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James Tiptree, Jr

James Tiptree, Jr. (August 24, 1915May 19, 1987) was the pen name of American science fiction author Alice Bradley Sheldon, used from 1967 to her death. She also occasionally wrote under the pseudonym Raccoona Sheldon (1974–77). Tiptree/Sheldon was most notable for breaking down the barriers between writing perceived as inherently "male" or "female" — it was not publicly known until 1977 that James Tiptree, Jr. was a woman.

Early life

Bradley came from an intellectual family; her father was Herbert Bradley, a lawyer and naturalist, and her mother was Mary Hastings Bradley, a prolific writer of fiction and travel books. She travelled the world with her parents from an early age. She was a graphic artist and a painter, and an art critic for the Chicago Sun between 1941 and 1942. She was married to William Davey from 1934 to 1941.

In 1942 she joined the United States Army and worked in the United States Army Air Forces photointelligence group. In 1945 she married her second husband, Huntington D Sheldon, and she was discharged from the military in 1946, at which time she set up a small business in partnership with her husband. The same year her first story ("The Lucky Ones") was published in the November 16, 1946 issue of The New Yorker, and credited to "Alice Bradley" in the magazine itself, but to "Alice Bradley Sheldon" in the magazine's DVD index. In 1952 she and her husband were invited to join the CIA. She resigned in 1955 to return to college.

She studied for her Bachelor of Arts degree at American University (1957–59), going on to achieve a doctorate at George Washington University in Experimental Psychology in 1967. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on the responses of animals to novel stimuli in differing environments.

Sheldon was bisexual. "I like some men a lot, but from the start, before I knew anything, it was always girls and women who lit me up."

Science fiction career

Unsure what to do with her new degrees and her new/old careers, Sheldon began to write science fiction. She adopted the pseudonym of James Tiptree Jr. in 1967. The name "Tiptree" came from a jar of marmalade. In an interview, she said: "A male name seemed like good camouflage. I had the feeling that a man would slip by less observed. I've had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation.

The pseudonym was successfully maintained until the late 1970s. This is partly due to the fact that though it was widely known that "Tiptree" was a pseudonym, it was generally understood that its use was intended to protect the professional reputation of an intelligence community official. Readers, editors and correspondents were permitted to assume gender, and almost invariably they assumed "male."

"Tiptree" never made any public appearances, but she did correspond regularly with fans and other science fiction authors through the mail. When asked for biographical details, Tiptree/Sheldon was forthcoming in everything but gender. Many of the details given above (the Air Force career, the Ph.D.) were mentioned in letters "Tiptree" wrote, and also appeared in official author biographies.

After the death of Mary Hastings Bradley in 1976, "Tiptree" mentioned that his mother, also a writer, had died in Chicago — details that led inquiring fans to find the obituary, with its reference to Alice Sheldon; soon all was revealed. Several prominent science fiction writers suffered some embarrassment. Robert Silverberg had written an introduction to Warm Worlds and Otherwise, arguing on the basis of selections from stories in the collection, that Tiptree could not possibly be a woman. And in an introduction to Tiptree's story in his Again, Dangerous Visions anthology, Harlan Ellison opined that "[Kate] Wilhelm is the woman to beat this year, but Tiptree is the man."

The revelation of her gender had less adverse impact on people's opinions of her talent than she had feared; her final Nebula Award (for "The Screwfly Solution," published under her other occasional pseudonym, Raccoona Sheldon) was awarded in 1977.

Description of works

Tiptree/Sheldon was an eclectic writer who worked in a variety of styles and subgenres, often combining the technological focus and hard-edged style of "hard" science fiction with the sociological and psychological concerns of "soft" SF, and some of the stylistic experimentation of the New Wave movement.

After writing several stories in more conventional modes, she produced her first work to draw widespread acclaim, "The Last Flight of Doctor Ain", in 1969. One of her shortest stories, "Ain" is a sympathetic portrait of a scientist whose concern for Earth's ecological suffering leads him to destroy the entire human race.

Many of her stories have a milieu reminiscent of the space opera and pulp tales she read in her youth, but typically with a much darker tone: the cosmic journeys of her characters are often linked to a drastic spiritual alienation, and/or a transcendent experience which brings fulfillment but also death. John Clute, noting Tiptree's "inconsolable complexities of vision", concluded that "It is very rarely that a James Tiptree story does not both deal directly with death and end with a death of the spirit, or of all hope, or of the race". Notable stories of this type include "Painwise", in which a space explorer has been altered to be immune to pain but finds such an existence intolerable, and "A Momentary Taste of Being", in which the true purpose of humanity, found on a distant planet, renders individual human life entirely pointless.

Another major theme is the tension between free will and biological determinism, or reason and sexual desire. "Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death", one of the rare SF stories in which no humans appear, describes an alien creature's romantic rationalizations for the brutal instincts that drive its life cycle; "The Screwfly Solution" suggests that humans might similarly rationalize a plague of murderous sexual insanity. Sex in Tiptree's writing is frankly portrayed, a sometimes playful but more often threatening force.

Before the revelation of Sheldon's identity, Tiptree was often referred to as unusually feminist for a male science fiction writer — particularly for "The Women Men Don't See", a story of two women who are visited by aliens and, rather than being abducted, go willingly to escape their limited opportunities on Earth. However, Sheldon's view of sexual politics could be ambiguous, as in the somewhat colorless and ruthless society of female clones in "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?"

Sheldon's two novels, produced toward the end of her career, were not as critically well received as her best-known stories but continued to explore similar themes. Some of her best-regarded work can be found in the collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, available in paperback as of 2004.

Death

Sheldon continued writing under the Tiptree pen name for another decade. On May 19, 1987, at age 71, Sheldon took the life of her 84-year-old, nearly blind husband and then took her own. (Contrary to rumor, her husband did not have Alzheimer's Disease.) They were found dead, hand in hand in bed, in their Virginia home. According to biographer Julie Phillips, the suicide note Sheldon left was written years earlier, and saved until needed. In an interview with Charles Platt in the early 1980s Sheldon spoke of her emotional problems and previous suicide attempts. Much of her work contains dark and pessimistic elements, which in retrospect can be seen as reflective of her troubled emotions.

The James Tiptree, Jr. Award is given in her honor each year for a work of science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender; funds for the award are raised in part by bake sales.

Quotes about James Tiptree, Jr

  • "James Tiptree's surface was often airy and at times hilarious, and her control of genre conventions allowed her to convey the bleakness of her abiding insights in tales that remain seductively readable; but she was, in the end, incapable of dissimulation." — from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, by John Clute and Peter Nicholls
  • "Sheldon was simply one of the best short-story writers of our day....She has already had an enormous impact on upcoming generations of SF writers. Her footprints are all over cyberpunk turf (...)" — Gardner Dozois, in Locus magazine, 1987
  • "Her stories and novels are humanistic, while her deep concern for male-female (even human-alien) harmony ran counter to the developing segregate-the-sexes drive amongst feminist writers; What her work brought to the genre was a blend of lyricism and inventiveness, as if some lyric poet had rewritten a number of clever SF standards and then passed them on to a psychoanalyst for final polish." — Brian Aldiss, Trillion Year Spree
  • "'Tip' was a crucial part of modern SF's maturing process (...)'He'(...) wrote powerful fiction challenging readers' assumptions about everything, especially sex and gender." — Suzy McKee Charnas, The Women's Review of Books
  • "[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, Khatru

Bibliography

Short story collections

Timeline of Stories

  • 1968
    • 'The Mother Ship' (later retitled 'Mamma Come Home') (novelette)
    • 'Pupa Knows Best' (later retitled 'Help') (novelette)
    • 'Birth of a Salesman' (short story)
    • 'Fault' (short story)
  • 1969
    • 'Beam Us Home' (short story)
    • 'The Last Flight of Doctor Ain' (short story)
    • 'Your Haploid Heart' (novelette)
    • 'The Snows Are Melted, The Snows Are Gone' (novelette)
    • 'Parimutuel Planet' (later retitled 'Faithful to Thee, Terra, in Our Fashion') (novelette)
  • 1970
    • 'Last Night and Every Night' (short story)
    • 'The Man Doors Said Hello To' (short story)
    • 'I’m Too Big But I Love to Play' (novelette)
    • 'The Nightblooming Saurian' (short story)
  • 1971
    • 'The Peacefulness of Vivyan' (short story)
    • 'I’ll Be Waiting for You When the Swimming Pool Is Empty' (short story)
    • 'And So On, And So On' (short story)
    • 'Mother in the Sky with Diamonds' (novelette)
  • 1972
    • 'The Man Who Walked Home' (short story)
    • 'And I Have Come Upon This Place by Lost Ways' (novelette)
    • 'And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side' (short story)
    • 'On the Last Afternoon' (novella)
    • 'Painwise' (novelette)
    • 'Forever to a Hudson Bay Blanket' (short story)
    • 'Filomena & Greg & Rikki-Tikki & Barlow & the Alien' (later retitled 'All the Kinds of Yes') (novelette)
    • 'The Milk of Paradise' (short story)
    • 'Amberjack' (short story)
    • 'Through a Lass Darkly' (short story)
  • 1973
  • 1974
    • 'Her Smoke Rose Up Forever' (novelette)
    • 'Angel Fix' (novelette, under the name 'Raccoona Sheldon')
  • 1975
    • 'A Momentary Taste of Being' (novella)
    • Warm Worlds and Otherwise (collection of 12 stories, with an introduction by Robert Silverberg)
  • 1976
    • 'Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!' (short story, under the name Raccoona Sheldon)
    • 'Beaver Tears' (short story, under the name Raccoona Sheldon)
    • 'She Waits for All Men Born' (short story)
    • 'Houston, Houston, Do You Read?' (novella)
    • 'The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats' (novelette)
  • 1977
  • 1978
    • 'We Who Stole the Dream' (novelette)
    • Star Songs of an Old Primate (collection of 7 stories, with an introduction by Ursula K. Le Guin)
    • 'Up the Walls of the World' (novel)
  • 1980
    • 'Slow Music' (novella)
    • 'A Source of Innocent Merriment' (short story)
  • 1981
    • 'Excursion Fare' (novelette)
    • 'Lirios: A Tale of the Quintana Roo' (later retitled 'What Came Ashore at Lirios') (novelette)
    • Out of the Everywhere, and Other Extraordinary Visions (collection of eight previously published stories, plus 2 new stories:)
      • 'Out of the Everywhere' (novelette)
      • 'With Delicate Mad Hands' (novella)
  • 1982
    • 'The Boy Who Waterskied to Forever' (short story)
  • 1983
    • 'Beyond the Dead Reef' (novelette)
  • 1985
    • 'Morality Meat' (novelette, under the name Racoona Sheldon)
    • 'The Only Neat Thing to Do' (novella)
    • 'All This and Heaven Too' (novelette)
    • Byte Beautiful: 8 Science Fiction Stories (collection of eight stories, with an introduction by Michael Bishop)
  • 1986
    • 'Our Resident Djinn' (short story)
    • 'Good Night, Sweethearts' (novella)
    • 'Collision' (novella)
    • The Starry Rift (collection of three stories)
    • Tales of the Quintana Roo (collection of three stories, set in the Yucatan peninsula)
  • 1987
    • 'Second Going' (novelette)
    • 'Yanqui Doodle' (novelette)
    • 'In Midst of Life' (novelette)
  • 1988
    • 'Backward, Turn Backward' (novella)
    • 'The Earth Doth Like a Snake Renew'(novellette)
    • 'The Color of Neanderthal Eyes' (novella)
    • Crown of Stars (collection of nine previously published stories, plus one new story:)
      • 'Come Live with Me' (novelette)
  • 1990
  • 1996
    • Neat Sheets: The Poetry of James Tiptree, Jr. (collection of 19 previously unpublished poems and a short play, with an introduction by Karen Joy Fowler)
  • 2000
    • Meet Me at Infinity (a collection of three stories and 35 essays and articles, with an introduction by Jeffrey D. Smith, including two previously unpublished stories:)
    • 'The Trouble Is Not in Your Set' (short story)
    • 'Trey of Hearts' (short story)

Novels

Other collections

  • Neat Sheets: The Poetry of James Tiptree, Jr. (1996)
  • Meet Me at Infinity (a collection of previously uncollected and unpublished fiction, essays and other non-fiction, with much biographical information, edited by Tiptree's friend Jeffrey D. Smith) (2000)

Adaptations

Major awards

References

Further reading

External links

Biographical references

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