The Woman Men Didn't See

Alice Sheldon wrote science fiction under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr.
Alice Sheldon wrote science fiction under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr. (© By Patti Perret)
Reviewed by Martin Morse Wooster
Sunday, August 6, 2006


The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

By Julie Phillips

St. Martin's. 469 pp. $27.95

If you lived in McLean, Va., in the 1960s and '70s, you probably ran into Alice B. Sheldon. You might have seen her shopping for dresses at Lord & Taylor's or buying gardening supplies at Hechinger's. But you would not have known that under the pseudonym "James Tiptree Jr.," she wrote works that were at the vortex of gender wars that raged in the world of science fiction.

Sheldon (1915-87) was the most important sf writer ever to live in the Washington area. She also was, in her varied career, a psychologist, a CIA officer and a chicken farmer. Her biographer, Julie Phillips, combines diligent archival work with more than 40 interviews to successfully portray one of sf's most brilliant -- and tortured -- authors.

Sheldon was born Alice Bradley in Chicago. Her mother, Mary Bradley, was an accomplished popular novelist and lecturer. Her father, Herbert, was a real estate developer who made enough money to pursue his fantasy of exploring Africa.

The Bradleys made three trips to Africa from 1921 onward, taking their daughter with them each time. The expeditions did little to advance science but provided Mary Bradley with material for several bestsellers, some featuring Alice. But for a 6-year-old Alice, seeing animals routinely die in the wilderness was emotionally scarring.

Though intelligent, Alice soon ran into the barriers imposed on women of her generation. For the rest of her life, she rebelled against femininity -- cotillions, fashion, frills -- and the idea that men command and women obey.

"Being stuck in traditional roles was one of the great sources of Alice's anger," Phillips writes, but "often that anger was directed at other women. About girls and women, Alice was always ambivalent. She wanted to like them, but was regularly disappointed by their failure to take their future seriously, by their artificiality, later by their reluctance to think politically and their willingness to put up with the status quo."

In her twenties, Phillips argues, Alice concluded that "the only way to survive as an intelligent woman was to think of herself as a secret exception -- not really a woman at all." Such thinking led her to adopt a male pseudonym 30 years later.

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