A short piece on a favorite SFF writer

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Author Alice Sheldon, pictured in 1939.

“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.

25 Responses to “A short piece on a favorite SFF writer”

  1. RoseCamelia says:

    Thank you, Rillquiet, for this thoughtful article.

    • Rillquiet says:

      Thank you for the kind words, and thanks of course to Clever Manka, who asked good questions and also hunted up Sheldon's picture (which, wow, that is A Look).

  2. Kazoogrrl says:

    Thank you, and I understand having to brace yourself to read someone's excellent but sometimes devastating work. She was a part of the curriculum when I took a sci-fi class in college, but we never really looked at how she approached gender in her work.

    • Rillquiet says:

      Interesting! So what aspects of her work did the class explore? I find it hard to picture not addressing gender when looking at her stories, but sometimes our own lenses narrow the field of vision.

      • Kazoogrrl says:

        I think it was more in the context of what else what coming out at the time, and how her work was a nod to the pulp sci fi from the 20s/30s. I'm digging in my memory, the class was a loooong time ago!

  3. Fancy_Pants says:

    As a lifelong sci-fi fan, I am embarrassed to admit that I have never read any of her work! Anyone have any good suggestions as to where to start?

    Last year-ish I went through a spree of reading Octavia Butler (another former oversight of mine in the female sci-fi author pantheon), and "compelling but painful" is a good description for her work too. It made me finally admit to myself that I read mostly for escapism, and can only handle the bone-deep visceral discomfort in small doses.

    • Rillquiet says:

      It's almost like writers who aren't white men are less enthusiastic about the future, isn't it?

      The best place to start with Tiptree is probably Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, the compendium of her short works. It includes "Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death," which won a Nebula and was nominated for a Hugo, and "Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!" which is one of my favorites. I don't recommend trying to read the whole book straight through, because eesh, but those two stories and maybe "The Women Men Don't See" balance the bitter and the beautiful well.

      Note that Tiptree talks about rape, body horror, assault, and all sorts of other uncomfortable topics, so caveat lector.

      • Fancy_Pants says:

        Yes, exactly! I cut my teeth on Isaac "Better Living Through Science!" Asimov (who I still and will always adore), and let me tell you, my whole worldview was turned upside down when I realized that his was a very specific, not universal, perspective.

        Thanks for the recs and the content notes! I will file them away for a time when I feel up to handling that kind of material.

      • littleinfinity says:

        It's almost like writers who aren't white men are less enthusiastic about the future, isn't it?

        I snorted/ chuckled. Yuuuuuup. It is a constant struggle to keep reminding my techbro friends that not everyone gets access to the latest technologies, quality of life does not improve for everyone at the same rate, etc, etc. BUT THE SINGULARITY

    • meat_lord says:

      Octavia Butler is so good, but so tough to read–I feel you. Kindred should be required reading for every white person who has ever said "I wish I had been born in [X period in the past]!" , though.

      • Fancy_Pants says:

        RIGHT!? Reading Kindred and also some of the Patternmaster series made me feel just…rage. It should absolutely be required reading for anyone who has never had their autonomy taken from them.

  4. meat_lord says:

    Reading this today inspired me to start a personal essay about gender, sexuality, power and violence. Tiptree/Sheldon resonates with me very strongly, but I also find her work upsetting and hard to read.

  5. Heathered says:

    I so often bump into SFF and slide down it, but I've always intended to read her stories. Now that I see her serving serious Edith Prickley in that photo, my motivation has increased tenfold. Thanks for this reintroduction, and I love your choice of words re: "nerving" yourself to read.

    • Rillquiet says:

      FWIW, "The Women Men Don't See" is not very SFF-ish; the otherworldly parts are minimal and almost tangential. But not everything has to be for everybody!

    • meat_lord says:

      Bumping into SFF and sliding down it! Ha, what a wonderful turn of phrase. That's me with a lot of hard sci-fi.

  6. Doc_Paradise says:

    I'm picking up her biography on your recommendation. Thanks.

  7. Lee Thomson says:

    I remember thinking "he" was awfully good at the anger women held in. Also you are completely correct that anyone who can make Harlan Ellison look like a dink is A+ in my book.

  8. redheadfae says:

    Thank you for the article and the well-deserved heads up about her subject matter.

  9. jenavira says:

    Thank you for this wonderful piece! I adore Tiptree's stories, but it's never occurred to me to think of her as inherently pessimistic (although clearly her work is, compared to what else was coming out in SFF at the time). She's got those peaceful societies of women, after all, like in "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" And while stuff like "The Women Men Don't See" and "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" are certainly dark, they were also one of the first things I read with a truly feminist consciousness, an awareness of the interiority of women who have to suffer under the patriarchy. Which isn't Golden Age of SciFi Optimism, sure, but it never read to me as pessimism, either.

    So thank you for being thought-provoking, and prompting me to go back and re-read some Tiptree again. (I definitely need to get around to her biography, too, I have been putting that one off since it came out.)

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