It began with a letter to a friend with a request: would he be willing to place a note in his fanzine, Khatru, letting people know that the reason he had been out of touch was that his mother had passed away in Chicago. The request came in 1976 from James Tiptree Jr., one of the recent stars writing short fiction. He was elusive; nobody had met or spoken with him in the years that he'd been writing, and there was much speculation about his real identity. The request was the first step toward unveiling who exactly Tiptree was: a 61-year-old woman named Alice Sheldon.
On August 24, 1915, Alice Bradley was born in Chicago, Illinois, to Herbert Bradley, a lawyer, and Mary Hastings Bradley, a well-known author of fiction and travel stories. Mary kept a close eye on her only daughter, especially after her sister, Rosemary, died a day after she was born in 1919. Two years later, the family picked up and traveled to the Congo as part of an expedition to collect a mountain gorilla specimen. Alice, only 6 years old, joined them. It was an exciting and terrifying time for the young girl, and her experience was featured in some of her mother's writing. By 1922, the family returned to the United States, where Alice became something of a celebrity: newspapers ran stories about her exploits, and her parents were heavily involved in projects detailing their trip, ranging from talks to newspaper stories. As the rest of her childhood progressed, she remained extremely close with her mother, while her father became somewhat distant. In 1924, the family was part of a second expedition to central Africa, returning in 1925 by way of Southeast Asia. This time, Alice was the central figure in a new book by her mother, Alice in Jungle Land, which was published in 1927, and Alice in Elephantland, published in 1928. A third, Trailing the Tiger, came out in 1929.
It was in 1929 that Alice found a new passion: fantastic fiction. As noted in the biography James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips, her uncle Harry "went to get an order of literary journals from the local bookstore. When he returned with the package, out fell a large, cheaply printed magazine called Weird Tales...'Ah,' said Uncle Harry. 'Oh. Oh yes. I, ah, picked this up for the child.' 'Uncle Harry,' I said, my eyes bulging. 'I am the child. May I have it please?' " Together, she and her uncle began to read the magazine, and discovered others such as Amazing Stories and Wonder Stories along the way. Alice was enraptured by the fantastic things she was reading about: rockets, monsters, time travel, fantastic voyages that were just as strange as the ones she herself had participated in as a young girl. A year later, the family departed again for Africa, returning in 1931.
After returning home again, Alice briefly married in 1934. It was a rocky and at times violent relationship that lasted until 1941. As World War II broke out across Europe, she remained a committed observer and commentator, even taking flying lessons with the aim to become a pilot. When that didn't work out, she joined the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, and went off to basic training in September. Alice was made a lieutenant and by 1943, when the WAAC was disbanded and reformed into the Women's Army Corps, she was ordered to Washington, D.C., where she became a photo interpreter. Intelligence work suited her, and she took to it wholeheartedly. In May 1945, she was sent off to Europe, where she worked on intelligence work in post-war Europe, and eventually met Huntington Denton 'Ting' Sheldon, a Colonel also overseas in Paris. The pair was engaged by July, four weeks after they first met.
In 1946, the couple returned to the United States and went to work in Washington, where Ting worked with the Central Intelligence Group (Later the Central Intelligence Agency). Alice turned her hand to journalism, but eventually gave it up, although she published a single short story for The New Yorker, “The Lucky Ones” (under the name Alice Bradley). The couple acquired a chicken farm, where she alternately worked with chickens and on her writing. She began submitting short stories to various science fiction magazines—and started collecting rejection letters. In 1952, the pair packed up and moved again, this time back to Washington, where they each took a job with the Central Intelligence Agency.
As Julie Phillips notes in her biography of Sheldon, work at the CIA was a defining feature for Sheldon's future persona: "From the beginning of James Tiptree Jr.'s career, he was rumored to work for the CIA. And ever since, eager science fiction historians have speculated about that work, lengthening Alli's CIA career from three years to fifteen, adding overseas postings that never happened, or claiming she took part in 'illegal, clandestine investigations inside the United States.' " While her career with The Company was short-lived, it added another layer of complexity to her view of the world: Alice was a rare woman in a largely male-dominated institution, one that was as mysterious as it was bureaucratic. Her relationship with her husband was strained, and she was stressed with work at the CIA. By 1955, she left both Ting and the CIA. She eventually returned to Ting the next year, and was accepted to the American University, where she finished out her undergraduate degree and continued on to receive her doctorate in experimental psychology from George Washington University.
The 1960s was a time in which Sheldon's love for science fiction was all the more relevant. According to Julie Phillips: "Alli's old love, science fiction, began to seem less like an escape and more like a discourse as necessary as the news." The military was becoming more advanced as the Cold War heated up, humanity was regularly flying to space, and social revolutions were anticipated on a number of fronts. As Sheldon completed her doctorate, she began to write new stories, over a decade after she'd last submitted fiction to the science fiction genre. Now armed with an academic career, she decided that a penname would help to keep her writing and research work apart. She settled on a name when "[s]he and Ting were shopping in Giant Foods, and she saw a jar of Tiptree jam. She said 'James Tiptree.' Ting said 'Junior.' After they stopped laughing, she decided she liked it—and after all, a male byline was more common in science fiction than a female one."
James Tiptree Jr. was born, and he sold his first story, “Birth of a Salesman” to John W. Campbell Jr. at Analog magazine. The story appeared in the March 1968 issue of the magazine, the first of a prolific and notable career in the genre. Soon, Tiptree made another sale to Frederic Pohl at If magazine: “The Mothership” appeared in the June 1968 issue. Over the next couple of years, more Tiptree stories appeared in magazines such as Galaxy Science Fiction, Fantastic, Venture Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Amazing Stories, as well as anthologies such as Protostars (edited by David Gerrold), New Dimensions II: Eleven Original Science Fiction Stories (edited by Robert Silverberg), and Nova 2 (edited by Harry Harrison). Of those stories, “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain,” published in Galaxy Magazine's March 1969 issue, earned her her first Nebula nomination.
Tiptree made a splash with the March 1972 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which carried her story “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side.” Mike Ashley described the story as one that "deals with a man's physical and sexual attraction to various aliens on board a giant space station. As with all of Tiptree's work, the story conveys a deeper message and a complex one dealing with the extent to which men become slaves to their physical urges, even when it drives them into forbidden areas.” The story would go on to be nominated for both a Nebula and Hugo award and has since become one of Tiptree's best known works.
In the next year, Triptree published another dozen stories, including several highly lauded ones: “The Milk of Paradise” appeared in Harlan Ellison's Again, Dangerous Visions anthology, and “Love is the Plan, The Plan is Death,” which appeared in the April 1973 anthology The Alien Condition, edited by Stephen Goldin. It won a Nebula for best short story in 1974 and was nominated for a Hugo for best novellette in the same year. Another story of hers, “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” was published in New Dimensions 3, edited by Robert Silverberg, winning the 1974 Hugo for best novella and was nominated for a Nebula for best novellette. Finally, in December 1973, Tiptree published “The Women Men Don't See” in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which has also become one of Tiptree’s most famous works.
With her impressive array of fiction, Tiptree had become a rising star in the science fiction world, sometimes publishing under another name, Raccoona Sheldon. David Hartwell recounted that he "read ‘The Last Flight of Dr. Ain’ when it came out in a magazine and was very impressed. I talked to other SF people about it, Bob Silverberg and Terry Carr and Gardner Dozois among them, and they agreed that this was a hot new writer." Joanna Russ noted that "the stuff by me, Tiptree, Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and so on—there's no lead-in to this other world, with its different values or different conditions—you just start off there. Of course, that's modern, too." In particular, her focus on sexuality derived from her own complex feelings on the subject.
Sheldon's alter ego was effective at keeping her academic and writing careers separate, and accordingly, Tiptree was an elusive figure in science fiction circles. There were numerous theories about Tiptree's life: that he was a member of the federal government, potentially a spy, and a masculine figure who understood the depths of the male psyche. Tiptree's stories were also included in the growing number of authors who dealt with female and gender issues, which came out of Sheldon's own life and background. Her stories stood apart from the more conservative hard science stories that were beginning to peter out during the 1970s, focusing on new frontiers and themes that were still relatively unexamined by that point.
In 1976, Sheldon's mother died, and she passed word along to friends that as a result, she had been out of touch. Fans quickly learned the identify of her mother, and made the connection between the man they knew as James Tiptree Jr. and Bradley's surviving daughter, Alice Bradley Sheldon. Soon, Sheldon began to come out to friends: Tiptree was really a woman, and spent a considerable amount of time on the phone speaking with friends, afraid that the deception would be catastrophic. Many, after getting over the initial shock, assured her that they would remain friends.
Sheldon, however, found that with Tiptree's cover blown she had a difficult time trying to regain his voice. After 1977, her prolific output tapered off as she published only a handful of stories into the 1980s. Julie Philips recounted that after this point, "although she eventually wrote a number of stories and another novel, nothing was ever as direct, honest and exciting as her work before she was exposed." She completed her first novel Up The Walls of the World in 1978. A second novel, Brightness Falls from the Air, appeared in 1985.
However, other problems began to arise. Ting's health had begun to fail, and Alice struggled with her own mental health. Over the years, she had spoken openly about the desire to kill herself, or at least die on her own terms. Unbeknownst to everyone else, she and Ting had formed a suicide pact: One wouldn't live without the other. On May 19th, 1987, Sheldon called a lawyer, James Boylan, and informed him that she intended to kill herself that evening. He called the police. While they raced to her house, she shot her husband in the head while he slept. She called Boylan again: "Jim, I have slain Ting by my own hand and I'm about to take my own life, and for God's sake, don't call the police for a few minutes, to give me time to do what I have to do." The police arrived and found the bodies of the Sheldons in their home. Ting was 84, while Alice was 71. Days later, her obituary ran in the Washington Post: "Writer Kills Mate, Herself In Death Pact Alice Sheldon Wrote As James Tiptree Jr."
The reaction in fandom to Tiptree's death was raw: David Hartwell noted "I was angry and disappointed. I felt she had a right to kill herself, but that I also had a right to be angry at her for giving up and doing it." Others shared their shock at the turn of events, and Hartwell observed that "[h]er suicide was initially received with grief and a kind of reverence, she was made a mythic hero, and the fact that she killed her husband elided in the aftermath by her fans and readers."
In 1990, author Pat Murphy was speaking to fellow author Richard Kadney, who mentioned, “[y]ou know what would really piss people off? You ought to give out a women’s science fiction award." The idea stuck with her, and she mentioned it to another author, Karen Joy Fowler, a few weeks later, who suggested that the award be named after Tiptree. The idea was approved by the late writer's estate. The James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award was then announced at the 1991 WisCon. The award would be "an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender," and the first year's recipients were A Woman of the Iron People by Eleanor Arnason and White Queen by Gwyneth Jones. Other authors to receive the award are Nicola Griffith, Ursula K. Le Guin, Elizabeth Hand, John Kessel, Joe Haldeman, Caitlin R. Kiernan and many others.
In 2006, Julie Phillips' major biography on Sheldon won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was hailed by the New York Times as "achiev[ing] its own kind of narrative tension, a spell that obliges even the readers already clued in to Tiptree’s secret to turn the book’s pages with increasing suspense as they wait for its real-life inhabitants to catch up with them." The book provided an extremely detailed look at Sheldon's life, and eventually won a special award from the Tiptree award committee. Sheldon herself was honored with a Solstice Award in 2010 and an induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2012. Since her death in 1987, science fiction has continued to explore the roles of gender and identity, with an entirely new generation of authors following in her footsteps.