Archive for July 2009

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

8 July 2009
Categories: From the armchair

coverFor whatever reason, when I’m given books as gifts, I often don’t read them for a very long time afterward. They sit on the “pending” shelf in my library, gathering dust like all the rest, taunting me by tacitly saying, “me next!” But they only rarely make it to the head of the reading queue.

I suppose I could speculate on some reasons for this. One is the basic assumption of friends that I’ll like to read what they like to read. That’s not always the case. Slightly more off-base is the assumption that I’ll like what they think I’ll like. These are, of course, the normal pitfalls of gift books. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure that the majority of books I’ve gifted over the years have similarly languished on shelves. I have no hard feelings about that fact, and so I suppose I should not feel all that guilty for doing the same.

To be honest, nearly every book I add to my collection tends to sit on the shelf for quite a while before I get around to reading it. Such is the way of the avid book collector.

Moreover, though, there’s the simple fact of my tendencies when selecting new reading. I like to think that the next book chosen is generally either a logical progression or wildly divergent from the last, but perhaps that’s not really true. In a quick review of my reading selections of the past few years, I see that they hop between several of my favourite topics—in particular space and history, and their literary adjuncts sci-fi and historical fiction—with the occasional digression into what can only be termed research reading, mainly into the history of my alma mater, Michigan State University. And then, mixed amongst those, there’s the odd book that doesn’t really fit into my usual routine but piques my curiosity due to interesting reviews, or coincidences with other media, etc., such as In Cold Blood (the movie Capote), The Dangerous Book For Boys (several rave reviews and sale-priced at Costco), The Barn House (excerpted in the Chicago Reader), and The French Connection (again, the movie), to name a few.

Into this fray leapt my friend David, who presented me with a hardcover copy of James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips. I’d read a positive and intriguing article about this book in the Reader, and so it was on my radar as something I might want to read some day. Yet given that the article ran nearly three years ago, it’s clear that I would not have gotten to it any time soon—had David not pressed the issue by giving me a copy for my birthday, and later asking an innocent question about whether I’d started reading it yet.

Here’s the thing. I’m pretty sure I’ve never read anything by James Tiptree Jr.

As a kid, I got into sci-fi in grade school and read a bunch of it over the years, mostly sticking to stuff by a few of the “heavies”: Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein. Around the time I graduated from college, I decided to expand my horizons and look beyond the familiar… but not knowing quite where to start, I decided to delve into the lists of Hugo and Nebula award winners. I could not have made a better choice—it was like having my own personal sci-fi Virgil to guide me. That’s how I discovered many of my very favourite authors, including Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester, Samuel Delany, and David Brin.

(As an aside, I’m interested to note that four visits to my website this week have been the result of searches on “sci-fi book recommendations”—it turns out Google has my page currently listed third. Awesome. Google still loves me. As a result, I amended that page to suggest the Hugo and Nebula lists.)

Helping me considerably in my quest for quality sci-fi was Curious Book Shop in East Lansing. Long before authors like Delany enjoyed a renewed interest and subsequent re-issuance, I could almost always count on Curious to have the out-of-print paperbacks. (Sad to say, despite having borrowed its name from a classic Alfred Bester title, Chicago’s now-defunct shop The Stars Our Destination always came in a distant second to Curious in terms of both selection and price.) For example, one of Bester’s works, The Computer Connection, didn’t make Vintage’s reprint cut a dozen years ago, but I didn’t mind because I’d already managed to find the Analog 1974/5 three-issue serialisation (with the unfortunate title The Indian Giver) in the basement at Curious.

But I never read Tiptree, and here’s why: he mainly wrote short stories. Back when I was hitting Curious on a weekly basis, it was in the very early days of the web and it was not as easy as it is now to determine where these stories have been published. On the rare occasion when I could figure out a source, it often involved some thick anthology, which felt unfrugal to purchase for the sake of a single entry. So I stuck to the Best Novel lists.

To my detriment, it would seem—Tiptree’s stories sound fascinating. And if I may offer one caveat regarding Phillips’ biography, having read fewer than a hundred pages into it, I fear that it might contain more than a few spoilers—it already has given away a couple of endings. Perhaps it would be in my best interest to seek out some of Tiptree’s work in advance of finishing the biography.

Easily done, of course. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever collects several of his best-regarded works, including the Nebula Award–winning “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death,” the Hugo Award–winning “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” and the Hugo and Nebula Award–winning “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” Nowadays, there’s something called the “Internet Speculative Fiction Database” that makes that kind of fact-finding simple; not to mention for a quick and easy shopping spree. (Sorry, Curious… just can’t make a 200-mile road trip right now.)

Trouble is, The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon is awfully hard to put down. I’m fascinated by Alice’s childhood experiences in the disparate but equally wild jungles of the Belgian Congo and Chicago’s upper-class society. Julie Phillips employs clear understanding and deft phrasing to explain the origins of her “double life” in language that avoids stereotyping and value judgments. When discussing written works she treats Sheldon and Tiptree as distinct, using both gender-specific pronouns depending on whether she (Sheldon) or he (Tiptree) was the writer, a conceit I have followed here.

All in all, I doubt I’ll be able to hold off on finishing this terrific biography before a box with the familiar smiley-swoosh arrives. Thank you, David!