239 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

239 Things

The extraordinary life of James Tiptree and Alice B. Sheldon (1915 – 1986.)

The author Julie Philips, residing in Amsterdam, won a prestigious American prize with her biography of sci-fi legend James Tiptree. His life story is hard to believe.

At the start of the seventies, the sci-fi world was mesmerised by a mysterious author. James Tiptree Jr. supposedly worked for the CIA and could therefore only communicate via an anonymous postal box. He had travelled sinister territories and knew how to use a weapon. His energetic, possessed stories of sex and death were extremely masculine while always remaining attentive to the ‘unseen’ woman. A feminist jock? A sensitive macho?

No, it turned out in 1976, when the write was at the peak of fame: James Tiptree was a woman.

In Julie Philips’ National Book Critics Circle Award-winning book, James Tiptree Jr., the Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, the mystery of Tiptree’s hidden life is unravelled. The Dutch-American biographer Philips reveals an unlikely history. Born a child to rich travellers in 1915, Sheldon travelled the darkest reaches of Africa as a young child. As a teenager, Alice ran away with a violent drunk whom she left after six years to join the newly formed female division of the army. She struggled with homosexual feelings, but all her greatest love turned out to be femme fatales, who all either went insane or died young. She became a photo analyst at the CIA, where she met her husband, Huntington (Ting) Sheldon. Together, they bought a chicken farm, upon which she decided to study psychology (bipolar career planning!) As a researcher, she was a failure. Falling into a depression, she swallowed every upper and downer she could lay her hands on. Never did she feel like she could be her true self. This idea had much to do with the dominating presence of her mother, who wrote travel stories and was a prominent member of Chicago’s high society.

From a young age, Sheldon read science fiction, a guilty pleasure for which she often felt she needed to be apologetic. However, since the war, her pulp sci-fi had undergone a great transformation. No longer were the stories about green men and scarcely clothed women undoing their bras, but they had becoming reflections on nuclear war and overpopulation. The ambitious young hounds of the New Wave added a literary sensibility to the genre. Science fiction would not only be a literature of ideas, but come to fruition both stylistically and psychologically.

It’s this climate in 1967 in which Alice Sheldon began writing science fiction under the pseudonym James Tiptree. Leading editors like Frederik Pohl and Harry Harrison saw potential in her early work. Her stories would soon start becoming more personal and grim: the expression of frustrations that Alice could not ventilate in her every day life. The joke started becoming serious. Tiptree gave meaning to Sheldon’s meaningless existence.

A number of Tiptree’s novels became classics. In “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” (1969) the protagonist flies around the world to save his love – and this becomes gradually clarified: the Earth itself – from demise. To do so, he releases a deadly disease to eradicate the whole of mankind. “The Women Men Don’t See” (1972) is a satirical story in which federal agent Don crashes into the bush with two women. He constantly wondered about their motives, until they chose alien abduction over being “cared for” by him. And in the gripping “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death” (1971) we follow the sexual awakening and the progressive dying of an insect. Under a second pseudonym, Raccoona Sheldon, she wrote “The Screwfly Solution” (1976,) in which alien abuse the aggression inherent in male urges, which results in the men annihilating all women in a frightening, all-natural way. Tiptree’s stories nearly always end in death and usually relate to sex in some way. Between man and woman, and between man and the “other.”

The very personal charge to Tiptree’s stories and columns would end up destroying him. It happened when Sheldon’s mother died in 1976. Someone compared a column by Tiptree describing his mother’s death next to the recent obituaries. A rumour started, claiming Tiptree was actually Alice Sheldon and lived in McLean, Virginia.

This revelation shook the small sci-fi like an earthquake. How could a woman be so well versed in the mechanics of sci-fi? Sheldon had thwarted all role patterns and through doing so, might have made a more radical feminist statement than a militant colleague like Joanna Russ ever could.

For Sheldon, the discovery was the beginning of a nightmare. She began to grow paranoid, and feared that her work was criticised more heavily because she was “just a woman.” In actuality, her work was becoming weaker because she “lost” the voice of Triptree. She saw herself as an empty shell, a failed human, a half-hearted version of the man she could be on paper. And she was growing old – unforgivably and unbearably old. This ended in a violent conclusion. On the 18th of May 1986, Sheldon first shot her husband before shooting herself. Seeing as suicide was constantly in her thoughts, she had chosen life for a long while. Now she chose death, so prominently present in her stories.

Sheldon’s life was a succession of supernovas. Philips has retold her life story with compassion and understanding. The feminist debate becomes tangible and gives us a glimpse into different worlds, poles apart: the adventurers who made the unspoiled earth their playground, the CIA’s subculture, the female division of the Second World War. But most of all: science fiction, a warm haven for “aliens” like Alice Sheldon was at the core of her being.
James Tiptree Jr. is a poignant analysis of a woman torn in tow. Her self hatred, both her love and aversion for women; her mother’s omnipresent shadow, the conflicting powers of the expectations forced upon her and her desired self-realisation, her hidden desire to be a man; Sharon spent many years wrestling “herself.” The fact that she could only be herself through Tiptree is cruel and all telling. Still, Sheldon’s story is not only a dark one. It’s also a celebration of literature’s ability to liberate. These layers combined give this biography an emotional punch. In a sense, Sheldon’s remarkable life is a gift to the biographer. Phillips recognised the value of this gift and wrote a fascinating book that makes you hope it will attract a much greater audience that the usual lovers of sci-fi.

Portet van Michel de Montaigne

Portet van Michel de Montaigne

In our day and age it would be impossible to physically transport yourself to the 16th century, unlike in the Middle Ages when bilocation was still deemed possible. You may have found professor Barabas’ time machine quite useful. Otherwise a word of advice from Negro Kaballo, the horse from Erich Kästner’s De 35ste mei might be of use. I’ve also considered Hendrik Willem van Loon. As a boy I read his book, Pioniers der Vrijheid, where he receives visits from countless long dead historical figures at his home in Veere. But ultimately, I must to my dismay admit there is but one way— through the mind. This is how I first met Montaigne through his Essais, and it’s how I later found myself in conversation with him.

Portet van Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne’s library

Mister Montaigne, it is a great honour to be here in your extraordinary library and be granted the opportunity to exchange thoughts with you. My first question, if I may, concerns how you write. Do you have a method, and if so, could you describe this?

Dear sir! My arguments arrange themselves to but one order: coincidence. I record my thoughts just as they enter my mind. At times they appear in such great masses that they crowd one another, at other moments they siphon in one by one. I would like to show how it is in my nature to proceed, however unorganised it may seem. I express my thoughts in the same manner as they manifest. Luckily, the subjects I describe are of such a nature that it would not be unacceptable to speak of them while being essentially ignorant, or by speaking of them in superficial terms. There are certain things I’d like to understand better, but I’m not prepared to pay the price for such insight. I’ve decided to live my life on a pleasant note, avoiding exertion as much as possible. I wouldn’t break my head for the world, not even for science, however worthy it may be. All I expect from a book is for it to entertain me; and when it comes to studying, my sole desire is to know and understand myself and to how to live and die. This is the finish line for which I’ll allow my horse to break a sweat.

You write associatively, do you also read in that way?

When I’ve had enough of one book, I pick up another. I only start reading when doing absolutely nothing begins to bore me. Because I find the classics most rich and exciting, I hardly bother with modern works. I likewise avoid the Greeks because during my youth I learned too little of them to properly understand their literature. There are modern books that I find simply entertaining, like Boccaccio’s Decamerone, Rabelais and The Basia by Janus Secundus. If they belong to that category, they’re certainly worth the attention. The Amadis and similar writings couldn’t interest me, not even in my youth. It may sound audacious or arrogant, but I must admit that my old, slow mind is no longer stimulated by Ariosto, not even by the good Ovidius: his nonchalant, imaginative style that used to spellbind me can now hardly keep my attention.

But you quote many classics in your work. For example, Cicero comes up quite often.

Cicero! Now there’s somebody. I find his way of writing, and for that matter all similar styles, to be irritating. His forewords, explanations, planned formats, and idiomatic discourse take up the grander part of his work. The lively and essential is smothered under his endlessly fabricated sentences. When I’ve read him for an hour, which is a long time for me, I ask myself what I truly gleaned from it. I usually come to the conclusion that he’s merely blasted wind, and that he has yet to come to the arguments that support his plea, and hasn’t even touched upon the core of what interests me. Because I only hope to grow wiser, and not more eloquent or smart, his Aristotelian tricks of reasoning are not my interest.

I prefer for an author to begin with the essence. I’m perfectly acquainted with definitions of death and lust; there’s no need to dissect these terms for me. I long for a plea that immediately cuts into the core of the issue, but his constantly circumvents the essence. I’m not waiting for someone to grab me by the hair and, like a herald, declare “Listen carefully!’ fifty times over.

During their religious ceremonies the Romans said: Hoc age (pay attention), just as we say ‘Sursum cord’ (lift up your hearts) during mass. These words are absolutely redundant for me. Generally speaking, I long for books that supply knowledge, not those that blow air into knowledge. Seneca, Plutarch, Pilinius and their contemporaries do not make use of Hoc age; they want their readers to be on their qui-vive all by themselves.

So you actually find Cicero to be a bit of a nag.

Well. When it comes to Cicero, I share the common opinion that he did not have many exceptional qualities besides his knowledge: he was a good citizen, and kind-hearted like most fat and boisterous folk. But frankly, he was quite a big wimp and his ambition was an exercise in vanity. I can’t forgive him for believing his poetry decent enough for publishing. It’s one thing to write bad verse, but to be ignorant of the blemish that his poetry places upon his glorious name shows an utter lack of insight. But his eloquence is unparalleled. I doubt anyone will ever equal him in that respect.

Thank you for your answers. The future reader will surely have an understanding of how you read and write. Now I’d like to ask you a question concerning a wholly different matter, namely your thoughts on death. One of your statements on death is ‘philosophising is learning how to die’. Could you clarify this for me?

My apologies, but to answer you I must continue on the subject of Cicero. Cicero says that philosophising is nothing more than preparation for death. Study and contemplation, in a sense, detach the mind from one's self and situates it outside of the carnal. This is a condition that is similar to death and within it embeds a lesson; all wisdom and human reasoning eventually teach us to not fear death. Death is inevitable. But, if we fear it, it becomes an on-going source of suffering for which no relief exists. We cannot escape it, regardless if we keep a constant watchful eye as though in enemy territory. Death perpetually hangs over us like the boulder of Tantalus.

So, the final destination is death. We must remain aware of this. But how can we, if we fear death, take one step without falling into a nervous stupor? Any man who hasn’t reached the age of Methusalem will believe he’ll survive another twenty years.

Horatius writes: ‘Take every day as your last. Then, each surplus hour will be a happy one.”

Yes, that’s true. We don’t know where death awaits us, let us expect him at every moment. Awareness of death is awareness of freedom. If you’ve learned to die, you’ve unlearned to be a slave. If you’re prepared for death, you’ve freed yourself from subjection and constraint.