DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Aug 24 2011

Double lives and new frontiers

by Dea Anne M

August 24th is the birthday of American science fiction author Alice Bradley Sheldon who is better known to the world by her pen name, James Tiptree Jr. Sheldon adopted the pseudonym when she began to publish science fiction around 1967. Her work won quite a bit of acclaim through the years but it wasn’t until 1977  that the public discovered that Tiptree was a woman. Apparently, Tiptree was afraid that her work would suffer negative feedback if her true gender was known and she also seemed to have concerns about exciting the wrong sort of notoriety by being a woman publishing in what had traditionally been a male-dominated genre. In an interview, Tiptree said “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.” Indeed, Alice Sheldon had been in Air Force photo-intelligence, the CIA, and had received a doctorate in experimental psychology.

Tiptree was a unique stylist who expressed an often dark vision in her fiction. Some of her more famous pieces, such as “The Women That Men Don’t See” and the novella, Houston, Houston Do You Read?,  deal with gender and sexual politics in very interesting and surprising ways. In 1991, science fiction authors Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler established the James Tiptree Jr. Award, an annual prize given to works of science fiction and fantasy that expand or explore our understanding of gender. If you’re in the mood to sample some of these award winners, DCPL has several to choose from. Some of these are:

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (2008), Camouflage by Joe Haldeman (2004), Set This House In Order: a romance of souls by Matt Ruff (2003), Wild Life by Molly Gloss (2000), Black Wine by Candas Jane Dorsey (1997), The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996), Waking the Moon by Elizabeth Hand (I highly recommend this one!) and Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Theodore Roszak (both books won in 1995) , Woman of the Iron People by Eleanor Arnason (1991), and White Queen by Gwyneth Jones (also 1991).

Would you like to sample Tiptree’s writing for yourself? DCPL has these titles:

Crown of Stars

Byte Beautiful: eight science fiction stories

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever: the great years of James Tiptree Jr.

If you want to learn more about this brilliant and unusual writer and woman, don’t miss James Tiptree Jr.: the double life of Alice B. Sheldon. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly called this book “…a wonder: an even handed, scrupulously documented, objective yet sympathetic portrait of a deliberately elusive personality…”

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Lesley B August 25, 2011 at 1:28 PM

Thanks for this post and the recommendations! I’d never heard of the Tiptree Award, but since 3 authors I really like have won it, I’ll be checking out the others.

Jesse M August 25, 2011 at 2:43 PM

Like Lesley, I hadn’t heard of the Tiptree award prior to this post, but I can think of at least a couple of science fiction novels that deserve recognition for expanding and exploring our understanding of gender. Greg Egan’s book Distress describes a future world where there are five new genders, and Ian Mcdonald’s vision of India circa 2047 as laid out in his book River of Gods includes nutes, a sort of third gender who have surgically opted out of the traditional male/female dichotomy.

Dea Anne M August 25, 2011 at 3:17 PM

Jesse, thanks for providing more titles. Those books sound very interesting. I’m curious, Lesley. Who are the 3 authors?

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