Thursday, December 28, 2006

LOVING THE ALIEN

This recent biography of Alice Sheldon, who wrote science fiction in the sixties and seventies under the nom de plume James Tiptree Jr., is an engrossing story, even for those with no interest in the genre. It's one of the best literary biographies I've read in years, telling the story of a unique woman who was ahead of her time in more ways than one. Sheldon led a life that in some ways charts the progress of American women and feminism in the twentieth century, but her life was hardly tidy and predictable. At six she was living in Africa with her parents, and illustrated a children's book written by her mother (a fiction writer who was a two time finalist for the O. Henry award and cast a long shadow over Sheldon's artistic aspirations). Alice was a debutante, a bohemian painter, and was among the first group who served in the WACs in World War Two (Phillips' account of the shameful treatment these women faced from the male troops they served beside is a historical episode that deserves a book of its own). Later, she briefly worked for the CIA, and studied experimental psychology before sending in some science fiction stories under the name James Tiptree Jr. to a magazine on a whim (though she'd read SF avidly her whole life). The obvious richness of her unique life experience and her skill at playing new changes on well worn genre conventions quickly garnered a following, she won several of the top awards in the field, and carried on long correspondences with SF icons like Ursula LeGuin, Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison before finally being outed as a woman. Julie Phillips tells her story with brio, insight and depth and reveals a woman who paradoxically could only really express her true voice under a man's name. By a happy coincidence Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, a recent collection of most of Tiptree's best stories (including her Hugo and Nebula award winners) is now available in paperback. It's fascinating to read such feminist stories as "The Women Men Don't See" in light of her biography, and her story "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" has been acknowledged by William Gibson as an influence on his own cyberpunk fiction. Well worth checking out.

Here's an interview with author Julie Phillips about the book.