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17) James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips (.co.uk, .com)

This is surely a model of how to write a biography. Although her subject died in 1987, Julie Phillips has been through all her private papers, done the necessary bureaucratic sleuthing through her career, dug into her parents' background, interviewed the elderly first husband and many other relatives and friends, reflected on the wider social and literary currents of the time illustrated by the main narrative, and supported it all with extensive notes.

But that's not enough to make a successful biography. To do that you have to not only know your subject; you have to have chosen someone who is in some way fascinating in their own right, and be able to communicate that fascination to your readers. Phillips has done that admirably. I haven't read a lot of Tiptree's work (having said which, there isn't so very much to read), but I think you could safely give this book to someone who had never heard of her, even someone who never reads science fiction, and sill expect them to enjoy it.

Most readers, however, will have bought this book largely to find out more about Tiptree/Sheldon's writing; we don't get anything about that until halfway through, but I don't think anyone will be bored by the first fifty years of Sheldon's life - privileged Chicago upbringing, childhood safaris to Africa, a Christmas elopement and disastrous first marriage, World War II and the CIA, psychological research, a better choice of second husband.

And then the decade of fame as SF writer James Tiptree, Jr, producing strange, memorable stories, winning Hugos and Nebulas for them, engaging in intimate correspondence with the luminaries of the genre, but all under a pseudonym which was eventually exposed. I had not realised, however, that the Hugo and nebula for "Houston, Houston, Do You Read" both came after the revelation of her true identity.

The one weak point in Phillips' analysis has been well illuminated by Farah Mendlesohn: she doesn't convincingly explain Sheldon's attitude to sexuality - in fairness, a complex question, and one to which we will probably never know the real answer (although Farah's answer is more convincing than Phillips').

I am in a rush this morning in Georgetown, just a few miles from where Alice Sheldon and James Tiptree lived and died, so don't have time to write more about this brilliant book. But we are promised that the paperback will include more photographs, and more of Sheldon's own art, so I may find myself buying it all over again.

(Also, it has been interesting to read this alongside Elizabeth Bear's Carnival over the last few days.)

Top UnSuggestions for this book:
  1. Confessions of a shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella
  2. Pet sematary by Stephen King
  3. Angels & demons by Dan Brown
  4. MLA handbook for writers of research papers by Joseph Gibaldi
  5. The runaway jury by John Grisham

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
lauriemann
Feb. 23rd, 2007 01:22 pm (UTC)
I also thought this was a terrific biography. I organized a panel for Boskone about it, with David Gerrold (the first person in fandom to actually meet Alice Sheldon...except she denied she was Tiptree) and David Hartwell (who was her editor and, for the last ten years of her life, a frequent recipient of Sheldon's phone calls). I thought we'd get around to talking about Tiptree's writing, but we never got far from talking about her life. This one is definitely on my Hugo nomination list this time around.

It's also been nominated for a biography award, but I forget where (I don't think it's a National Book Award nominee, but I just don't remember).
(Deleted comment)
nwhyte
Feb. 26th, 2007 04:47 pm (UTC)
July, apparently.
rosefox
Jun. 26th, 2007 11:25 pm (UTC)
I note that even Farah doesn't use the term "bisexual". Infuriating.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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