Saturday, October 13, 2007

Strong Recommendation

Before this day is finished I'll be finished with James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life Of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips. This is a really well-done biography, right up there with Private Demons: The Life Of Shirley Jackson by Judy Oppenheimer. Next time you're in the bookstore, or someone asks you to present a gift list, search out or mention this one. You won't be sorry. From child explorer to reluctant debutante to WWII WAC to chicken farmer to CIA agent to scientist to science fiction writer, Alice Sheldon's restlessness and brilliance as well as a foreboding dark side makes her seem like a superhuman heroine, worthy of a novel.

I tried, I really really tried to make myself hold this book back for next year and the beginning of the In Their Shoes Challenge, but I couldn't do it. One chapter called for another. And another. And anoth... Mr. Bybee wisely gave up on conversations a couple of days in and busied himself with his old west books.

James Tiptree, Jr. was a science fiction writer who appeared out of nowhere in 1967. No one ever met him; he only communicated through letters to fans and other SF writers. Although he won awards, he steadfastly refused to reveal himself. Finally, in 1977, Tiptree was unmasked as Alice B. Sheldon, Ph.D, a 61-year-old woman living in MacLean, Virginia.

In a genre famous for hoaxes, this was the greatest hoax ever. Not many suspected Tiptree, whose writing was lusty and unabashed, of being female. Shortly before the Nebula awards one year in the early 1970s, Harlan Ellison famously announced, "[Kate] Wilhelm is the woman to beat this year, but Tiptree is the man."

How did Alice B. Sheldon (known as "Alli" to her friends) become Tiptree? Biographer Julie Phillips does a superb job of detailing Sheldon's life -- no mean feat; Sheldon's life was so varied and busy right from the time she was a little girl that there was a HELL of a lot of information to read and organize. Not only does Phillips ably cover Sheldon's life, she provides the necessary background information to orient the reader during Sheldon's dizzying career switches. I was especially impressed with Phillips' ability to convey the fun and intensity of science fiction fandom.

With one thing and another, I had to wait over a year to read this book, but it was well worth the wait. James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life Of Alice B. Sheldon is a biography that I'll definitely keep and reread.

11 comments:

alisonwonderland said...

i've never heard of James Tiptree or Alice Sheldon, but you make this book sound so compelling that i just might have to read it.

Jaimie said...

Sounds like an interesting book and I will look for it. My husband is a big science fiction fan of that era and he has made many comments about how many of the authors were women. Thanks for the review.

Katya said...

I've never read a James Tiptree book but I've just added this book to my tbr pile -- it sounds so good.

Sam Houston said...

That's a fascinating story...thanks for the heads up. I'll be looking for that one.

Dark Orpheus said...

That James Tiptree Jr bio has been on my to be read list for a while now. Have to find time for it.

Melanie said...

I've been meaning to read this book, now I have to get to it. You make it sound like it is an absolutely necessary read.

kookiejar said...

It's interesting, Bybee, that in your review you didn't mention if you've read much Tiptree. If you have, do you have a favorite that you would recommend to those of us who haven't read any?

jenclair said...

Thanks for this recommendation! I love science fiction and biography, so this sounds like a lot of fun in many ways...especially in regard to pulling off the hoax!

Bookfool said...

I've never heard of either of them, just like Alisonwonderland. I'm sure it's a very, very good thing to find books worth rereading when they're so difficult to acquire, in the first place! You must doubly appreciate it.

Clare said...

Hi Bybee,

Good luck for the Bookathon tomorrow!

Eva said...

Have fun tomorrow! I'll be participating as well. :D