Vintage Science Fiction Readings #7–Alice B. Sheldon

Ann and I are now in the process of reading for The Big Book of Science Fiction for Vintage, which will appear in 2016. This huge anthology of well over 500,000 words will collect the best and most unusual SF stories from approximately 1900 to 2000. This requires a lot of reading and research. Every so often I will report back in an ad hoc way about current reading related to the anthology. I don’t claim these are systematic reports.

1972: Author note entitled “Man of All the World” from Best Science Fiction for 1972, edited by Frederik Pohl (for Tiptree’s story “Mother in the Sky with Diamonds”)

As with Doris Piserchia (elsewhere in this volume), James Tiptree, Jr., is a writer I would not recognize if he walked into my office and sat on the corner of my desk. We have never met. I rather think the chances are we never will, because every time I see in my peripatetic career a date when I will be in the neighborhood of the city where he lives and suggest we get together for a drink, it turns out that in his peripatetic career he is that week off to Borneo or Brooklyn or Swaziland. I do not know what he does in these places, I only know that he must have been on every airline in the world, and must by now know every customs clerk by first name and bribe rating. I also know that I like very much the way he writes, and above all the way he writes his stories, nobody else’s.

1974: Author note for Tiptree’s “The Women Men Don’t See” from The Best Science Fiction of the Year #3, edited by Terry Carr

Like any branch of literature, science fiction reflects the trends of current thinking. Last year Joanna Russ won a Nebula Award for a feminist story entitled “When It Changed”; this year James Tiptree, Jr., offers  a male viewpoint on the same subject. As you might expect, other than the basic theme, there’s very little similarity between the two stories.

1976: Author notes from Aurora: Beyond Equality, an anthology of “amazing tales of the ultimate sexual revolution” edited by Vonda N. McIntyre and Susan Janice Anderson. The Sheldon story included was “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!” and the Tiptree story was “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”

Raccoona Sheldon, a retired teacher who lives in Wisconsin, has published many articles in technical journals but only recently began writing fiction. “Your Faces, O My Sisters,” uses an especially imaginative approach to explore feminist themes.

James Tiptree, Jr., was born near Chicago but spent most of his childhood in Africa and India. Many of his stories show the influence of these and later explorations in extrapolation to alien worlds in a wider view of human potential, and the variability of social systems. In 1974, he won both the Hugo and Nebula awards.

1977: Author note for “The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats,” from The Best Science Fiction of the Year #6, edited by Terry Carr.

James Tiptree, Jr., has been the mystery man of science fiction for the past several years. No one in the sf community had met him or even knew what he did for a living; his address was a post-office box in Virginia, near enough to Washington, D.C. to make some people suspect that Tiptree was a CIA agent or some such. Others, noting Tiptree stories on feminist themes such a “The Women Men Don’t See” and “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” suggested that Tiptree must be a woman.

Tiptree ignored the rumors as much as possible, issuing little personal information out of the conviction that the stories should be judged for themselves, not as products of a known person with all the expectations and usually irrelevant interpretations to which that situation is prey. But early this year Tiptree finally allowed the truth to come out: “he” is Alice B. Sheldon, 61, a married semiretired experimental psychologist who has recently begun publishing science fiction under the name Raccoona Sheldon.

Of Tiptree, Sheldon wrote to me, “I swear he exists, and is in part dictating this. Much as I hesitate to embrace Jungianism, it seems as though one contains shadow-shelves—or maybe something was waiting to get incarnated.”

The news of Tiptree’s identity is already stirring comment. Theodore Sturgeon remarked in a speech prior to the unveiling that all the major new sf writers with the exception of Tiptree were women—“The exception is now gone,” wrote Charles N. Brown when he broke the news in Locus. But Tiptree/Sheldon was right all along, of course: an author’s identity is irrelevant to any given story.”

1978: Author note for “The Screwfly Solution,” from The Best Science Fiction of the Year #7, edited by Terry Carr.

You’re probably more familiar with “Raccoona Sheldon” under her more famous pen-name “James Tiptree, Jr.” Actually, as I explained in last year’s book, her real name is Alice B Sheldon, and most everyone in the field was stunned (and many delighted) to learn that the author who had written so many excellent stories in a crisp, supposedly “masculine” style is a woman…The fact is, of course, that personal data about an author is seldom, if ever, relevant to our enjoyment of stories; what matters is simply the quality of the stories.

1978: Author note for “The Screwfly Solution,” from The 1978 Annual World’s Best SF edited by Donald A. Wollheim.

[This story] is the sort of thing that readers expect from the mysterious James Tiptree, Jr. And we mention that because Tiptree is no longer a mystery. “He” is the person signing this story. Just add Alice.

1980: Author note for “Slow Music,” from Interfaces: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction edited by Ursula K. Le Guin and Virginia Kidd.

James Tiptree, Jr. is a pseudonym. He is a woman. She is also Raccoona Sheldon. They are an experimental psychologist of great insight, a writer of surpassing strength, and a person of infinite reserve, generosity, and charm.

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(Image from Wikipedia.)

One comment on “Vintage Science Fiction Readings #7–Alice B. Sheldon

  1. Rebecca says:

    This is completely fascinating. Thanks for sharing!

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