REVIEW: James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips
[EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is a guest review by Fred Kiesche, blogger extraordinaire of The Eternal Golden Braid.]
REVIEW SUMMARY: Hopefully will revitalize the number of Tiptree books in print.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The ups and downs of world traveler, egg farmer, intelligence officer and occasional author Alice B. Sheldon in her multiple identities.
PROS: Should prove to skeptics out there that there is more to SF than Star Wars.
CONS: Ignores much of the field and its history, and does not give a sense of where Sheldon fit in.
BOTTOM LINE: Does not live up to the hype.
I was really looking forward to this book. I had read several reviews, and, without fail, they were glowing.So, when the kind folks at SF Signal offered me a chance to do a guest review, I jumped at it. The book arrived, I opened it, and…
What a waste of time.
Sorry folks, this one did not work for me. I’m familiar with Sheldon’s works in science fiction, both under the names James Tiptree, Jr. and Raccoona Sheldon. The facts behind her/his existence have been known for years, and I’ll point you towards this Wikipedia entry if you need to be brought up to speed.
James Tiptree/Alice Sheldon/Raccoona Sheldon would be a fascinating subject. What Charles Platt did in twelve-some-odd pages in the second volume of his collection of interviews was a better job. Concise, but detailed.
Where Platt was concise, Phillips meanders and wanders. For example, the author drops the occasional hint that Sheldon had major problems. There’s a one-line throwaway that she was diagnosed with bipolar late in her life. There are few references when she was a teenager of banging her head against the bathroom wall of her school to relieve headaches. There are several references to addiction to drugs. However, the author fails to concentrate on this and instead spends endless (endless!) pages of spouting pseudo-feminist theories of poor oppressed Allie.
I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy it. The woman came from money. She married money (twice). I know, directly or indirectly, dozens of women from her same era who did a hell of a lot more with a hell of a lot less. She appears, more, just not to have wanted to commit to do anything. She wanted to be a writer. A painter. Went to school, got sidetracked. Got married. Did not want to work out problems, got divorced by indifference. Went to another school. Drifted into the WAC’s. Drifted into a different branch. Got bored, married again. Ran a chicken farm for two years, not realizing it would actually be work (Toms River, NJ, you all). Drifted into the CIA. Drifted out of the CIA. Drifted into graduate school…You get the idea.
Oppressed member of a minority? Or, a person who, due to “class” and mentality/mental problems just couldn’t hack it and hid behind a series of masks (a woman–Alice Sheldon–who pretends to be a man–James Tiptree–who pretends to be a woman–Raccoona Sheldon). Many women worked in the field of science fiction before Sheldon, even more worked in the field during her career and many have followed. What made her special? What made her unique. You won’t find the answers here; I suggest you dig around for her (mostly) out of print works and see what made her tick.
Biographies about (or autobiographies by) writers can be minefields. Think about the subject: You are writing about somebody who spends day after day in a room, starting at a piece of paper or a screen (depending on when we are talking about). The “action” is inside. For a biographical work about an author to succeed, you either have to make the life interesting or really get into the creative process.
Unfortunately, for me, this work did neither. The best that can be hoped from this is that we’ll see a resurgence in works by “Tiptree”. Maybe even Hollywood will dip its toe into her works (much as it has mucked about with the works of Philip K. Dick).
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