Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Steely Bookworm Resolve


I had this book in my hands last summer at Barnes and Noble. I really wanted it, but decided against it. Hardcover. Too expensive. Too heavy to add to my suitcase.

Now, it's over 4 months later, and I'm gnashing my teeth and second-guessing myself with a mighty kick. Scanning my shelves mournfully; nothing pleases me. I want what I don't have. The story of my bookworm life.

This book is James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life Of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips. Sheldon/Tiptree was a science fiction writer who achieved acclaim during the 1960s and 1970s, writing well-crafted short stories featuring humans and aliens interacting, often with surprising and disastrous results.

Alice Sheldon was over 50 years old and had been in several careers that spanned the gamut from chicken farming to working for the CIA when she became a science fiction writer. She'd just completed her doctorate in psychology, and needed a pen name so she wouldn't compromise her professional reputation. Back in those days, science fiction writers had a strong fan base but they got no respect literary-wise. So James Tiptree, Jr. was born.

Sheldon enjoyed being Tiptree. Having come of age in a time when women were more often than not taken less than seriously, she enjoyed the freedom of being able to use the male persona to say whatever she damn well wanted to, both in the stories and in the many letters she wrote to science fiction writers --both male and female -- that became her friends.

Right from the beginning, writers and fans speculated about the mysterious Tiptree. No one ever saw him. They knew it was a pseudonym, but who was he? Was he a CIA agent, for example? There was also some speculation that Tiptree might be a woman, because of the warm and intelligent way he wrote about women. This was loudly pooh-poohed by many male SF writers, and the female SF writers conceded that he was probably a man, but that he was also a rare exception among men - a male feminist.

In the letters Sheldon wrote as Tiptree, she didn't reveal her gender, but she also didn't lie about the facts of her life. In 1977, her cover was finally blown. She mentioned that her aged mother (who had also been a writer) had died recently. Fans knew that Tiptree was originally from Chicago, so it was easy to find the mother's obituary which listed the sole survivor -- a daughter, Alice Sheldon who lived in Virginia -- just like James Tiptree, Jr.

After the Tiptree persona was taken away from Sheldon, she felt that a lot of the excitement and glamour had gone out of her life. She fought depression and died about ten years later, under tragic and shocking circumstances.

I didn't know any of the details of Sheldon's earlier life before Tiptree, but in retrospect, I can't believe that in light of these details, it took so long for someone to write a biography of this amazing woman. Scratch that. I mean person. Sheldon's well-to-do socialite parents enjoyed hunting and exploring in Africa during the 1920s, (imagine Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in Africa rather than Paris) so young Alice was an adventurer, right out of the gate. The vitality and variety of her life and careers would have had Ernest Hemingway sulking in envy.

Well, now can you blame me for wanting so badly to read James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life Of Alice B. Sheldon ? Since it was published just this year, it's still out in hardback. A paperback edition will be released in August, 2007.

This is where I'm going to do my best to exhibit steely bookworm resolve: I'm going to wait for the paperback. Even if it kills me. Oh, but I don't want to wait. I want to press One-Click on amazon right this minute. I even want to stop typing in the middle of this sentence to do so.

Steady, Bybee. You'll probably be able to pre-order in about three months.

4 comments:

Lesley said...

I added this to my wishlist after seeing mention of it in a recent issue of Bookmarks. I've never read any of his/her works but the real life story just sounded so interesting! I think I'll wait until it comes out in paperback too, unless I luck out and can get a copy at the library. Glad to see someone else wanting to read it!

Anonymous said...

do you have a library card?

Bybee said...

No, I live in a foreign country and the public library has almost no books in English, except for study guides.

Dark Orpheus said...

Like you, I wanted to pick up James Tiptree Jr bio when i fist heard about it last year. She seems so fascinating. But I'm waiting for the paperback - hardback is too expensive.

So I thought I'll go read her fiction first - only to find out a lot of them are out of print.

Ha!