For fans of science fiction in the late 1960s and '70s, the stories of James Tiptree Jr. were marked by a mixture of idealism and doom: rockets to the stars, humanity on the brink, and anxiety on a cosmic scale.
But there was this too in Tiptree's work, in the words of writer Robert Silverberg: "unexpected abysses of experience," "questions of courage," and "pain and suffering and loss." No wonder Silverberg compared Tiptree to Hemingway: "[L]ean, muscular, supple" is how Silverberg described the "prevailing masculinity" of Tiptree's prose, which is why he found the suggestion that was then making the rounds -- that the elusive, never seen Tiptree was in fact female -- "absurd."
Absurd, maybe, but the suggestion turned out to be true. In 1976, James Tiptree Jr. was discovered to be Alice Sheldon, a woman living in northern Virginia with her husband, "Ting." Tiptree's closest associates through years of correspondence -- among them, fellow writers Ursula K. Le Guin, Harlan Ellison, and Philip K. Dick -- were shocked and delighted. More shocking and less delightful was the manner of Sheldon's death. In 1987, she shot her ailing husband -- she'd talked him years earlier into making a suicide pact -- and then she shot herself. James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (St. Martin's Press) is Julie Phillips' engrossing biography. But "double" hardly covers such a multifaceted life.
Alice Sheldon was born in 1915, the only daughter of a Chicago real-estate investor and his socially prominent wife. Herbert Bradley was a quiet but loving father; Mary was a glamorous and more complicated mother: an adventurer and writer herself. Together they doted on their daughter. Together they took her with them on African safaris. They enrolled her in a finishing school in Switzerland. They saw to her education at Sarah Lawrence. What they didn't see to was Sheldon's elopement with an unstable and struggling writer named Bill Davey.
When that marriage failed, Sheldon joined the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps in World War II, and she met Huntington Denton Sheldon, the one (open) love of her life. Together they worked for the CIA. But closed to outsiders were Sheldon's crippling manic-depression, her profound sense of alienation, her masochistic sexual fantasies, her craving for female affection, her creative difficulties, and in what was to be a pivotal component of Sheldon's later life, her reliance on drugs -- by Sheldon's own reckoning, in one two-week period: Dexedrine, codeine, Percodan, Valium, Demerol, and a synthetic form of morphine.
After earning a Ph.D. in psychology (and failing to make a career of it), Sheldon, in middle age, turned to science fiction. She'd always loved reading it, and she'd always considered it a guilty pleasure. To write it, she hid behind a pen name (two pen names, if you count "Raccoona Sheldon"). But once exposed, she lost her nerve and her way. The stories suffered. Sheldon suffered. Until, in 1987 ... you know the story. Julie Phillips tells it brilliantly. Of Note This Week: Memphians have a chance to welcome award-winning poet, memoirist, and native East Tennessean Mark Doty when he returns to his onetime home town Thursday-Friday, September 14th-15th. He'll be reading from his works at Rhodes College on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in Blount Auditorium at Buckman Hall. A booksigning follows. For more information, call Rhodes professor Tina Barr at 843-3979. On Friday, Doty will inaugurate this year's River City Writers Series at the University of Memphis. He'll be interviewed (11:30 a.m.-12:45 p.m.) in Patterson Hall, Room 456, and he'll conduct a poetry workshop (3-5 p.m.) in Patterson Hall, Room 403. For more information, call U of M professor John Bensko at 678-2651. All three of Doty's appearances are free and open to the public.