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James Tiptree Jr.
Alice Bradley Sheldon (August 24, 1915 – May 19, 1987) was an American science fiction author better known as James Tiptree Jr., a pen name she used from 1967 to her death. She was most notable for breaking down the barriers between writing perceived as inherently "male" or "female"—it was not publicly known until 1977 that James Tiptree Jr. was a woman. From 1974 to 1977 she also used the pen name Raccoona Sheldon.
Tiptree was inducted by the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2012.
Early life and education
Bradley came from a family in the intellectual enclave of Hyde Park, a university neighborhood in Chicago. Her father was Herbert Bradley, a lawyer and naturalist, and her mother was Mary Hastings Bradley, a prolific writer of fiction and travel books. From an early age Bradley traveled with her parents, and in 1921–22, the Bradleys made their first trip to central Africa, which later contributed to Sheldon’s short story, "The Women Men Don't See". Between trips to Africa, Bradley attended school in Chicago. At the age of ten, she went to the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, which was an experimental teaching workshop with small classes and loose structure. When she was fourteen, Bradley was sent to finishing school in Lausanne in Switzerland, before returning to the US to attend boarding school in Tarrytown in New York. Later on, Bradley became a graphic artist, a painter, and—under the name "Alice Bradley Davey"—an art critic for the Chicago Sun between 1941 and 1942. At age 19, she met and married William Davey, her first husband, under the compulsion that she felt it was her duty as a daughter, and they were married from 1934 until 1941. She had dropped out of Sarah Lawrence College, which did not allow married students to attend, and both Alice and her husband dropped out of Berkeley and New York University.
In 1942 she joined the United States Army Air Forces and worked in the Army Air Forces photo-intelligence group. She later was promoted to major, a high rank for women at the time. In the army, she "felt she was among free women for the first time." In 1945 she married her second husband, Huntington D. Sheldon, at the close of the war on her assignment in Paris. She was discharged from the military in 1946, at which time she set up a small business in partnership with her husband. The same year her first story ("The Lucky Ones") was published in the November 16, 1946 issue of The New Yorker, and credited to "Alice Bradley" in the magazine itself. In 1952 she and her husband were invited to join the CIA, which she accepted. However, she resigned her position in 1955 and returned to college.
She studied for her Bachelor of Arts degree at American University (1957–59), going on to achieve a doctorate at George Washington University in Experimental Psychology in 1967. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on the responses of animals to novel stimuli in differing environments. During this time, she wrote and submitted a few science fiction stories under the name James Tiptree Jr., in order to protect her academic reputation.
As for her personal life, Sheldon had a complex sexual orientation, and she described her sexuality in different terms over many years. This statement, for example, is how she would have explained it at some point; "I like some men a lot, but from the start, before I knew anything, it was always girls and women who lit me up."
Sheldon began illustrating when she was nine years old, contributing to her mother's book, Alice in Elephantland, a children's book about the family's second trip to Africa. Sheldon appeared in it as herself. Sheldon later had an exhibit of her drawings of Africa at the Chicago Gallery, arranged by her parents. Although Sheldon illustrated several of her mother's books, she only sold one illustration during her lifetime, in 1931, to The New Yorker, with help from Harold Ober, a New York agent who worked with her mother. The illustration, of a horse rearing and throwing off its rider, sold for ten dollars.
In 1936, Sheldon participated in a group show at the Art Institute of Chicago, to which she had connections through her family, featuring new American work. This was considered an important step forward for her painting career. It was during this time that she also took private art lessons from John Sloan. Sheldon disliked prudery in painting. While examining an anatomy book for an art class, she noticed that the genitals were blurred, so she restored the genitals of the figures with a pencil.
In 1939, Sheldon’s nude self-portrait titled Portrait in the Country was accepted for the "All-American" biennial show at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C., where it was displayed for six weeks. While these two shows were considered big breaks, she disparaged these accomplishments, saying that “only second rate painters sold" and she preferred to keep her works at home.
By 1940, Sheldon felt she had mastered all the techniques she needed and was ready to choose her subject matter. However, she began to doubt whether she should paint. She kept working at her painting techniques, fascinated with the questions of form and read books on aesthetics in order to know what scientifically made a painting "good." Sheldon stopped painting in 1941. In need of a way to support herself, her parents helped her find a job as an art critic for the Chicago Sun after it launched in 1941. Newly divorced, she started going by the name Alice Bradley Davey as a journalist, a job she held until she enlisted for the army in 1942.
Science fiction career
Unsure what to do with her new degrees and her new/old careers, Sheldon began to write science fiction. She adopted the pseudonym of James Tiptree Jr. in 1967. The name "Tiptree" came from a branded jar of marmalade, and the "Jr." was her husband's idea. In an interview, she said: "A male name seemed like good camouflage. I had the feeling that a man would slip by less observed. I've had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation." Her first published short story was "Birth of a Salesman" in the March 1968 issue of Analog Science Fact & Fiction, edited by John W. Campbell. Three more followed that year in If and Fantastic. Other pen names that she used included "Alice Hastings Bradley", "Major Alice Davey", "Alli B. Sheldon", "Dr. Alice B. Sheldon", "Raccona Sheldon", and "Alli". 
The pseudonym was successfully maintained until the late 1970s, partly because, although "Tiptree" was widely known to be a pseudonym, it was generally understood that its use was intended to protect the professional reputation of an intelligence community official. Readers, editors and correspondents were permitted to assume sex, and generally, but not invariably, they assumed "male". There was speculation, based partially on the themes in her stories, that Tiptree might be female. Robert Silverberg wrote "It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree's writing."
"Tiptree" never made any public appearances, but she did correspond regularly with fans and other science fiction authors through the mail. When asked for biographical details, Tiptree/Sheldon was forthcoming in everything but her sex. According to her biographer, Julie Phillips, “No one had ever seen or spoken to the owner of this voice. He wrote letters, warm, frank, funny letters, to other writers, editors, and science fiction fans.” In her letters to fellow writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Joanna Russ, she would present herself as a feminist man; however, Sheldon did not present herself as male in person. Writing was a way to escape a male dominated society, themes Tiptree explored in the short stories later collected in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. One story in particular offers an excellent illustration of these themes. “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" follows a group of astronauts who discover a future Earth whose male population has been wiped out; the remaining females have learned to get along just fine in their absence.
After the death of Mary Hastings Bradley in 1976, "Tiptree" mentioned in a letter that "his" mother, also a writer, had died in Chicago—details that led inquiring fans to find the obituary, with its reference to Alice Sheldon; soon all was revealed. Once the initial shock was over, Alli wrote to one of her closest friends, Ursula K. Le Guin, confessing her identity. Sheldon wrote, “I never wrote you anything but the exact truth, there was no calculation or intent to deceive, other than the signature which over 8 years became just another nickname; everything else is just plain me. The thing is, I am a 61-year-old woman named Alice Sheldon — nickname Alli – solitary by nature but married for 37 years to a very nice man considerably older, who doesn’t read my stuff but is glad I like writing.”
Several prominent science fiction writers suffered some embarrassment. Robert Silverberg had written an introduction to Warm Worlds and Otherwise arguing, from the evidence of stories in that collection, that Tiptree could not possibly be a woman. Harlan Ellison had introduced Tiptree's story in the anthology Again, Dangerous Visions with the opinion that "[Kate] Wilhelm is the woman to beat this year, but Tiptree is the man." Silverberg's article in particular, by taking one side, makes it clear that the sex of Tiptree was a topic of some debate.
Only then did she complete her first full-length novel, Up the Walls of the World (Berkley Books, 1978), which was a Doubleday Science Fiction Book Club selection. Before that she worked on and built a reputation only in the field of short stories.
Tiptree/Sheldon was an eclectic writer who worked in a variety of styles and subgenres, often combining the technological focus and hard-edged style of "hard" science fiction with the sociological and psychological concerns of "soft" SF, along with some of the stylistic experimentation of the New Wave movement.
After writing several stories in more conventional modes, she produced her first work to draw widespread acclaim, "The Last Flight of Doctor Ain", in 1969. One of her shortest stories, "Ain" is a sympathetic portrait of a scientist whose concern for Earth's ecological suffering leads him to destroy the entire human race.
Many of her stories have a milieu reminiscent of the space opera and pulp tales she read in her youth, but typically with a much darker tone: the cosmic journeys of her characters are often linked to a drastic spiritual alienation, and/or a transcendent experience which brings fulfillment but also death. John Clute, noting Tiptree's "inconsolable complexities of vision", concluded that "It is very rarely that a James Tiptree story does not both deal directly with death and end with a death of the spirit, or of all hope, or of the race". Notable stories of this type include "Painwise", in which a space explorer has been altered to be immune to pain but finds such an existence intolerable, and "A Momentary Taste of Being", in which the true purpose of humanity, found on a distant planet, renders individual human life entirely pointless.
Another major theme in Tiptree/Sheldon's work is the tension between free will and biological determinism, or reason and sexual desire. "Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death", one of the rare SF stories in which no humans appear, describes an alien creature's romantic rationalizations for the brutal instincts that drive its life cycle. "The Screwfly Solution" suggests that humans might similarly rationalize a plague of murderous sexual insanity. Sex in Tiptree's writing is frankly portrayed, a sometimes playful but more often threatening force.
Before the revelation of Sheldon's identity, Tiptree was often referred to as an unusually macho male (see, e.g., Robert Silverberg's commentaries) as well as an unusually feminist science fiction writer (for a male)—particularly for "The Women Men Don't See", a story of two women who go looking for aliens to escape from male-dominated society on Earth. However, Sheldon's view of sexual politics could be ambiguous, as in the ending of "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?", where a society of female clones must deal with three time-traveling male astronauts.
A constant theme, prevalent throughout most of Sheldon’s work, is feminism. In "The Women Men Don’t See" Sheldon gives the tale a unique feminist spin by making the narrator, Don Fenton, a male. Fenton judges the Parsons, the mother and daughter who are searching for alien life, based on their attractiveness and is agitated when they do not "fulfill stereotypical female roles", according to Anne Cranny-Francis. In addition, Fenton's inability to understand both the plight of woman and Ruth Parson's feelings of alienation further illustrate the differences of men and women in society. The theme of feminism is emphasized by "the feminist ideology espoused by Ruth Parsons and the contrasting sexism of Fenton". The title of the short story itself reflects the idea that women are invisible during Sheldon’s time. As Francis states, "‘The Women Men Don’t See’ is an outstanding example ... of the subversive use of genre fiction to produce an unconventional discursive position, the feminist subject".
Sheldon's two novels, produced toward the end of her career, were not as critically well-received as her best-known stories but continued to explore similar themes. Some of her best-regarded work can be found in the collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, available in paperback through Tachyon Publications as of 2004.
Sheldon continued writing under the Tiptree pen name for another decade. The last years of her life were not happy ones, as her husband was a nearly blind invalid incapable of caring for himself, and she herself was suffering health issues caused by a lifetime of smoking. In 1976, then 60-year-old Sheldon wrote to a friend expressing her desire to end her own life while she was still able-bodied and active, but she was reluctant to act upon this intention, as Huntington would have no one to care for him, and she could not bring herself to kill him.
Eleven years later, on May 19, 1987, Sheldon finally carried through her plan—by shooting her husband in his sleep, followed by herself; she had telephoned her attorney after the first shooting to announce her actions. They were found dead, hand-in-hand in bed, in their Virginia home. According to biographer Julie Phillips, the suicide note Sheldon left was written years earlier and saved until needed. In an interview with Charles Platt in the early 1980s, Sheldon spoke of her emotional problems and of her previous suicide attempts over the preceding 20 years.
The James Tiptree Jr. Award is given in her honor each year for a work of science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender. The award-winning science fiction authors Karen Joy Fowler and Pat Murphy created the award in February 1991. Novels such as Half Life by Shelley Jackson and Light by M. John Harrison have received the award.
Quotes about James Tiptree Jr.
Short story collections
The abbreviation(s) after each title indicate its appearance in one or more of the following collections:
Awards and honors
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame inducted Tiptree in 2012. She also won several annual awards for particular works of fiction (typically the preceding calendar year's best):
Japanese-language translations of her fiction also won two Hayakawa Awards and three Seiun Awards as the year's best under changing designations (foreign, overseas, translated). The awards are voted by magazine readers and annual convention participants respectively:
Guide to the Alice B. Sheldon, Pen Name James Tiptree, Jr. Papers at the University of Oregon