Phillips' approach is chronological, with some forward and backward references, and straightforwardly descriptive. In places she steps back to provide some context, but there's no attempt to impose an overriding psychological framework or thesis. Her narrative remains solidly grounded in Tiptree and Sheldon's stories and letters, interviews with her friends and acquaintances, and other sources.
It is two hundred pages, half way through James Tiptree, Jr., before Tiptree appears and science fiction takes centre stage, so those only interested in the science fiction connection might be tempted to skip some of the earlier material. The one can't be understood without the other, however, and while Sheldon would not have merited a biography without Tiptree, there's no shortage of excitement in her earlier life.
Alli — the nickname Alice later preferred and which Phillips mostly uses — was born Alice Hastings Bradley in 1915. Her early life was dominated by her mother Mary, a notable writer, explorer and socialite. Alice was taken on expeditions to Africa three times, at age 6, 9 and 15 and went to finishing school in Switzerland. She was pretty and social, but also experienced an early out-of-place-ness; her original vocation was as a painter. At the end of 1934 she abruptly married William Davey, with whom she stayed, with some separations, "for six and half restless, violent years", leading a bohemian life.
During the war Alli found a niche in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corp and then Women's Army Corp, working in photointelligence. This led to a posting to Germany and meeting with "Ting" Sheldon, who she married in 1945. After the war they ran a chicken hatchery and then worked for the CIA, though Alli's job there was low level. She returned to university, doing a doctorate and then research in psychology, investigating rat behavior.
There's little mundane about any of this, but Phillips resists the temptation to make more of it than is warranted. She doesn't exaggerate the importance of Alli's wartime work or her CIA status, for example, or make a mystery of the connection with Africa.
Phillips continues with a chronological narrative, following Tiptree's public career and Alli's private life together. The later part of the biography is more vivid and engaging, perhaps because its sources are mostly more immediate: Tiptree writing letters about the present rather than the past, for example.
Apart from an early encounter with Weird Tales through a friend of the family, and a brief foray into writing during the 50s, science fiction had played little part in Alli's life so far. But the genre was to offer her a new freedom, an opening for creative expression and social connection. The creation of the Tiptree alter-ego was more spur-of-the-moment than planned, but was in many ways a natural expression of her character.
Speculation about Tiptree's identity was widespread: Robert Silverberg notoriously rejected suggestions he might be a woman on the grounds that there was "something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree's writing". But Phillips sticks to an internal perspective, exploring how writing as Tiptree both liberated Alli and constrained her.
"Like the genre itself, the Tiptree name also allowed Alli to play, to take her writing less seriously. It freed her from the need to be a genius. The stories that came out at first were often silly or scatological, as if Alli were testing her freedom: Can I really say anything? Make bathroom jokes? Tell dirty stories?"Alli used a second pseudonym "Raccoona Sheldon" as a outlet for experiences and ideas that couldn't be fitted into Tiptree. And the revelation of her identity changed both the way she approached writing and the results.
There's plenty for those interested in science fiction history: correspondence and friendship with Frederik Pohl, Harlan Ellison, Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Barry Malzberg and many other writers and editors; winning Nebula and Hugo awards; participation in a famous 1974/75 symposium on women in science fiction; and more.
Alli also worked on a never-finished book The Human Male, which seems to have contained sociobiological ideas before they became fashionable. And she continued a long struggle with depression, controlled use of amphetamines, and the still dominating presence of her mother. In 1987 she killed her husband and then herself.
This bald summary doesn't capture the way Phillips weaves details together, using her broad range of sources without letting them intrude into the story — or subjecting them to analysis. In a few places this is unsatisfying: how much should we make, for example, of two vague and inconsistent references, in letters forty years later, to a teenage incident of near-incest with her mother? But mostly she leaves us confidently trusting her selection and dissection of material.
The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon is an essential resource for a key period in the history of science fiction. It is also an effective biography, a sensitive and insightful account of a woman's struggle to fit creativity and independence in with social and psychological constraints. Alli was exceptional, but many will find resonances in her life as a geek and misfit to whom science fiction offered a haven.
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