No one named Tiptree can be found in the Manhattan phone directory,
Robert Silverberg notes in his introduction to
Warm Worlds and
(1975) by the mysterious James Tiptree, Jr. Nor could
Silverberg find the name in phone books from the San Francisco
area. He also came up emptyhanded when
consulting the
Encyclopedia Britannica
where the only Tiptree mentioned was a
heath in Britain, some 25 hectares in Essex
County best known for the cultivation of berries.

Poor Mr. Silverberg!  He had been asked to
write the introduction to a collection of science
fiction short stories by an author he had never
seen—nor had anyone else in the sci-fi
community. Even the name Tiptree seemed
phoney, let alone the various autobiographical
details, that had slipped out over the years,
about an enigmatic recluse who had held
various vaguely-described positions in
unnamed organizations, and traveled to many
far-flung places. Given the intense secrecy
surrounding this writer, many believed Tiptree must be, in Silverberg's
words, "a government agent involved in high-security work."  

Of Tiptree's talent, there could be little doubt. In just a few years, he
had published a series of provocative stories, and earned some high
profile awards, including a Hugo for the novella "The Girl That Was
Plugged In" (1974) and a Nebula for the short story “Love is the Plan
the Plan is Death” (1973)—both included in
Warm Worlds and
. Tiptree would win two more Nebulas in later years, for,
"Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" (1976) and "The Screwfly
Solution" (1977), the latter published under the name Raccoona

Left to hypothesis and speculation, Silverberg delivered the best
biographical sketch he could offer of the recluse author. He
envisioned Tiptree as "a man of 50 or 55, I guess, possibly
unmarried, fond of outdoor life, restless in his everyday existence,
a man who has seen much of the world and understands it well."  
In a passage destined for embarrassing notoriety, he wrote: "It has
been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd,
for there is something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree's writings."

Nice try!  James Tiptree, Jr. turned out to be an alias for Alice
Bradley Sheldon, who was almost 60 years old when Silverberg
wrote these words. Over the course of her career, she had served as
a major in the military, worked as a painter and graphic artist, wrote
art criticism for the
Chicago Sun, earned a PhD in experimental
psychology, and also earned a paycheck a CIA operative.  Finally,
in her early 50s, she took on the alias James Tiptree (drawing the
name from a brand of
marmalade) and started writing science fiction.  

Tiptree’s early stories were fanciful and flippant, and very much in the
spirit of escapist pulp fiction. She came up with entertaining variants
on the major sub-genre categories, including several different time
travel stories and a range of traditional space operas. On the basis of
these early works alone, however, Tiptree
would merely rank as a  solid journeyman
author of sci-fi stories.  But by 1973, she
was moving beyond formulas, and creating
genuine innovative work.

"Love is the Plan and the Plan is Death"
dispenses completely with the heroic
pretensions of pulp fiction. Indeed, the
story operates without a single human or
human-like character, and can perhaps best
be described as a philosophical exploration
of the conflict between reason and instinct
as narrated by a large insect-like alien. Yet
even Kafka’s "The Metamorphosis" seems
straightforward compared with Tiptree's
dense, indirect style of storytelling in these
pages. I'm not surprised that this story never
appeared in a sci-fi magazine—few readers
of those periodicals would have been prepared
for such a radical departure from the usual fare.  
But it did earn a well-deserved Hugo nomination as well as a Nebula
and an award from
Locus magazine.  

"The Women Men Don’t See," also from 1973, keeps closer to the
familiar ingredients of the classic adventure story—at least, in its
opening pages. A plane crashes in an isolated coastal area in Latin
America, and four individuals struggle to survive until a rescue team
arrives.  The science fiction angle doesn't emerge until the very end of
this novelette, when the rescuers turn out to be extraterrestrials. But the
most interesting twist here is in Tiptree's willlingness to challenge all
the conventional gender roles associated with adventure stories.  If
Silverberg had paid more attention to this tale, he might well have
figured out that Tiptree was a woman. As it stands, "The Women Men
Don't See" ranks among the most persuasive feminist works in the
annals of science fiction, and the quirks and eccentricities of character
Ruth Parson probably tell you more about the real woman behind
James Tiptree, Jr. than you will find anywhere else in her published

The third Tiptree masterwork from 1973, "The Girl Who Was Plugged
In," is my favorite tale by this author—and, by any measure, one of the
great sci-fi stories of the era. There are many reasons to admire this
novella. First, Tiptree made some brilliant imaginative leaps in
anticipating the future, devising one of the earliest fictional explorations
of virtual reality.  Current-day users of Facebook or Twitter, or the
growing ranks of teenage smartphone addicts, might even take a
much-needed warning from "“The Girl Who Was Plugged In." But I'm
even more impressed by the acute insights into neuroses and
personality disorders that Tiptree shows in this work. As mentioned
above, this author earned a PhD in psychology before turning to
literary pursuits, and this novella shows how acutely she understood
the contradictions of the human psyche. Above all, this is that greatest
rarity of sci-fi: a story the impresses us through the genuine pathos
and tragedy of its characters, rather than via dazzling technologies
and far-fetched concepts.  

Shortly after the publication of
Warm Worlds and Otherwise,
Tiptree came clean, and the sci-fi world learned that the rough-
and-tumble middle-aged man supposedly behind these books
was an elderly woman, but still as rough-and-tumble as they came.
But the Hugo and Nebula awards stopped coming at that point,
and the two novels she wrote in her final years were poorly received
and are now unavailable in print format. Yet this author is due for
a reevaluation—in fact, one is long overdue. Next year marks the
centennial of her birth, and this might just be the moment when
publishers and readers give her works the serious consideration
they deserve.

Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture. His next book, Love
Songs: The Hidden History
is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Publication Date: June 30, 2014
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

by James Tiptree, Jr.

Essay by Ted Gioia
Alice Bradley Sheldon
(aka James Tiptree, Jr.)
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Abbott, Edwin A.

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Barefoot in the Head

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Report on Probability A

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The House of the Spirits

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Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

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Time's Arrow

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The Foundation Trilogy

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I, Robot

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The Handmaid's Tale

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Something Wicked This Way Comes

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A Clockwork Orange

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2001: A Space Odyssey

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Little, Big

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House of Leaves

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

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The Man in the High Castle

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Camp Concentration

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Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

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I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

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Like Water for Chocolate

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To Your Scattered Bodies Go

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American Gods

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Burning Chrome

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The Magicians

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The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

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Time Enough for Love

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Winter's Tale

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Practical Magic

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Brave New World

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Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

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Flowers for Algernon

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The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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Gods Without Men

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Nine Hundred Grandmothers

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The Dispossessed

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The Big Time

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Conjure Wife

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Swords & Deviltry

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The Wanderer

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His Master's Voice

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Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

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Magic for Beginners

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Doctor Faustus

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100 Years of Solitude

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Love in the Ruins

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Gravity's Rainbow

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Dying  Inside

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Cat's Cradle

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Lord of Light

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This Immortal

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Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
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Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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