically -- simply isn’t appealing. It's like a minefield, with no ideal choice in sight.

So we come to the biography of Alice B. Sheldon, a woman who lived a long and unusual life, gaining the most fame for herself in the guise of a man writing science fiction. Since her career as Tiptree only started in her mid-50s -- the late 1960s -- there is a lot of material to cover before the point which most people know. Was her life a simple line leading directly to the Tiptree moment? A narrative that concludes logically and/or inevitably with a manly pseudonym for a woman?

Perhaps. And in some ways, that's how Phillips presents Sheldon's early life. I was a bit alarmed at this "narrative" strategy, since I'm a bit nervous about reading an author's life through their writing. There will always be personal things in an author's work, since if nothing impinged from private life into the fictional sphere then everyone's writing would be identical -- there has to be something unique in a book or story, or else why read it! But there's a reason why it's called fiction: writers who know what they're doing can filter their personal life, twist it around, make surprising connections, contemplate the darker aspects, and generally play with it as brutally or as sentimentally as necessary. Life events can be fodder, but fiction does not equal autobiography. Even if it comes anywhere close, it's like one of those stories told in the first-person with an unreliable narrator. You have to spend most of your time deciphering what is really going on.

All that said, I came to agree that Phillips' strategy works, in this particular case. That's because Sheldon only started writing as Tiptree late in life, and then didn't write anything of equal power once her pseudonym was uncovered only a few years later. Clearly there were some personal obstacles to overcome before she could start expressing herself in this way, and then something about the covering notion of writing as a man let her write and then stopped her from writing once that cover was gone.

Phillips points out in her introduction that Sheldon went by different names over the course of her life. She was born Alice Hastings Bradley, became Alice Davey during her first marriage, and then Alice Sheldon during her second. She was also fond of nicknames, so her own name became "Alli," after her mother-in-law's formulation, and her writerly persona became "Tip." Phillips notes that she has "mostly taken the liberty of using the name [Sheldon] liked best: Alli" (7) -- this gives the biography a personal flavour that probably suits the material. I'll use "Sheldon" as appropriate in this review.

Born on August 24, 1915, Alice Bradley had an unusual early life. Her parents were amateur explorers of Africa, and they took her on two trips to the "dark" continent before she was 10. The epithet was still apropos at the time: she was often in regions where the tribes had never seen white people before, and members of her party of explorers were the first whites to see gorillas in their natural habitat.

Her mother Mary wrote extensively about the trips, and the difference between mother and daughter became clear early on. In one of Mary's books:

She defended cannibalism as rooted in custom and a dietary lack of protein, and related the horror of the Congolese on being told that whites killed in war without even eating the enemy... [W]hat to Mary was an ethnographic observation was to Alice a threat: she could all too easily picture people getting eaten. Besides, if getting mad at somebody was a sin in Chicago, why was it alright to murder him in Africa? (33-34)

The Bradleys entertained extensively back home in Chicago, and the family was often written up in the society pages of newspapers. Mary Bradley was a famous woman at the time (if forgotten now), and Alice did not know how to escape her mother's shadow. Much of what Phillips writes about in the first segments of this biography -- and later as well, although less so -- deal with this mother-daughter relationship.

Phillips is also frank about Sheldon's sexuality throughout the book. She discusses how this worked in light of two things: Alice's never-acted-upon lesbian tendencies and the model set by her mother. Mary Bradley was smart and did things women weren't supposed to do, but she often fell back on her femininity and recommended that Alice do the same. Alice's family organized a debut for her, and she married a boy she met there within a few days. But none of this seemed to help:

As a sexual object -- a beautiful woman -- Alice was of course a success. But being a sexual object is not in itself an erotic experience, and models for women's sexual subjectivity -- for wanting, and not just being wanted -- were few and far between. She wanted to be equal to a man, purposeful and exploring, but didn't know how. (84)

Sheldon also lacked in role models in her professional life. This is a slightly different case, since there was clearly another factor at work: she was a precocious child, and never quite found an outlet for her supposed brilliance. This rootlessness plagued her throughout her life, and she moved from one endeavour to another without much result. For example, during WWII she joined the Women's Auxiliary Corps:

It did give her more confidence in her own capabilities, but as an experiment in what it meant to be a woman, or what it could mean, it was highly inconclusive. Ironically, Alice's time in the WAC would end up making it easier for her to pass as a man. In the 1970s, Tiptree's casual references to his Second World War service seemed to confirm his masculinity. Like many things Alice had done, the army made more sense in a male biography than a female one. (138)

In reading the heartaches and hard times of Sheldon's life, early and late, I can't help but think that she was a woman born before her time. Perfect equality might not exist yet in current times, but she would have many more role models for both her professional and personal behaviours. Sheldon struggled with bouts of depression throughout her life, exacerbating her feelings of alienation and lack of self-confidence, and even this depression might be treatable nowadays.

The marriage to Huntington Sheldon, or "Ting" as she liked to call him, seemed to be the best that she could do, in terms of personal happiness and in the fight with her obsessive demons. And things really seemed to have worked out for them, at least until later. The Sheldons met while they were both doing photoanalysis during WWII, they worked for a couple of years in their own chicken hatchery, and then Ting returned to his CIA work, while Alice went back to school to get a PhD in psychology.

This gets us to Tiptree, since Sheldon starting writing science fiction stories after she found teaching in a university setting too draining. So it's halfway through the book that Phillips arrives at a chapter called "Birth of a Writer." By this point, she has set up most of Sheldon's psychological contradictions and impulses, and marked out the context for her as a person, growing up as a smart and beautiful woman who never quite found her ideal path.

This is where the groundwork pays off, since, like in any biography of a writer, Phillips can't quote whole stories, only enough to give a flavour of the stories. And it's approximately true that the flavour of her life resembles the flavour of her stories. I'll talk about a few of her best/award-winning stories to help tie the biography side to the fiction side of Sheldon's life.

The first story that brought Tiptree any notice was "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain," a 12 Monkeys-style scenario that was published early in 1969. Another early story, "The Girl Who Was Plugged In," took four years to get published, and it won the Hugo Award the following year in 1974 -- it's the story of an ugly girl who animates the body of a movie starlet, and needless to say her fate is not a happy one. Sheldon stuck to her disturbing ending, and her stubbornness paid off.

"Love Is the Plan, The Plan is Death" was written in 1971 and published two years later. It won Tiptree's first Nebula Award. It's told from the point of view of an alien creature, as the creature struggles futilely against the fate dictated for it by its biological and sexual instincts. The title of the story seems to say it all.

"Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" came a bit later in 1974, was published in 1976, and won both the Nebula and Hugo Awards. Some male astronauts are thrown forward in time, and discover that world is now populated by women. No men. What would this world be like? Would some of the more terrifying sexual politics be out of the picture? No such luck... since it's a world of clones (the only way to survive the epidemic that wiped out the men), and the clones can't really handle the men. The ending is ambiguous only in that the men are either put to death or filed away in permanent isolation.

In the mid-1970s, Sheldon created a second pseudonym, a woman named Raccoona Sheldon. Raccoona didn't get as much recognition as Tiptree, but one of her stories, "The Screwfly Solution," won the Nebula Award in 1977. It's a horrifying story -- aliens attack our civilization by the simple means of amping up the aggressiveness of men's sexuality. Soon men are murdering women all around the world. It's another story with an epitaph of one kind or another for a conclusion.

The Tiptree story I always remember most vividly is "Milk of Paradise" from Harlan Ellison's Again, Dangerous Visions (published in 1972). It's a story of profound sexual and personal disappointment, told in evocative detail. Unlike some of her other stories, there is no death involved, but there is the same sense of biological impulses gone so awry that mad or impossible choices are the only ones left.

One other story that's worth mentioning, at least for its level of pertinence here, is "The Women Men Don't See." A plane with three passengers in it crashes in the wilderness -- a government agent and a mother and daughter. In addition to trying to survive, they encounter some aliens. The mother and daughter make the surprising decision to leave with the aliens. As Phillips puts it: "By showing women longing to leave Earth for the stars, it describes women's alienation in terms any male science fiction reader can instantly recognize" (280). This is the story that Karen Joy Fowler riffs off of in her story, "What I Didn't See" -- see the next review. Sheldon withdrew "The Women Men Don't See" from Nebula consideration after it reached the final ballot.

Sheldon wrote two novels as Tiptree, Up the Walls of the World in 1978 and Brightness Falls from the Air in 1985. Neither had the same impact as Tiptree's short work. As is obvious even from my brief summaries, the Tiptree short stories were explosive stuff, and in addition to being well written and convincing, the ideas in each story couldn't help but leave an impression on the reader's mind. The longer works got lost in the mechanics of creating a large-scale structure -- the shorter form seemed ideally suited to Sheldon's strengths.

Tiptree as a pseudonym lasted from the late 1960s until 1976. The revelation of Sheldon's identity came because of the death of her mother, which Tiptree wrote about in letters to friends with one detail too many. The obituary for Mary Sheldon said that she had been an explorer in Africa and that she was survived by one daughter -- the game was up. Sheldon wrote to some close friends about it -- Ursula K. Le Guin and Joanna Russ in particular -- but the rest of the process of telling people she had gotten to know through the mail was haphazard.

The uncovering of Tiptree as Sheldon marked the termination of Tiptree's productivity. Friends had tried as hard as they could to reverse the impact of the circumstances in Sheldon's early life -- surely she could write openly under her own name! But it was all too ingrained, the moment was past. Sheldon's essential isolation and depression were getting worse, and advancing age seemed to leach out the last bits of hope. In May of 1987, she shot her ailing husband and then herself.

Phillips' biography of Tiptree/Sheldon conveys an overwhelming sense of lost potential and thwarted ambition in one life. At least at first glance. A more hopeful way of looking at it would be to say that Sheldon overcame enormous obstacles -- alienation, lack of role models, depression -- to write 8 years' worth of remarkable stories. It's like the romantic lament about the death of Keats -- if only he had not died so young! But you can turn it around too: the other way to look at it is to marvel that Keats produced so much in such a short span of time. Likewise Sheldon. Circumstances and time conspired against Sheldon and Tiptree, but there was a happy window when she conspired right back.

The James Tiptree Award Anthology 1, edited by Karen Joy Fowler, Pat Murphy, Debbie Notkin, and Jeffrey D. Smith, Tachyon, 2005, 302 pp.

In the early 1990s, a new award was announced and organized: the Tiptree. As the back cover of this volume helpfully points out, the award "honors fiction that explores and expands gender." What might this mean? What kind of writing would be honoured by such an award? As we'll see, these are open questions, and the Tiptree Award is designed to keep them open.

In 1991, awards in science fiction and fantasy were not the crowded field that they are today. The Tiptree has held its own, however, mainly due to its unique aim and its unique structure. It recognizes no distinction between novels and short stories, it is a juried award, and it has the specific goal of shaking up readers and their understanding of gender. The judges have to figure out the meaning of "best story or novel" in this context, each and every year.

Tachyon, the noted small press, is the publisher of this ongoing series of anthologies. The series tries to represent the award and what it has done -- two volumes are already in print, and a third volume arrives early in 2007. An award anthology series is not easy, and a book like this has to cover a number of difficult areas.

For one thing, this book has to be an ambassador for the Tiptree Award; first contact for those who might not have heard of the award before, but deep enough for the old hands. Volume 1 spends more time explaining the award, the jury process, and so forth, than the next entry in the series.

Secondly, Tachyon published the first anthology for the award in 2005, so nearly 15 years of material had already accumulated. How to represent this wealth of goodness? The first book does so obliquely, with a handful of older items and a general focus on the award's 2003 year for the fiction.

The award, as represented in a space-limited anthology, has an additional problem: insofar as I see it, the strongest material has been the novels (in a marked contrast between Tiptree's own work and the award given out in her name). There are no separate short and full-length categories in the Tiptree Award, unlike the Hugo or Nebula Awards, for example. That’s fine, since a unified winner works well within the context of a thematic award like this one. But when it comes time to represent the award in anthology form, it breaks down a bit. If the novel winners have been the best exemplars of Tiptree-ness so far, how to represent this in a 300-page collection? It's an open question, but not one with a happy answer.

For setting the context of the award, this anthology relies on a variety of non-fiction pieces. The introduction, written by Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler, does double duty introducing the award and this anthology, with a strong flavour of personal reminiscence. Next up is a piece from Tiptree/Sheldon herself, titled “Everything But the Signature Was Me.” Sheldon wrote this piece to a friend right after the revelation of her identity. Suzy McKee Charnas provides a piece called “Judging the Tiptree” which takes us into the actual process of picking the winners of the award. I found this fascinating, since it seems like a process in constant tumult.

Ursula K. Le Guin is represented here by a talk on the topic: “Genre: A Word Only a Frenchman Could Love.” The editors use key points from this essay to introduce the works by Ruff and Fowler -- two works that push the boundaries of what might be generally classified as speculative fiction. As Le Guin puts it: "There are many bad books. There are no bad genres" (68).

The editors write small bits to introduce each piece. The book also has a fairly substantial section at the end, including a list of all winners and shortlists, divvied up by year, as well as acknowledgements and a section of bios for the authors and the editors.

On to the fiction! This volume has no story from Tiptree herself. I don’t know why I was expecting one, since this is the award named in her honour, rather an anthology of her writing. In any case, it might have been nice, since Tiptree’s stories aren’t as available as they used to be.

Two strong stories stand out from the rest of the fiction. Ruth Nestvold’s “Looking Through Lace” rests on a relatively simple reversal or secret, but the rest of it is solidly written and convincing. The main character is a young female xenolinguist named Toni -- she is called to a planet named Christmas to study the Mejan culture. Nestvold presents a neat puzzle, and she takes the time to present it just-so. It’s the longest story in the collection.

Karen Joy Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See” is a deliberate referencing of Tiptree’s famous story, "The Women Men Don't See," but as the introduction points out, Fowler is playing with many other threads -- "primate studies, King Kong, Belgian Congo politics, Tarzan, harems, spiders, and perilous card games" (191). Fowler also feeds some Tiptree biography into the mix as well, and the result is one of the smoothest and most deceptive postmodern stories of this type that I've read. A warning: knowing more about Sheldon's life makes the story much more effective.

The Tiptree Award winner in 2003 was Matt Ruff’s novel Set this House in Order: A Romance of Souls. The editors have picked what seems like a good excerpt, but by necessity it still feels incomplete. We get a glimpse of the story: two people living with multiple personality disorder deal with it in as logical a manner as possible. Ruff’s most famous novel is the perennial campus favourite, Fool on the Hill, and now I'm looking forward to reading this book too.

A few of the short stories don't work as well as the Nestvold and Fowler contributions. Geoff Ryman’s "Birth Days" opens the fiction section of the book. The story skips ahead ten years at a time in the life of a young gay man, a structure which lets Ryman create some sharp bursts of speculation. “The Ghost Girls of Romney Mill” by Sandra MacDonald asks an unusual what-if: what if gender prejudice continued past the grave? Both stories are more mood pieces than satisfying narratives, if that's what you're looking for. Carol Emshwiller’s “Boys” is one of those pseudo-Tepperish stories that sometimes pop up in her oeuvre. I like Emshwiller but this one feels a bit rote for her.

The weakest material in the book can be found in two places. Richard Calder’s "The Catgirl Manifesto: An Introduction" tries to be a witty satire/engagement with the way gender is de/constructed in academia and pop culture. Unfortunately it fails, sinking under the weight of its own supposed cleverness.

The second place of weakness is unfortunately a major one, and it's a unit made up of the last three items in the book. The editors include three versions of "The Snow Queen," starting with a new translation of the original by Hans Christian Andersen. Andersen's tale feels quite up to date and sharp, so much so that the two that follow and adapt it strike me as superfluous. Kara Dalkey’s “The Lady of the Ice Garden” takes up Andersen’s tale and maps it to a Japanese setting. Closing the book is Kelly Link’s “Travels with the Snow Queen.” Link's story is a legitimate inclusion, since it shared the Tiptree in 1997 with Candas Jane Dorsey's Black Wine. But it's a case of too much of a good thing; with three versions of the same story in a row, there’s not enough distinction between them.

So, a decent anthology: some non-fiction bric-a-brac that may or may not be of interest outside of the context of the Tiptree award, one novel that is now on my reading list, two strong stories, and an assortment of weaker fiction.

The James Tiptree Award Anthology 2, edited by Karen Joy Fowler, Pat Murphy, Debbie Notkin, and Jeffrey D. Smith, Tachyon, 2006, 252 pp.

The second volume of the Tiptree Award anthology series features the same editors and the same basic format. This time around, the series has moved ahead to a basic focus on 2004, with a handful of older stories. The heart of the book seems to be Le Guin’s “Another Story Or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea” which was first published in 1994. The other material is mostly more recent.

I'm still not quite sure how the novel excerpts might fit best into a collection like this. And this time around there are two; fortunately, the two books that shared the Tiptree Award in 2004, Joe Haldeman’s Camouflage and Johanna Sinisalo’s Troll, are both top-notch. The excerpts don’t do the books justice -- of course if it was possible to do them full justice in a shorter length, the authors would not have written novels.

Camouflage is a canny novel written in Haldeman’s deceptively simple prose. There are three main characters, only one of them human. Russell is hired to raise an artifact from the Pacific Ocean -- he's somewhat of a stereotypical engineer for this kind of a story, but grounds it in his practical nature. Two immortal aliens, both with the power to change shape and mimic human form, are part of the story too, one with a higher regard for human life than the other. I like how Haldeman takes an explore-the-alien-artifact story and gives it a twist, and yes, some of that twist is gender-related enough to draw the attention and approval of the Tiptree jury. The excerpt here gives a short piece from each of the three viewpoints.

Sinisalo’s Troll is a different beast altogether. A hot young gay photographer who lives in Helsinki gets drunk one night, stumbles home after an unlucky night, and rescues a troll being beaten by a gang of thugs -- how's that for a premise! It's clear to Angel that the troll, who he nicknames Pessi, is not feeling well, but what does a troll need to recuperate? A large part of the charm of the book is in Sinisalo's careful supply of troll history as Angel trawls the internet. I’ve seen this sort of faked-up pop culture/historical detritus before, but seldom done this well, and almost never to this effect. On top of all the things going on in Angel's life, Sinisalo throws in a mail-order bride who lives a confined life one floor down in Angel's apartment. The magic of Sinisalo's writing is how it all works together. In the excerpt quoted here, the editors take some passages from near the beginning of the book, leaving out much of the results of Angel's troll research.

Like Volume 1, Volume 2 relies on some non-fiction to outline the context for the award. There's more material about Tiptree, in the form of an excerpt from Phillips’ just-released biography of Sheldon. At least it looks like an excerpt at first. In fact it's called "Talking Too Much" and it's in the form of some reflections by Phillips and her experience in writing the biography of a writer who felt isolated and overly expressive at the same time.

Other non-fiction pieces include a letter written by Tiptree to a colleague, a Wiscon speech by Nalo Hopkinson, and a summary of recent research in gender/sex differences by Gwyneth Jones (a bit out of date by now since it was written in 1994).

“Another Story or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea” by Ursula K. Le Guin is the longest story in the book, clocking in at 42 pages. It reminded me of The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed -- classic Hainish tales. Le Guin tells the story of a man named Hideo who grows up on a planet named O. He leaves to do research on a matter-transporter version of the ansible, without saying a proper goodbye to the woman he loves. A wrinkle in time helps him fix that mistake. The Tiptree Award angle comes from the unusual four-person marriages on O.

“The Gift” by L. Timmel Duchamp is relatively solid but a bit odd: Florentine is a travel writer, which in the future is more of a multimedia thing. She has enormous power to bring tourist dollars to a planet. She falls in love, but the love is not reciprocated. I liked this story, since it has a classic feel like Le Guin's novella.

“Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation by K.N. Sirsi and Sandra Botkin” by Raphael Carter is a pseudo-report on a phenomenon where people have trouble identifying the sex of the person they are talking to or observing. Like "The Catgirl Manifesto" in the previous volume, this story tries to play with narrative, in this case presenting itself as debate about an academic thesis.

Volume 2 has three other not so good stories. “Nirvana High” by Eileen Gunn and Leslie What is not my favourite story, since it tries to riff on Kurt Cobain and doesn't seem to go anywhere. “Five Fucks” by Jonathan Lethem is a weird and confrontational story, about two beings who gradually degrade every time they sleep together. “All of Us Can Almost…” by Carol Emshwiller covers some familiar material for Emshwiller fans. It feels very Tiptree-ish. The Lethem story is from 1996, while the other two are from 2004.

And that's pretty much it. I like how the volume ends: “Kissing Frogs” by Jaye Lawrence wraps up the book, with a light piece with a nice twist. As the editors point out, this one is nearly irresistible as an endnote. But Volume 2 overall feels a bit like a ghost or a shadow of a full anthology. I think that's partly a function of trying to excerpt two novels rather than just one. As I've pointed out, Volume 3 is due to arrive soon -- like any strong award, the Tiptree marches on. If the winners or nominees in a specific year are not to every reader's liking, the award reinvents itself the next year.

Tiptree's work is not as easy to find as it once was. Her two novels are not in print, and the original short story collections are long gone as well. Tachyon has reprinted Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, now the only thing in print.

Information about the Tiptree Award can be found at the website, complete with winners and a handy reading list.

James Schellenberg lives and writes in Ottawa. He currently works for, a site which tries to organize science information for the government.

Last modified: October 28, 2006

Copyright © 2006 by James Schellenberg

Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Reviews | Columns | Issue #23

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