August 21, 2016

Review: James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

More than forty years ago, James Tiptree Jr. wrote some stories that pretty much turned the world of science fiction upside down. Stories about women, and gender, and gender identity, and feminism. He won awards and corresponded with many SFF people, including Joanna Russ and Ursula K. LeGuin. In 1976, after his mother's death, it was revealed that "he" was not a man at all, but rather a woman, Alice Bradley Sheldon.

This is a rich, complex biography of a complex woman. I remember reading somewhere that the author took ten years to write it, and I can well believe it. The amount of research required for this must have been incredible. Julie Phillips had access to all of Alice's journals and letters--she, or he, was quite the letter-writer, an art I think has been sadly lost. The portrait that is painted is that of a troubled, complicated person, possibly manic depressive and obsessed with death, born too early for feminism and never at peace in her own body, who eventually killed her husband and herself. Yet she left behind an incredible legacy of stories that are still turning the field on its head today. (For evidence of this, read a book published just last year, Letters to Tiptree--I reviewed it here--where many of today's top female SFF writers compose missives to Alice B. Sheldon, explaining how she inspired them.)

This is one of the best biographies I have ever read. It doesn't read like a novel--it's thorough and methodical, and if you're the kind of reader who wants a swift pace and a sure resolution, you won't find it here. Some might say it's slow and plodding. But I found the book and its subject fascinating. This book won several well-deserved awards, including the 2007 Hugo for Best Related Work.

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