Spotlight on James Tiptree, Jr. / Alice Sheldon

In honor of the 100th anniversary of James Tiptree, Jr./Alice Sheldon’s birth on August 24th, please enjoy this encore post from our Queering SFF column, originally published in 2012 during Pride Month.

The history of James Tiptree, Jr. is fairly well documented in our field. There are biographies, posthumous collections, an award named for her, as well as the long memory of letters, fanzines, and the people still living who knew Tiptree and, later, knew Alice Sheldon, the woman behind him. Tiptree/Sheldon won every major genre award, some more than once; she is now being inducted, as of 2012, into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

However, the discussion of Tiptree/Sheldon as a queer writer is often glossed over——I was, until reading a letter from her that Joanna Russ reprinted in The Country You Have Never Seen, unaware of her sexuality. In fact, the complicated nature of her expression of sexuality and the boundaries of her world often seem to prevent folks from talking about herself-identification as a lesbian. Not only was Tiptree/Sheldon a major writer of speculative fiction that dealt with complex ideas about gender and identity expression, she was also herself a queer——and potentially genderqueer, in today’s parlance——writer. As Julie Phillips says in her biography of Tiptree/Sheldon, “Alice never had an affair with a woman; she was always drawn to girls and women who didn’t return her love. She loved men, slept with them, married them, depended on them, sought their interest and attention. But loving women is one of her stories, a submerged plot within the public plot of her two marriages, another secret identity” (61).

During the Pride Month Extravaganza, I want to honor those who have gone before——and James Tiptree, Jr., or Alice Sheldon, or Raccoona Sheldon, is one of the greatest who have paved the way.

Tiptree/Sheldon is also hard to talk about, for a variety of reasons——not limited to how immense the history of her work, her life, and her death are. For example, on a recent Galactic Suburbia podcast (#59), a discussion of what pronouns to use for Tiptree/Sheldon came up; the interplay of performance, identity, and self tied up in how Tiptree/Sheldon portrayed themself is hard to unwind, even now. I will use “she/her” pronouns, for the most part, but keep in mind that Alice Sheldon lived in the public eye of the science fiction field as a man for years——writing as a man when she chose to do so, and writing as Raccoona Sheldon otherwise. She also wrote passionately and privately, in great anguish, of her desire to have a male body and her frustration with being a woman: “my damned oh my damned body how can I escape it I play woman woman I cannot live or breathe I cannot even make things I am going crazy, thank god for liquor [……] I am no damned woman wasteful god not to have made me a man” (85). She used female pronouns for herself as Alice Sheldon, but the presence of the masculine self remains and should be remembered——respected as, potentially, much more than just a pen-name.

There’s a reason that the James Tiptree, Jr. Award is for fiction that “expands or explores our understanding of gender.” Her own performance of gender in public as Tiptree and in private as Sheldon certainly expanded the SF field’s understanding of gender as a whole, when her real-life identity was revealed and the two were conflated——though for her, the revelation was painful and unwanted. She is quoted in her biography as having written, “My secret world had been invaded and the attractive figure of Tiptree——he did strike several people as attractive——was revealed as nothing but an old lady in Virginia” (3). The male identity of Tiptree was vital to Sheldon, and discussing her work without discussing the way that she also inhabited a male self would mean ignoring one of the most significant parts of her life——the male self that “let her play [……] gave her space to love women (though not always to like them) [……and] said things she didn’t have words for, in the days when no one wrote honestly about women’s experience” (5). Her gender and sexuality informed her work, undeniably, and that work remains one of the most startling and awesome oeuvres in all of science fiction. Often provocative, often problematic, Tiptree/Sheldon’s work makes you think——incites rage, desire, sorrow, and understanding. Without her work, his work, the field of feminist and queer speculative fiction today would not exist the way that we know it.

And, in trying to spotlight Tiptree/Sheldon’s work, the simplest way seems to be to discuss various publications and materials that the reader should look to, if they’d like to know more. I could likely do a year of feature posts just on Tiptree/Sheldon’s work and life. I regret having only this spotlight post to fit it all in as well as I can (though, of course, nothing says I can’t come back to this later after the “Reading Joanna Russ” project is complete…).


In The Country You Have Never Seen by Joanna Russ—One of the most powerful pieces to come from Sheldon’s pen, for me, was a letter she wrote to Joanna Russ that I referenced above. I wept after reading it, and it continues to wrench at my heart each time I re-read it. Having devoured Tiptree/Sheldon’s fiction and been challenged by it, loved it, identified with much of it as a feminist writing and reading SF, discovering that she herself was queer——and in the particular way she phrases it——was both ecstatically revelatory and deeply upsetting. This letter is also quoted in Julie Phillips’ biography, though in less detail.

Russ wrote to the magazine Extrapolation (spring 1990 issue) in response to an article on Tiptree, quoting a letter that Sheldon had sent her. In doing so, she also publicly noted that she was donating all of their correspondence to the Lesbian Herstory Archives, to remind history that “Sheldon, like [Virginia] Woolf, was married and happily so but she was a lesbian” (292). The letter she quoted was as follows:

“Just been reading the Coming Out stories ed by Stanley & Wolfe (with a lot of Adrienne Rich) and it occurred to me to wonder if I ever told you in so many words that I am a Lesbian –— or at least as close as one can come to being one never having had a successful love with any of the women I’ve loved, and being now too old & ugly to dare try. Oh, had 65 years been different! I like some men a lot, but from the start, before I knew anything it was always girls and women who lit me up. (Oh, the sad, foolish, lovely tales I’m going to have to put down some day!)

I just thought I’d mention it, since you seem to have found yourself. (Possibly my reward for years of stasis & misery is to be the ideal confidante!)” (291)

There are layers of history bound up in Sheldon’s letter and her self-description: the impossibility of identifying as lesbian before there were the words to do so, the “stasis & misery” of lacking an expression of her identity. This letter reminds us, across time, that the road to where we are today——with a series like Queering SFF, and all of these lovely queer stories——was paved with other folks’ suffering and courage.


Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree, Jr.—This is the best-of collection of stories by James Tiptree, Jr. and Raccoona Sheldon released by Tachyon Press in 2004. It is an updated version of the previous release from 1990, and collects 18 of Tiptree/Sheldon’s most significant stories. Of it, the New York Times Book Review said: “There is just one great collection of Tiptree’s fiction still in print… Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, from Tachyon Publications.”

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is the ideal starting place for a reader new to Tiptree/Sheldon’s work, but it’s also great for someone already familiar with it——to have all of the major works in one place, in a big, delightful, challenging book, is wonderful no matter which sort of reader you are, or how you’re coming to it. It’s also a handsomely crafted, sturdy thing, running over 500 pages——Tachyon does great work, and I continue to be thankful that these stories have been put together and reprinted, both for new readers and old who want to have a go-to collection of Tiptree/Sheldon fiction.

(For the beginner, or the curious, Tiptree/Sheldon’s Wikipedia entry has a table correlating stories published to collections they were gathered in——an excellent bibliographic resource, especially when matched to the ISFDB’s database.)


James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips—I’ve already been drawing quotes from this book for the entire post, but I’d like to make special note of how astounding, how impressive, and how important Julie Phillips’ biography of Tiptree/Sheldon is. The text is extensively researched and cross-referenced, but it reads so smoothly, with such clear prose, that it’s almost like reading a novel. Rarely have I read a biography with such flair and honesty that was engaging from first page to last; and to have the subject of the text be the inimitable and awesome James Tiptree, Jr./Alice Sheldon is double wonderful. Her history——from a childhood spent with African explorer parents through wild years into the twilight of her life——is huge, crammed with astounding detail and unbelievable wonder, as well as sorrow and tragedy.

For anyone who wants to know more about Sheldon/Tiptree after reading the fiction, I couldn’t recommend a book more than Julie Phillips’ biography. In particular, the book pays a great deal of attention to her sense of identity, to her sexuality and gender——to her inner self. The above quotes are only snippets of the complex trajectory of self-definition that Phillips charts in loving detail across the many years of Sheldon’s life.


As far as things go, I assume that many or most readers of this series are already familiar with James Tiptree, Jr. and Alice Sheldon. However, for the first spotlight of our Pride Month Extravaganza, I could think of no better subject——no one else quite so multifarious, inspiring, and vital; no one else with such history and so much to say, through her stories and her life, to us today as readers and writers of queer speculative fiction.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. Also, comics. She can be found on Twitter or her website.


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