Alice or James ? The stories are the main thing

December 22, 1996
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Alice Sheldon was born in 1915. The daughter of missionaries, she spent much of her childhood in Africa and India. Her father wished she'd been a boy and was happy when she joined the Army in 1942. She was assigned to the Pentagon and was trained as an intelligence agent.

When she was 30 she married a man named Huntington Sheldon and they lived for many years in the Washington, D.C., area.

When she was 40, she decided to get a Ph.D. in experimental psychology. "You can be young and stupid or old and smart," she said.

In the early 1980s, her husband contacted Alzheimer's disease. In 1987, she shot and killed him and then shot herself. She was 72.

This short biography is intriguing on its own merits but it's doubly interesting if you've figured out that it's the story of a science fiction writer named James Tiptree, Jr.

Twenty years before her death, Alice Sheldon began writing science fiction under this pseudonym. Her work was marked by a macho voice, a familiarity with technology and a strong sensitivity to gender issues. One of her short stories was titled, oh so ironically, "The Women Men Don't See."

Today, a Tiptree science fiction award is made annually for those writers who best explore gender roles - something Sheldon did brilliantly.

I was reminded of Sheldon's fascinating life and work when I sat in on a science fiction class at UC Davis last quarter. Writer Kim Stanley Robinson was the guest lecturer at one of the classes; Kathy Kudlick from the history department spoke at another class meeting. Robinson includes "Her Smoke Rose Up Forever," a collection of Tiptree short stories, on his list of 39 recommended works of science fiction. "Byte Beautiful" is the title of a 1985 collection of eight Tiptree stories, and an even earlier collection is called "Star Songs of an Old Primate."

Tiptree's true identify went undiscovered until the mid-'70s. For a long time, it's safe to say, everyone in the small incestuous world of science fiction thought Tiptree was a man, even those who had been corresponding with her, up to and including Ursula Le Guin.

"I don't think I have ever been so completely surprised in my life - or so happily," wrote Le Guin describing how she felt upon learning that Tiptree was a woman.

For many years, science fiction was a male genre, featuring boys and toys: war, space, rockets, technology, uniforms, military issues and violence.

Even sci fi writer Michael Bishop admits being a little miffed when he found out Tiptree's true identity, as he had claimed "him" as an ally - proof that men could write about women's issues with sensitivity and verve.

But now women have seized the potential offered by science fiction. They are using science fiction as a place to introduce dreams that wouldn't go elsewhere.

"People have realized that it's good to publish stories on gender and sexual roles because women want to read them - and women buy more books than men," Kudlick said. In other words, if you want to sell books you can't alienate the girls.

However, that's not to say that men can't write good science fiction that explores gender roles. The books by Kim Stanley Robinson sell, suggests Kudlick, because the writer is hip and sensitive. It also helps that his name is gender-ambiguous, she added.

Who are some other great female science fiction writers? To answer that question, I'm going to steal from Robinson's list. He says these authors took on the task of creating good work and represent "wonderful reading - the best of the post-modern genre."

And they are, in part: Cecelia Holland, "Floating Worlds"; Gwyneth Jones, "Divine Endurance"; Ursula Le Guin, "The Left Hand of Darkness"; Joanna Russ, "The Female Man"; Karen Joy Fowler, "Artificial Things," and Kate Wilhelm, "Margaret and I."

Finally, though, as Robinson points out: "We are all addicted to stories." It doesn't matter if they're written by men or women.

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