James Tiptree, Jr / Alice Sheldon

Science fiction writers who should be in the canon ahead of Philip K Dick, part 3

James Tiptree, Jr: Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

Julie Philips: James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

It makes me feel like an old fart, to read people on the internet who say things like this:

I’m jealous because I wish I could have read the stories in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever without a legend leaning over my shoulder. It would have meant I could have read most of them twice: once before knowing that James Tiptree Jnr was Alice Sheldon, and once after.

I discovered Tiptree’s stories in about 1985, almost a decade after Alice Sheldon’s cover was blown, but my sources of sf were council libraries, secondhand bookstores and my uncle’s collection of aging paperbacks. If I’d ever read sf magazines or gone to specialist bookstores, I might have found out earlier, but I was out of the loop. When I read the Sheldon interview in Charles Platt’s Dream Makers in 1990, I was as surprised as anyone.

I can’t remember if I read the Tiptree stories differently once I’d discovered that they had been written by a woman; I do remember that the stories already seemed extraordinary – dark, dirty, funny and intense – well before I found out about the genderfuss. Not long after that, when researching Sheldon for an essay at uni, I made the much more shocking discovery that she’d committed suicide in 1987, after murdering her terminally-ill husband.

All of this is told, in heartbreaking detail, in Julie Phillips’ biography. The Tiptree name has come to be associated with gender in sf, which is fine and natural, but her great themes, I think, were biology and despair. The intro to the reissue of the short story collection talks about her mental state in the medicalised terms we’re all familiar with now, and the title story is so much like an episode of psychotic depression that I found it almost impossible to finish. But only a very small proportion of depressed people can translate that experience successfully into fiction, and Sheldon was one of them. And her despair was driven by our status as biological creatures: born in pain and placed at the mercy of our urges on an overcrowded planet.

Some of my old favourites, like ‘Love is the Plan the Plan is Death’, I find I can hardly read anymore. (Who invented the literary convention that aliens and savages should talk in an idiotic sing-song? Was it Longfellow?) Others still work, despite obvious flaws: ‘The Screwfly Solution’ is a pitch-perfect rising scream of horror which is almost, but not quite, wrecked by an atrocious punchline. ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ seems to have improved quite a bit, as has the elegaic ‘Slow Music’. ‘And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side’ remains a definitive, blackly comic joke about the fantasy of meeting aliens. That’s the other depression-hallmark of Sheldon’s writing: she is keenly aware of exactly how much wish-fulfilment is involved in the whole sf genre, and takes an undue pleasure, sometimes, in stepping on it, as in ‘Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!’

The Phillips bio is dismissive of Tiptree’s early work, but I still cherish my falling-apart copy of the first anthology, Ten Thousand Light-Years From Home, with its panel-van cover-art and corny stories about intergalactic customs bureaucrats.

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One response to “James Tiptree, Jr / Alice Sheldon

  1. Pingback: Matt’s Bookosphere 6/25/08 « Enter the Octopus

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