A woman of many dangers?

Alex PierceAlexandra Pierce reads, teaches, blogs, podcasts, cooks, knits, runs, eats, sleeps, and observes the stars. Not necessarily in that order of priority. She is a Christian, a feminist, and an Australian. She can be found at her website, and on the Hugo-winning Galactic Suburbia podcast. In 2015 she co-edited Letters to Tiptree in honour of Alice Sheldon’s 100th birthday. Last month, the book won the Convenor’s Award for Excellence at the 2015 Aurealis Awards.

As a young woman, Alice made her debut.

Figuring that the whole point of being a debutante was to snag a husband, she eloped a few days later with a man she’d only just met, becoming Alice Davey. She took society’s expectations in both hands and followed through with far more energy and, some would say, recklessness, than anyone had expected. Alice was a dangerous woman because she was determined to have her way in the world. Even if that sometimes meant making mistakes. This marriage ended in divorce, after an abortion and instances of abuse from her husband. Alice was not meek; she was dangerous.

Come World War II, Alice was desperate to sign up. She was eventually allowed to do so, and ended up analysing aerial photography. So she was certainly dangerous to the Germans. And then when she joined the fledgling CIA, Alice – who soon became Alice Sheldon when she married a work colleague – was probably dangerous to the USSR and other (perceived and real) American foes. To American men, too, she may have been dangerous – as any competent woman can be.

Alice left the CIA to undertake a PhD in psychology, doing occasionally unpleasant things to rats to better understand their behaviour. She completed it and worked for some time at a university. Eventually she left that job and undertook a few other positions. Including farming chickens.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of Sheldon’s multiple careers is precisely that they were multiple (before World War II, she had tried the life of an artist and later worked as an art columnist for a newspaper). Alice was never content to stay in one job for very long. She seemed to get bored easily. She was never content with being just one thing forever. The status quo wasn’t enough. Alice’s professional life marked her out as a dangerous woman partly because she had one – never staying at home keeping house – and because she defied categories.

In her personal life, too, Sheldon bordered on dangerous. Although she married two men, she later admitted that she was probably a lesbian, having had fantasies about women as a young woman; or perhaps she was bisexual. She lived, however, in a time and place where exploring this as a real possibility for life was incredibly difficult. So although Alice’s ‘lived’, socially-perceived sexuality wasn’t dangerous to society – falling as it did within expected norms – the reality inside her body certainly threatened to break convention.

All of these are good reasons for Alice Sheldon to be regarded as a dangerous woman. But the thing she is most famous for, and what made her most dangerous, was undertaken under a different name.

In the 1960s, getting published as a woman was harder work than as a man. Plus, Alice – now Dr Sheldon and working in a university psychology department – was already regarded as a bit of a renegade, so she didn’t need it known that she was writing fiction. And, worse, science fiction.

So Alice picked a new name… and James Tiptree, Jr, was born.

James Tiptree, Jr found success relatively quickly. He won awards and he got attention from some of the big names in science fiction. In the introduction to one of Tiptree’s collections of short fiction, Robert Silverberg declaimed that James Tiptree Jr’s writing was “ineluctably masculine.” So when it came out that “Uncle Tip” was actually Alice Sheldon – thanks to some nosy fans who couldn’t help themselves – the question had to be asked: what does it mean to write like a woman? Can anyone claim to recognise a peculiarly feminine or masculine style of writing? And does it matter?

To some people, yes it does matter. Alice noted that her second writing pseudonym, Raccoona Sheldon, didn’t get nearly the same positive response from editors as Tiptree did.

What Alice chose to write about also made her dangerous. She imagined worlds without any men, which functioned quite nicely thank you very much (“Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” – one of my favourites). She imagined women who were willing to trade a straightforward life on Earth for an uncertain one with aliens because, well, it couldn’t be worse (“The Women Men Don’t See,” which Karen Joy Fowler later riffed on brilliantly in “What I Didn’t See”).

She was writing about women manipulating physical avatars via wireless connections in 1973 (“The Girl Who Was Plugged In” – what I would consider to be an early cyberpunk text, some years before the genre really got going) and the fearful possibilities for humanity if we meet aliens and they’re intoxicatingly attractive (“And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” – a sober corrective to the seduce/conquer aliens narrative). Alice asked hard questions about gender, sexuality, colonialism, and identity in general. She did not present easy solutions or comforting answers.

Alice James Raccoona Bradley Davey Tiptree Sheldon, Jr, was a very dangerous woman.

In 2015, I embarked on a project to recognise Alice Sheldon in the year of her centennial. Along with Alisa Krasnostein, I edited a book that celebrated and interrogated the importance of James Tiptree Jr/Alice Sheldon to the science fiction field, and indeed to female writers and readers, since the 1970s. We got what are essentially fan letters from forty writers, editors and fans, alongside contemporary correspondence and some academic material, to highlight the different things that Alice has been to different people. (Alice had, as Tiptree, been a prolific correspondent.)

We created the book to make sure that Alice doesn’t disappear from sight; Alice is in danger of being relegated to ‘just’ a feminist writer – ‘you know, that one who pretended to be a man?’

But Tiptree’s work is dangerous and powerful and provocative and deserves to be remembered by everyone.

I had loved Tiptree’s work for a while at the time we made the book, and had always known that ‘he’ was a woman. It was therefore fascinating to hear both from people like myself, and from those who lived through the great revelation – and even more, to read long-time correspondent Ursula K Le Guin’s response to Alice’s letter revealing that she was actually a middle-aged woman in Virginia (Alice’s words). Le Guin, happily, declares that this is about the only time that she has been genuinely surprised – and she is elated to discover that Tiptree, rather than being an avuncular figure, is more a sister.

Our book shows that as well as being a dangerous woman, Alice was a good friend, an inspiring writer, and someone who deserves to be remembered.