four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
25-Nov-Dec-2006
user_rating: 
0

The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

A-James TiptreeTo her fans and literary colleagues, Alice B. Sheldon was James Tiptree, Jr., who wrote compelling science fiction about women; in her hometown of McLean, Virginia, she was an unassuming middle-aged woman. When Sheldon was younger, she had been a military veteran, a CIA officer, and a chicken farmer. Upon receiving a doctorate in psychology, she took up writing. She was an atheist who focused her life on plumbing the depths of her own mind—though she had a strong marriage to Huntington "Ting" Sheldon. She made a suicide pact with her ailing husband, shooting him before turning the gun on herself in 1987. In this definitive biography, Julie Phillips uncovers this mysterious, remarkable life.
St. Martin’s. 469 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 0312203853.

Newsday 4.5 of 5 Stars
"In elegant prose and with consummate understanding, Phillips shows us a life that was full, rich, and deeply contradictory, never linear, never resolved, and never pre-plotted. … This piercingly smart, gracefully sympathetic biography maps the frontier lands between possible and impossible worlds, reader and subject, a woman and her many drafts of herself." Bethany Schneider

Seattle Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"From the opening montage of contradictory scenes in her subject’s amazing life, to its copious citations of sources, Julie Phillips’s biography of science fiction’s trickster genius is a wonder. … She renders an accurate portrait of a writer who refused to be simply one thing." Nisi Shawl

Baltimore Sun 4 of 5 Stars
"If there’s a flaw to her book, it’s that Sheldon’s life is almost over-documented—Phillips had so much material to work with, so many letters and journals, that the shape and import of the life sometimes fades into a blur of facts. … But this is an utterly absorbing and provocative book, one that should delight science fiction fans but should also open the eyes of the general reader to the mystery and wonder not only of the genre but also of the people who create it." Charles Matthews

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars
"[Such a complex biography] could have gone awry. But Phillips’s chronicle of a spirited girl who grew up to be one of the vital men in science fiction is a crystalline reckoning of an enthralling life." John Mark Eberhart

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"[Phillips’s] writing achieves its own kind of narrative tension, a spell that obliges even the readers already clued in to Tiptree’s secret to turn the book’s pages. … This thoughtful and meticulous biography provides both the expert and the novice with a Rosetta stone to the Tiptree catalog—an opportunity to extract from these stories the many layers of personal resonance they once held only for Sheldon herself." Dave Itzkoff

Critical Summary

Julie Phillips, a journalist, took a decade to complete James Tiptree, Jr., her first book. Drawing on Alice Sheldon’s voluminous papers and more than 40 existing interviews with the author, Phillips ably handles the contradictions of Sheldon’s personae, negotiating with uncommon grace and confidence the complexities of a woman best known as a man. Although Sheldon’s readers may already know the story behind her strange life, Phillips keeps the material fresh. James Tiptree, Jr. will find fans even among those who have never read science fiction. The quality of the writing and Phillips’s insights are apparent from the single criticism—that the biographer may have delved too deeply into Sheldon’s life.

By James Tiptree, Jr.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (1990): This "best of" collection includes favorite SF short stories, including "The Girl Who Was Plugged," "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" and "The Women Men Don’t See."