On This Day

What James Tiptree Jr. Can Teach Us About the Power of The SF Community

Ordinarily when I write an On This Day tribute, I find a theme to discuss. When you get to James Tiptree, Jr., however, finding a single theme becomes difficult.

Tiptree was born a century ago, on August 24, 1915, and then again in a grocery store in 1967. Over her life she was known as Alice Bradley, Alice Bradley Davey, Major Alice Bradley Sheldon, and Dr. Alice B. Sheldon, and she wrote as both James Tiptree, Jr. and Raccoona Sheldon. Throughout her life she performed a high wire act that combined genderfluidity with mythmaking. Some writers and fans have found the Tiptree theme to center on gender, on feminist history, on the power gained from anonymity, on queer identities in SFF. Obviously none of these themes are incorrect; what I’m focusing on, however, is the extraordinary story of Tiptree’s relationship to the SF community as a whole.

Alice Sheldon was many things: a debutante, a painter, a WAC, a photo-intelligence officer, a low-level CIA spook, a poultry farmer, a behavioral psychologist. Throughout all that, she was a sci-fi fan. Each new path she tried seemed promising, but each time society would clamp back down on her for going beyond what a woman was supposed to be able to do.

I feel like a more succinct bio of Major Alice/Raccoona/Alli/Tiptree, PhD, is contained in this anecdote from her days at Sarah Lawrence, as related in Julie Phillips’ biography:

One night at two in the morning, Alice was in the art department trying to master photography under artificial light. She had on black velvet overalls and spike-heeled lizard pumps, and she was taking pictures of the department’s anatomy skeleton, which she had arranged so that it was reclining on the floor, reading the Sunday comics, and drinking a can of tomato juice through a straw. As she adjusted the lights she was interrupted by a “plump little girl in a pink wool skirt, Braemar sweater and pearls” who looked at the photo session, looked at Alice, and said, “You don’t live right.”

She spent years listening to Chicago high society, the rigid protocol of the military, the narrow minds of career-track academia, and stifling 1950s suburbia telling her she didn’t live right—until 1967, when Tiptree finally sprang from the mind of Alice Sheldon, formed by years of repression, misogyny, and thwarted ambition. While looking at a jar of Tiptree jam, Sheldon spoke the name of her alter ego: “James Tiptree.” Her husband, Huntington Sheldon, added the “Junior,” and over the next few years James Tiptree, Jr., produced a series of instant-classic stories and started racking up fans among sf readers and writers.

Now, if Sheldon has simply sent a few stories out under a nom de plume, that would be one thing. Even if Mr. Tiptree had won some awards, become well-respected, if his writing was studied and imitated by newer writers? That would have been fine. Sheldon could have kept the ruse up, the awards could have been mailed. But instead, after a lifetime of feeling like she couldn’t connect to people, James Tiptree became one of the most delightful letter-writers of the 20th Century.

First, when Tip received encouraging replies from John Campbell, Harry Harrison, and Frederik Pohl, he replied with all of Sheldon’s charm arsenal, and witty correspondences were born. Then Tip entered into the time honored sci-fi tradition of the fan letter, and sent a few heartfelt letters to Philip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin. In both cases, fandom soon turned into genuine friendship. While Tiptree was scared off by Dick’s request to collaborate on a novel, the correspondence with Le Guin continued for the rest of Tip’s life, and was punctuated by letters that are, frankly, adorable. Tip nicknamed Le Guin “Starbear” while Le Guin called Tip “Tree” and illustrated her letters with squid and jellyfish. The two opened up to each other about writing and family concerns, and the Alice-Sheldon-behind-the-curtain finally found the intimate female friendship she seemed to have always wanted—she just had to do it as a man.

After this initial welcome into the SF community—the most welcoming community she’d yet encountered—Tiptree kept up an extraordinary high wire act of correspondence with Joanna Russ, Harlan Ellison, Jeff Smith, Vonda McIntire, Judy Del-Rey, Anne McCaffrey, and Barry Malzberg.

Sometimes these letters were a bit fractious: Tip played up his masculinity in letters to people like Ellison and Pohl, but then misstepped and cracked a joke about the feminist movement in a letter to Joanna Russ, who angrily replied, “You aren’t one of the family, to joke like that—nor, if you were a woman, would you.” Tiptree was too embroiled in his life in fandom to admit his ruse, and he was also afraid of rejection, so he replied by calling herself “a crass, presumptuous, raucous-mouthed old man.”

Occasionally one of Tip’s friends would encourage him to go public, but as time went on Tip’s reactions became more and more panicked, as evidenced by this note to Harry Harrison:

As it is I’m so spooky that I get a cut-out to open my mailbox; if somebody really comes looking for me I’ll just take off for good…Saying this kind of thing hurts. Harry, there isn’t any interesting secret or goodie here at all, just one real neurotic…

One young fan, David Gerrold, went so far as to show up at the Sheldon’s door, where he was met by a somewhat flustered woman who insisted he had the wrong address. She felt terrible about having to turn him away, and later added a note to him in her will, “You looked fine. It killed me to be too scared to speak.”

Gerrold began to suspect the truth, said as much to some other fans, and then Tiptree received a letter from Anne McCaffrey reassuring him while she didn’t think Tiptree was female, “I could be wrong but then that never bothers me particularly. Someone else remarked that you prefer to be anonymous so I will leave it lay, as the saying goes.” And Le Guin chimed in with “I ‘know’ a Tree and it keeps its privacy, like most trees, and that is more than its right, that is its being…that is the Tree Way.” To Ellison, Tiptree confessed the truth: “I really am an escaped nun working in the FBI Gatorade concession.”

Theories flourished. Was Tiptree gay? A woman? A high-level spy? J.D. Salinger?? Henry Kissinger??? Tip himself started downplaying the “CIA” part of his ambiguous bio, and at a certain point, writing as a charming, sensitive, but still occasionally macho man didn’t work anymore. Especially with the feminist movement gaining strength, Sheldon began to feel more and more that she needed to pick a side. But which side? She’d never felt like a woman, she couldn’t be a man in person, she preferred spending time with men but hated misogyny. She decided to consciously invent a second persona, a woman this time, give her the leftover bits of personality that hadn’t already gone to Tiptree, and keep multiple correspondences in two different voices.

She possibly sabotaged the second character from the start by giving her the ridiculous name Raccoona, but also gave her the “real” last name of Sheldon, and the “real” first initial A. It’s interesting to note that where Tiptree’s early stories were met with encouragement and invitations to submit more material, Raccoona’s stories often received form rejections, and it was only after she began including letters of introduction from Tiptree that she began to see success. Were Raccoona’s stories just not as strong as Tiptree’s? Or were mid-20th-century editors more open to encouraging male authors with vague-but-sexy CIA backstories than a woman who claimed to be fleeing a life of academia? Or was it just that Raccoona’s stories, which often explored “bare-face pain,” weren’t as elegant as Tiptree’s, and harder to read?

By the time of the 1974 WorldCon, many fans decided Tiptree was in the audience, hiding in plain sight. Ellison certified that he was (he knew perfectly well he wasn’t) and one fan claimed to be Tip and started signing autographs for people. When Tiptree won for her proto-cyberpunk story, “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” editor Jeff Smith accepted for her (and had to convince people that he wasn’t Tiptree in disguise) and a few weeks later Alice Sheldon proudly displayed a Hugo in her library—flanked on each side by a vibrator.

Two years later, it was Jeff Smith who wrote to Alice Sheldon to warn her that Tiptree had been outed. Even in this initial letter, Smith assures Tip that he’ll keep the secret if asked, but Alice Sheldon wrote back, affirming that she was Tiptree and “Also, Raccoona.” She signed the letter Tip/Alli. She was afraid that people would drop her, now that the truth was out. Sheldon immediately wrote to Le Guin, hoping to tell her the truth before she heard it from anyone else.

Le Guin replied with the feels-inducing letter I’ve excerpted below:

oh strange, most strange, most wonderful, beautiful, improbable —Wie geht’s, Schwesterlein? sorella mia, sistersoul! […] Do you know what? I don’t think I have ever been surprised before. Things have happened but when they happen one thinks Oh, of course, this had to Be, etc., deep in my prophetic soul I Knew, etc. — but not this time, by God! And it is absolutely a delight, a joy, for some reason, to be truly absolutely flatfootedly surprised — it’s like a Christmas present!…I knew my Tree that well, & to hell with gender… I don’t know about people’s reactions, I suppose there are some who resent being put on, but it would take an extraordinarily small soul to resent so immense, so funny, so effective & fantastic & ETHICAL a put-on. Why should anybody mind? Why shouldn’t they be delighted? I can’t imagine, honestly. … Again I think all your friends will be as childishly pleased with you as I am — and as for what the Sf world says, my God, Allitree, who cares? what does it matter? I hope their little eyes widen & their little mouths fall open.[…]

Tip can say goodbye to me but I bloody well won’t say goodbye to Tip, why do I have to? can’t I just say hello to Alli, Oh Welcome, Alli! I only wish all my friends were like you!

Slowly, almost everyone wrote back accepting her. After a brief miscommunication with Ellison (with two people as individually cantankerous as Tiptree and Ellison, you can’t expect things to run smooth all the time) the two remained friends.

He later said, after the truth was out:

I resist the demeaning of Alli’s talent by saying, well, she was popular for this or that reason, or because she was a perceptive-sounding guy, or she was a guy who was able to examine her softer side. Bullshit. It was simply and purely that these stories were spectacular. This was one of the really imaginative writers of our time. And the quality of Alli’s talent, and the insight, the brilliance of her writing, was what sold her…. So I firmly and adamantly go against trying to find other reasons for this woman to have been as popular as she was. She was just terrific, that’s all. She was a hell of a writer.

Pohl said, “Well hell, of course we’re still friends! Friends come in all shapes, sizes, sexes, and colors, and I am not so rich in friends, or in writers whose work I respect, that I can afford to worry about the packaging.” She was too worried to write to Joanna Russ, so she risked a phone call; Russ responded by trying to talk her into an affair. Silverberg, who had been so adamant about Tiptree’s masculinity said “I suppose I will eat some crow over that, but I’m not at all annoyed with you. You didn’t fool me; I fooled myself, and so be it.” Jeff Smith agreed to be the literary executor for Sheldon, Tiptree, and Raccoona. Alfred Bester, who had never been one of her correspondents, wrote to ask her “on bended knee” to continue writing despite the invasion of her privacy.

As far as the work went, James Tiptree won the 1973 Nebula for Best Short Story for “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death” and the aforementioned 1974 Hugo for Best Novella for “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” both pre-outing. In 1977, after the SF community had learned of Tiptree’s true identity, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read” won both the Nebula and Hugo for Best Novella, and the Raccoona Sheldon persona won the Nebula for Best Novelette for “The Screwfly Solution” in 1978. A decade later, Tiptree won a World Fantasy Award for The Tales of Quintana Roo. She was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2012, and 1991 saw the birth of the of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award:

an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender. The aim of the award is not to look for work that falls into some narrow definition of political correctness, but rather to seek out work that is thought-provoking, imaginative, and perhaps even infuriating.

I don’t want to simplify this story, or flatten it to the point of boredom. It’s generally agreed that Tiptree’s post-outing stories are not as good, and the novels, while there are astonishing ideas and moments, never quite come together as whole works. The nigh-unavoidable conclusion is that Tiptree’s loss of privacy impacted the freedom and playfulness of the writer behind him—add to that Sheldon’s lifelong struggles with depression and it’s remarkable we ever got any Tiptree stories at all. I think it’s worth pointing out, though, and repeating, and underlining, and emphasizing, that Alice Sheldon, a person who felt out of joint for most of her life, found in SF a community that didn’t just tolerate her weirdness, but celebrated it. And that celebration helped her to create some of the greatest work the genre ever saw.

This article originally appeared August 24, 2015.

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