A short piece on a favorite SFF writerGuest Post, · Categories: Guest Posts
“Alice Sheldon shall appeal to the masses in the year 2017.” (Roberto Bolaño, Amulet)
A year featuring both increasing risks to women’s health and a powerful pushback against sexual violence against women is an appropriate time to revisit one of science fiction’s most famous female writers: James Tiptree, Jr. Her stories are among the darkest of the New Wave, using the frame of alternate worlds and space travel to address gender-related violence and its effects on women.
Alice Sheldon (1915-1987) was aware of the obstacles facing women in many fields, so she submitted most of her work and conducted her correspondence pseudonymously, writing as mainly as Tiptree or Raccoona Sheldon. As Tiptree, she successfully persuaded many readers and editors in the SFF community that she was a man—Robert Silverberg described her writing as “ineluctably male,” and Harlan Ellison, introducing an anthology, described her as the man to beat. In retrospect, it is difficult to believe how many people accepted the fiction: Stories like “The Women Men Don’t See,” “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?,” and “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!” prominently feature male violence against women and imagine peaceful women-only societies. Even stories written from a male narrator’s point of view, including “The Women Men Don’t See” and “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death,” are laced with sexual aggression and convey a sense that happy endings are never an option.
Unfortunately, Sheldon’s pessimism was informed by chronic depression, compounded by the challenges of caring for an older and invalid spouse; in 1987, she killed both him and herself. The recipient of numerous awards during her life, she is now commemorated with the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award, which encourages “the exploration and expansion of gender.”
James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, the 2006 biography by Julie Phillips, explored Sheldon’s life, including her bisexuality and her career with the U.S. military and the CIA (many readers assumed that a writer familiar with intelligence and military work could not be a woman). It received a Hugo for best related work.
To be honest, Tiptree is hard to love: her work is compelling but painful, so I have to nerve myself to read more than a couple of her stories in a row. But while they always end in sorrow and/or death, the sheer ruthless pessimism forces me to think about WHAT hope they’re crushing: the dream of a peaceful society, one that values beauty and kindness, or the dream of a world where sexual impulses are uncoupled from violence. And I find myself thinking of what her life was like; the only other writer so grim who comes to mind is Ana María Matute, who was a child during the Spanish Civil War. Sheldon lived through WWII, but it seems like much of her bitterness maybe stemmed from being at least bi and possibly closeted, not to mention the rage of being a smart, creative woman at a time when there were few openings for her talents.
I grew up loving SFF, but there were not many women authors in the mix; for a genre that prides itself on stepping out of the mundane, that’s a significant shortcoming. So I give Sheldon her props: She got past the gatekeepers and snuck feminist questions into major zines. And frankly, anybody who makes Harlan Ellison look like a dink is contributing to the balance of the universe.
Rillquiet has a lot of opinions about the Golden Age of SFF and is easily swayed by the appeal of a really solid title.