A Tunnel in the Sky

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James Tiptree, Jr.

Profiled by Galen Strickland
Posted November 27, 2000, with later edits

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This was the most commonly used pseudonym of Dr. Alice Hastings Bradley Sheldon (1915-1987), a clinically trained psychologist and a former operative of the CIA. Her father was a lawyer and world traveller and her mother was a world famous geographer and author of more than thirty travel books. Much of her formative years were spent in Africa and India and her first career was that of a graphic artist and painter. She then joined the Army and spent most of World War 2 in a Pentagon sub-basement, working in photo intelligence for the Army Air Corps. It was there she met her second husband, Huntington Sheldon.

She was discharged in 1946 having obtained the rank of Major. The Sheldons attempted a business venture, which failed. They both then joined the newly formed CIA, her husband retaining his position with that agency when she resigned in 1955. She attended college sporadically for many years, and also taught statistics and psychology. She obtained her doctorate in experimental psychology in 1967. The following year her first SF story - "Birth of a Salesman" - appeared in Analog (as by Tiptree), although she had previously published a story in The New Yorker under her real name as early as 1946.

Her pen-name was derived from a brand label on a jar of marmalade - don't bother looking for that label in your supermarket unless you live in England - and her most convincing argument for its use was that her business colleagues would be sure to censure her if they knew she wrote science fiction. Her true identity was not known for many years by even the editors who purchased her stories. She never met or spoke on the telephone with anyone connected with publishing, and all correspondence was directed to a post office box in rural Virginia. In various letters to editors, fanzines, and other writers an outline of her biography was given, and although her work included several sensitive and sympathetic female characters, it was generally assumed that Tiptree was male. I have never been sure exactly when and by whom her deception was discovered, but it did not occur until sometime in 1976, around the time of the death of her mother. As late as 1975, Robert Silverberg, in his introduction to Tiptree's second short story collection, Warm Worlds and Otherwise, would make this very bold and now obviously incorrect remark: "It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree's writing."

This was for a collection that included a story which in retrospect should have given us unmistakable clues as to the gender of the writer. The title itself is quite ironic—"The Women Men Don't See"—and the story is a veritable microcosm of the man/woman dilemma. The narrator is a male who escorts two women toward their rendezvous with an alien spacecraft. He is unable to understand their motives, but it is evident they view the adventure as merely trading one set of alien masters for another which may prove to be more tolerable. This story was nominated for a Nebula in 1974, but Tiptree withdrew it from competition. She would later reveal to Ursula LeGuin her reason for doing so was the many remarks concerning the story being an example that a man was capable of writing interesting and sympathetic female characters, and a prize for the story would have only added to the deceit her pseudonym had already created.

Her first collection, Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home, published in 1973, included fifteen stories that had originally appeared in various magazines and original anthologies from 1968 to 1972. If I am not mistaken, there was only one printing of this title (in the US at least), in paperback from Ace Books, which is unfortunate. Even though containing her earliest stories, the book is a treasure-trove of unique concepts and themes and was a most impressive debut, and it includes my favorite of her stories, "The Man Who Walked Home." The book layout was poorly planned however. There is no table of contents to tell you on which page a particular story begins, and it is doubly difficult to find a particular story since each begins on the same page as the ending of the previous story, and the titles are not in a large or bold font to distinguish them from the rest of the text. On top of that, the acknowldgement page misrepresents the title of her first published story, listing it as "Death (rather than 'Birth') of a Salesman," although that error is corrected on the story title later in the book. Another of the better stories, the oft-anthologized "Beam Us Home," is a bitter-sweet and affectionate tribute to the popularity of an unnamed, but obvious, television program.

Along with "The Women Men Don't See," her second collection includes several other impressive stories, most notably two award winners, "Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death" (Nebula) and "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" (Hugo). The latter is considered by many to be the first of the cyberpunk tales, long before William Gibson arrived on the scene. Others that I would recommend are "All the Kinds of Yes" and "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain." Star Songs of an Old Primate was the next collection, published in 1978, a little more than a year following the revelation of Tiptree's true identity. The most notable story is again an investigation into the gulf between the sexes. "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" won both the Hugo (in a tie with Spider Robinson's "By Any Other Name") and Nebula awards as the best novella published in 1976. In it a crew of three American astronauts are caught up in an intense solar storm which apparently propels them through a time vortex into a world several hundred years into their future. A devastating plague has reduced the human population to just a few thousand, all female, whose only means of reproduction is the cloning of several basic genome types.

During her twenty year SF career Tiptree concentrated primarily on shorter works, and only published two novels. The first of these, Up the Walls of the World, came in 1978. It is rich in narrative technique, and although it was a Hugo nominee I feel it is a sadly neglected example of the best of space opera. A government investigation into telepathy is successful in a most frightening manner, joining the consciousnesses of the human experimenters with those of an alien race, whose own telepathic attempts were intended to be directed toward a menacing being slowly destroying all the solar systems in its path. Another seven years would pass before her next novel, Brightness Falls from the Air, which concerns the various people who have gathered on the far planet Damiem to witness the spectacle of the expanding wavefront of a novaed star twenty light-years distant.

Out of the Everywhere, a collection from 1981, included four stories which had been published under another pseudonym, Raccoona Sheldon. One of them, "The Screwfly Solution," was another Nebula-winner, and others of interest include the previously unpublished "With Delicate Mad Hands," along with "We Who Stole the Dream," and "Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces, Filled of Light!" Tiptree created many varied and interesting alien characters for her stories, but it could be said that some of the most alien are the humans. Her work is permeated with the frustrations humanity experiences as unique and separate individuals, most often unable to connect emotionally and intellectually with others. This was most apparent in her later work from the mid-80s, collected in Crown of Stars, posthumously published in 1988. She had experienced several serious illnesses, and her husband had contracted Alzheimers, thus this later work was full of dark and forboding themes. Two other collections, published in 1986, showcased linked stories; Tales of the Quintana Roo included three stories set on the southeastern coast of Mexico, and The Starry Rift, set in the same milieu as Brightness Falls from the Air, is most likely portions initially edited out of that novel. Two later collections, Byte Beautiful and Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, contain no new stories, but rather reprint selections from the previous collections. The latter, containing eighteen of her best works, would be the one to get if you could find it, but unfortunately it was from a small, specialty printer and is currently unavailable.

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Recently, another collection has been published - Meet Me at Infinity. I do not have any information on this collection other than noting the cover image on amazon states it includes previously uncollected stories.

Even though her persona was penetrated mid-way through her writing career, Tiptree/Sheldon will forever remain an intriguing mystery. She rarely spoke of her personal life, and never of her work for the government, so it is through her fiction we must attempt an analysis of her philosophy and her legacy. Sadly, the end of her life was as tragic as the previous years had been enigmatic. In failing health herself, she fulfilled a promise she had made to her now blind and bed-ridden husband years before. On May 19, 1987, she shot him and then turned the gun on herself. They were found, hands tightly clasped, laying side by side on his bed. She is sorely missed.

UPDATE: A newly published biography is now available - James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Philips. I have yet to read it, but I should, since it reportedly gives an alternate view of her and her husband's death.

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Related Links:
A good Tiptree Fan Page
Danny Yee reviews Brighness Falls From the Air and Her Smoke Rose Up Forever
Yee's review of Meet Me at Infinity
The Tiptree Bibliography at fantasticfiction.com


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August 24, 1915
Chicago, Illinios

May 19, 1987

Fan Website

2 Hugos
2 Nebulas
1 World Fantasy
SF Hall of Fame (2012)