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Saturday, November 30, 2019

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. SheldonJames Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This biography of Alice Sheldon is brilliant. Brilliant, but sobering.

I didn't imagine there would be such depth and investigation going into Alice's life, but not only do we get the character of it, but we get the whole glorious, convoluted, conflicted joy, sadness, and understanding of this person.

I mean, sure, the later-life effects of her writing under the well-respected pseudonym of Tiptree and her increasingly difficult dodges she had to perform to keep her secret from all of fandom and the friends she made from other authors was pretty fun, sad, and freaking fantastic. But when we see all of this through the eyes of her personal feminism and the resulting blowback in the SF field, the whole subject takes on a very poignant and relevant light.

She was very conflicted on the whole subject and it shows.

She led a rich life, from being the daughter of a popular novelist, living in Africa during the heyday of the Great White Hunter legends as a kid, to always knowing she never BELONGED anywhere, of how she was driven by rage as a woman while always having to put on a happy face, to her days as a professional painter learning from the greats, to her short stint as a critic, her joining the military during WWII, to her life as a chicken farmer, to her time as a CIA analyst, to her time as a psychological researcher on perception, to her much later career as an SF author.

What started as a joke turned into a name thrown into fame. She was a man who finally understood women! (Never mind that so many of the stories are DARK, dystopian, highly sexualized male-dominated stories full of institutional and personal abuse... and both sexes were to blame.)

The biographer gave us everything in Alice's life. Her lesbian desires, never fulfilled, her rebellious decision to elope with a man who was just as angry as her, to finding deep companionship with her second husband while never really getting what she really desired. Compound this with her agreement with him to form a suicide pact when things got to be too difficult, and then, at the end, after much illness and depression, she kills her husband and then herself, the picture becomes quite as dark as her fiction.

But this is not the whole story. Of course. She suffered lifelong depression and rage at the world, but it was science and the drive to build something lasting that brought her the most joy. Her core belief revolved around anti-entropy. I thought it was beautiful. She was always rational and deliberate. How she went about saying goodbye to everyone was as thoughtful as it was heartbreaking.

I've never read a more multi-faceted and rich biography. Of course, I can also blame the woman who is the subject of it for giving so much interesting fodder in the shape of her life.

Yes, it's a difficult life, too, but it was full of something really special. It might even go a long, long way to redefining our understanding of history. From a humanist perspective.

Just. Wow. What an interesting person.

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