Sunday, August 19, 2007

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

I will confess something: even though his stories were widely acclaimed as I was growing up, and I'm positive I've read many of them, I do not remember any of James Tiptree's stories. Perhaps they were too difficult for an adolescent, or perhaps their themes just slipped by me --- I had then, as now, a preference for hard science fiction, not social science speculation.

But Alice Sheldon's life I found completely fascinating. Here was a woman both beautiful and intelligent (how many of her fans were both?), and a high achiever in many ways, yet never happy. Born to adventurous parents who were world travelers, writers, and successful socially, she perhaps felt too much pressure to live up to her mother's and her own expectation. But Julie Philips, in weaving Sheldon's life, tries too hard to turn all those advantages (wealth, upbringing, beauty, intelligence) into disadvantages:

Alice had the bad luck to be extremely pretty. If she hadn't been, she might have given up the popularity contest. She might have studied harder, prepared for a career, and not cared what people thought. She and the other awkward, bright girls might have been friends. Instead she cared about appearances, practiced femininity and flirtation, and got addicted to the rewards for being a pretty girl.

Maybe that could be an excuse when you're 12, 14, 16, or even 25. But when you're in your 60s and still addicted to the rewards for being a pretty girl, I think you have to start taking responsibility for your own life, and I think Philips was being too generous to her subject when she pontificates thus.

But perhaps Philips wasn't generous enough when she glosses over Sheldon's mental illness (she appears to have at least a mild case of manic-depression), addiction to drugs (amphetamines being the main one), and her tragic case of being gay but born in the wrong time, where coming out would not have been either trendy or bearable, especially to a woman with all the "advantages" she had.

Philips spends well over half the pages in this long book on the pre-Tiptree Sheldon, and it definitely takes that much time to understand the remarkable person Alice Sheldon was, independent of her eventual career as a much-celebrated science fiction author. She was in many ways, a woman pioneer who was perhaps not recognized for being one of the first women enlistees in the World War 2 army, early work with the CIA and photoanlysis, one of the first women to get a post-graduate degree of any sort, in short, an extremely gifted individual.

Her ability to write truly shone, however, only while she was using her pseudonym, for which she is most famous. Her biography certainly justified it: the time in the army, the facility with camping and the outdoors, her life in the CIA... It was no wonder she fooled so many other writers into believing that Tiptree existed and was indeed a man. Reading some of the flirtatious exchanges between Tiptree and Ursula Le Guin, for instance, makes me want to dig through all of Sheldon's correspondence. (You have to remember, this was someone who wrote a letter a week to several friends at a time when e-mail didn't exist!) What was surprising was that her writing suffered once she was outed, despite the honors bestowed her by science fiction fandom, a community proud of its tolerance and open-mindedness. A lot of this, ultimately, was laid by Philips on the door of her "advantageous upbringing", which I believe to be bollocks. It was clear by this time that Sheldon shied away from any activity where failure could blow her up, and hence needed the protection of a psuedonym to write with freedom. That her personality was constructed this way was perhaps the result of her mother's continuous achievements that led her to feel pressured to achieve, but perhaps also a result of the all-too-common female situation: most women seem to have so many choices in their lives that they have a hard time picking one thing to do really well (Sheldon's biography definitely demonstrates that), while most men I know (or have read biographies of), seem to pursue the one thing they love or are good at single-mindedly, to the cost of everything else. That difference might account for the failure to adapt to success that Sheldon had --- she always had the choice to retreat to herself and attempt different things, while a man in her situation probably would think he had no choice but to work even harder.

The ultimate tragic ending of her life is well known, though not the details. Philips, unfortunately shies away from the fact that ultimately, Sheldon murdered her husband before committing suicide. I was vaguely aware of it, but other narratives had led me to believe that this was a suicide pact, but the Philips' analysis, if correct shows this to be murder. Worse, pre-meditated murder. Philips comes up with all sorts of excuses for Sheldon, but ultimately, this story in the end is one of mental illness mixed amongst brilliance and hard work.

A fascinating life, worth reading even if you're not a feminist, and definitely worth paying paperback prices for if you can't get it out of your local library. (Note: the paperback will not be out for a year)
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