Friday, August 26, 2011

The Female Man 2

Been reading Julie Phillips' biography of the mysterious & tragic JAMES TIPTREE JR.: THE DOUBLE LIFE OF ALICE B. SHELDON (2006). It's an amazing book. It was an amazing life.
Some background: James Tiptree Jr. was 1 of the most acclaimed science-fiction writers of the '70s. An older man believed 2 B enjoying his retirement by traveling around the world, Tiptree supposedly had previously worked 4 both the military & the CIA. In his spare time he was writing some startling SF -- & winning summa the SF field's awards 4 it.
But he never made appearances at SF conventions, no1 had ever met him, the editors who bot his stories knew almost nothing about him Xcept what "Tip" revealed in rare interviews.
When Tip's mother died late in 1976, some of his fans added the hints up & tried 2 track the recluse down. Tiptree was revealed as 61-year-old Alice Sheldon of McLean, Va. -- a research psychologist, former WAC, former military photo-analyst -- & SF's hottest new writer.
All this is covered in depth in Phillips' book, along with MUCH more. I knew enuf about Tiptree's background that after reading the intro I dived right in2 the middle, when "Alli" Sheldon started writing SF late in 1967.
...& it's all freaking riveting. I gulped the last 1/2 of the book down over the past coupla days.
Alli started writing SF sort-of as a joke -- as a way of blowing off steam while she went 4 her doctorate degree in psychology. She wrote 1/2adozen stories, never Xpecting NE of them 2 sell, & stuck on them a pen-name she hoped editors would 4get.
Instead, they bought the stories & she kept writing, growing braver & more direct, more Xperimental & grimmer.
The 1st Tiptree story I ever read was "Painwise" (1972), which comes on like a sort of loopy psychedelic cartoon -- all fluorescently bright colors & silliness & alien characters with cute names like Bushbaby & Ragglebomb. It'd make a great animated movie or graphic novel ... all the way up 2 the grim black&white finale.... Supposedly some of Tiptree's earliest stories R ALL bright colors & silliness. I guess I haven't found NE of those yet.
Tip got serious fast, tho: "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain" (1969) follows a doctor as he circles the world spreading a fatal virus that will kill humanity -- in an effort 2 save the Earth.
"A Momentary Taste of Being" (1975) is a dark & brutal 1st-contact tale, & 1 of the grimmest & most desolate pieces of writing ever published in SF. It's freaking brilliant. I think it'd make a great movie -- it's scary as hell, & nobody gets chopped up.... & all the material 4 a movie is there -- you'd just havta stuff the pages of the story in2 the camera....
Phillips follows Tiptree/Sheldon thru all this, plus includes the childhood that shaped the adult Alli turned out 2 B -- the early expeditions in Central Africa with her famous parents, her early marriage 2 a "drunk, doomed poet," her struggles with depression, & a lot more. Phillips gets the whole amazing story told in less than 400 pgs.
I have some minor complaints: I think Phillips skimps on the last 5 to 10 years of Alli's life, after her true identity was revealed. This is all covered in less than 50 pgs, leading up 2 Sheldon's suicide in mid-1987, right after shooting her longtime husband Hunt Sheldon. (The couple had made a suicide pact in 1979, promising each other 2 "go" together once their quality of life dropped 2 a certain level. In '87 "Ting" was blind but otherwise in fair health; there is some indication in this book that he wasn't ready to "go" yet, & that he was scared of what his wife might do as she fought her depression & declining health.)
Tho the details during these years R covered in some depth, I think Phillips' "foreshortening" reinforces some cliches that have evolved about Tiptree's work. One is that the later work isn't of as high a quality as Tiptree's 1st 10 years. True, the later stories Rn't as startling & they R a bit sentimental -- but they R also mellower, more lyrical -- there's some real beauty in some of them.
In her last 10 years Sheldon wrote almost 2-dozen new stories, + a novel, BRIGHTNESS FALLS FROM THE AIR (1985). The stories assembled in THE STARRY RIFT (1986) R pretty great, & BRIGHTNESS -- tho a bit cutesy in places -- is a heckuva story with some gorgeous visuals.
& then there's the overlooked "A Source of Innocent Merriment" (1980), which I think tells much the same story as "Momentary Taste of Being" & gets it across in a fraction of the space. But the impact is just as big.
But don't let my complaints stop you, Bcos there's so much more: There's the SF field's reaction when Tiptree was "unmasked" -- Joanna Russ propositioned her! Literary agent Virginia Kidd virtually fell in love with Tiptree & then became Alli's agent. & Ursula K. LeGuin was a sorta all-seeing all-forgiving 2nd Mother 4 Alice Sheldon.
There is much more. If you're an SF fan, this book is a treasury of letters & remembrances from the many people in SF who Tip/Alli's life touched. Parts of it will make you laff out loud in recognition of summa the weirder aspects of human nature.
It's also a very vivid portrait of a brilliant, creative woman in a lotta pain. Alice Sheldon suffered heart attacks & arthritis, depressions & the heavy impact of a mix of prescription drugs, & who knows what-all else. & when she couldn't go on she killed herself & took her husband with her.
I don't understand why she couldn't just Write The Stories. But 2 understand that, you'd have 2 B Alli. Or Tip....


Perplexio said...

I've read a lot of the short sci-fi of Bradbury, some of Philip K. Dick's material, some of Asimov's shorter works, and even a handful of Harlan Ellison's short fiction but I've never read any of Tiptree's work. I'll have to check some of it out. Thanks for the recommendation.

TAD said...

Plex! Thanx 4 visiting....
Tiptree's best-of is called HER SMOKE ROSE UP FOREVER, & it's got lotsa Good Stuff, tho I maybe woulda dropped 2 or 3 stories 2 fit-in "Painwise" & "Innocent Merriment" & "The Only Neat Thing to Do." But what's in there is mostly Pretty Great. Good luck....

Gardenhead said...

yeah I am going to definitely check this out. getting into genre fiction again after spending my 20s being snobby about it (classic youthful idiocy)