James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

At long last Julie Phillips‘ superlatively brilliant biography of Alice Hastings Bradley Davies Sheldon/James Tiptree, Jr./Raccoona Sheldon is out. Alli (as Alice was known) was endlessly fascinating. She was the child of adventurers who waltzed her around Africa and India as a child. She grew up to be an artist (before quitting cause she didn’t think she was good enough), joined the military during World War 2, worked for the CIA, ran a chicken farm, became a Ph.d in psychology, as well as two different science fiction writers: James Tiptree, Jr. and Raccoona Sheldon. Quite the cv.

Julie’s biography more than does justice to Alli Sheldon. It’s beautifully written and exhaustively researched. There’s not a false note anywhere. Julie’s written the book I wanted to write. Literally.

Back in 1996 I’d almost finished my Ph.D. thesis (The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction). I’d also already figured out what my next project would be: a bio of Tiptree. I had the seed for it in the chapter on Tiptree from Battle. I wrote to my friend, Gordon Van Gelder, who was then an editor at St Martin’s Press, and asked if he thought there’d be any interest. He replied instantly to say not only was there interest but he’d just signed up such a book that very week. A journalist named Julie Phillips was going to write it.

I cried.

And then I weasled info about Julie out of Gordon. He sent me her Tiptree article from the Village Voice. It was excellent, which was a relief (Alli’s in good hands), and a bit of a bummer (she’s not going to drop the ball so that I can step in and take over). We started corresponding and wound up sending each other all the Tiptree material the other one didn’t have. My chapter on Tiptree got a whole lot better; Julie went on to spend a total of ten years researching and writing the Tiptree biography. And we became friends.

I could not have produced the book that Julie did. For starters I don’t have that kind of stamina: ten years exclusively on the one book! I’d die. Nor do I have her awesome research skills. (I’m good at archival material, not so good at getting reluctant folks to agree to interviews, let alone drawing them out.) Plus it turns out that I’m much happier writing fiction than non-fiction. (Making things up is so much easier than researching them.)

Julie’s also a gorgeous writer who knows how to stand back from her material. Julie lets Alli speak for herself. Her commentary about Alli’s life are more musings than conclusions. She gives the reader space to draw their own. (I can think of several biographers I wish would do the same!)

I’ve read The Double Life through various different drafts, each better than the last. The final version is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. Do yourself and favour and get hold of a copy immediately.


  1. Jenny Davidson on #

    Oh, what a good post, thank you! I can’t wait to read this book….

  2. janet on #

    But it’s still not out, dammit! At least, I haven’t been able to find a copy yet. Official pub date is Tuesday….

  3. heather w on #

    I cannot stand this torture! all these reviews taunting me with a great book THAT I CAN’T BUY YET. ARGH!!!

  4. Justine on #

    I wasn’t meaning to torture anyone, honest. It was on sale at her reading more than a week ago so I just assumed it was out. Would have held off posting if I’d realised.

  5. heather w on #

    since you do have a copy in hand, here’s a question – I’m headed to London the day it comes out, and I’ve assumed the book is heavier than I’d like to cart around for a week in a suitcase. Any chance it’s printed on superlight space-age paper that weighs a fraction of regular stock?

  6. Justine on #

    Alas and alack the book is heavy. Sorry!

  7. julie phillips on #

    Thanks Justine. I don’t know about stamina, though. Alli was great company, and I’m still thinking of things that ought to have been in the book. I probably would have gone on writing it for another ten years if Gordon hadn’t dragged it out of my hands — and if you hadn’t kept saying you wanted to read it.

    You would have done a great job on Tiptree, but then I wouldn’t have learned nearly as many Australian words. I’m just about to start Magic Lessons, lucky me.

  8. Bill Phillips on #

    I agree with your appraisal of “Tip” 100%. It’s deeply personal and totally non-judgemental. (Julie is my daughter).

  9. Justine on #

    Julie: (So sorry your comment got lost in the spam filters. Aaargh!) No one could have done what you did! No one.

    Bill Phillips: I can confidently say that even those who are not related to her or friends with her think the book is a work of genius. How about all those amazing reviews, eh?

    You must be very proud of Julie. I know I am.

  10. Suzette Haden Elgin on #

    Like everyone else, I’m having a hard time waiting to get my hands on this book, and I’m grateful to all the reviewers who’ve been giving me tiny advance glimpses. I’m hoping it sells gazillions of copies.

    My sympathies to you for having had it taken away from you; that has to have been frustrating. But all has obviously turned out well…

  11. Katie on #

    I just finished it this minute. I have been emailing a dear friend at each point in which I felt caught up and sometimes overwhelmed: the chicken farm alone took up 3 emails, her mother dying was only too close to events I am struggling with, disappointed with the Shatner roast I emailed she liked Star Trek and Spock, and the correspondence with Russ and La Guin often had me in tears. Actually I wept over and over reading this book — it touched my life in so many ways, from her WAC years in places my mother had told me about (I read them to her although I’m not sure what she understood now), to the SF authors I loved and that she knew in her way. I trolled through the web for info on people I wondered about what was happening for them: looking for Russ especially, and finding the interview by Delany at WisCon.

    And then last night, carrying the book around, I was at a dinner party and mentioned I was finishing it up, and it turned out that a person there had gone to AU with Sheldon, had become friends with her, and had known her up til her death. I didn’t get to hear a lot about this and hope to learn more as appropriate, but it was one of those moments of life and life touching.

    Biographies aren’t usually this cathartic for me, healing and overwhelming simultaneously. This is really a very amazing book.

  12. Justine on #

    Katie: It’s hard to get across just how extraordinary this book is but I think you’ve done it!

    It’s not just that Tip/Alli is so interesting—it’s that their life cut across so many of the pivotal moments/movements of the twentieth century. Julie has done the most amazing job.

    Yeah, I cried too reading it. Quite a lot. Can’t wait to reread it!

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