The Most Secretive Woman in
the History of Science Fiction

This month marks the centennial of sci-fi
author James Tiptree, Jr., a man who was
as fictional as his make-believe charac

by Ted Gioia
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Who is the most mysterious sci-fi author of them all?

Maybe that fellow L. Ron Hubbard, who decided that a religion from outer
space had a better payback than stories about outer space? Or perhaps
Philip K. Dick, who was convinced he had been possessed by the spirit of
the prophet Elijah?  And let’s not forget
Cordwainer Smith, who apparently
believed that he lived part-time on an alien planet.

But I insist that we add James Tiptree, Jr. to this list.  
August 24 marks the 100th anniversary of Tiptree's
birth, and it is an event well worth celebrating. One of
my favorite genre writers, Tiptree earned a shelf full
of major awards for short stories and novellas back
in the 1970s and 1980s.  And Tiptree's fame lives
on posthumously. Three years ago, Tiptree was
inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Every
year the James Tiptree, Jr. Award is given to a work
of sci-fi and fantasy that explores gender roles.

But there never was a James Tiptree, Jr.

When Tiptree was a rising star of the science fiction
world, any fan who tried to phone the author learned
that no one by that name was listed in the directory.
No author photos could be found on the jacket sleeves of Tiptree’s books.
All requests for public appearances were declined. Influential sci-fi writers
and editors who hoped to meet Tiptree in person found their overtures

David Gerrold, screenwriter for the famous "Trouble with Tribbles"
screenplay on
Star Trek, even went to Tiptree's mailing address in
Alexandria, Virginia, a large rambling home in a wooded area. Knocking
on the door, he was greeted by a diminutive, middle-aged woman who
was puzzled by her visitor’s request to meet James Tiptree, Jr. She had
no idea who he was talking about.

But this absence of firsthand knowledge hardly stopped the sci-fi
community from speculating about the hot new writer on the scene.
Tiptree was "a man of 50 or 55, I guess, possibly unmarried, fond of
outdoor life, restless in his everyday existence," speculated Robert
Silverberg in his introduction to Tiptree's
Warm Worlds and Otherwise.
Silverberg mentions in passing rumors that Tiptree might be a woman,
but was quick to dismiss these suggestions as "absurd"—then added:
"there is something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree's writings."

Readers who wanted the inside scoop on James Tiptree, Jr. would
have done better to skip Silverberg's introduction, and instead mull
over the title to one of the most provocative stories in
the collection,
a tale named “The Women Men Don’t See.”  That describes the writer
of these stories much better than any of the details in the standard
author's bio.

These smart, iconoclastic stories were actually
written by Alice B. Sheldon, who was almost sixty
years old when she won her first Hugo award for
the prescient 'virtual reality' novella "The Girl Who
Was Plugged In." Sheldon had never known anyone
named Tiptree—she found the name on a jar of
English marmalade. But it suited the debonair
persona she hoped to construct for her public image.

This wasn’t the first time Alice Sheldon had adopted
a secret identity. She had learned about secrecy from
the very best teachers while working for Army
intelligence and the CIA. In later life, she found that
these skills helped her in unexpected ways. When
she briefly left her husband in the mid-1950s, he
struggled to find any clue to her whereabouts—and
her spouse, Huntington D. Sheldon was a high-level
CIA spy! "I used my clandestine training to disappear,"
she later boasted. "In a day, I had a new name, a new bank account, had
rented a house and really destroyed all traces of my former personality."

Husband and wife later reconciled, but Alice Sheldon found that this
assumption of a new identity served as a test run for her eventual rebirth
as sci-fi author James Tiptree, Jr. She later denied any attempt to
mislead. "I can’t help what people think sounds male or female," she
complained. But Sheldon clearly put as much energy into creating the
Tiptree persona as she did into making her finely crafted stories.

I can’t blame Silverberg for asserting the masculinity of Mr. Tiptree. The
men in Sheldon’s stories are macho and lustful. They spend a lot of time
looking at women, or concerned with fighting and weapons. As a
youngster, Sheldon had traveled extensively, visiting Central Africa,
Southeast Asia and other far-flung locales, and she gave Tiptree a
similarly cosmopolitan background. Readers probably envisioned Tiptree
as a kind of sci-fi Hemingway, running with the bulls or off on an African
safari. The occasional hints of espionage—Tiptree would turn down a
request for a public appearance because of “secret business”—imparted
an additional 007-ish flavor to the author’s image.

Sheldon can hardly be faulted for this charade. We are familiar with authors
who hide their gender in order to reach a larger audience. But women in
science fiction have faced perhaps the greatest obstacles in gaining
credibility among the genre’s core audience—which has traditionally
been dominated by young males.

Back in 1949, a major science fiction magazine surveyed its fan base,
and learned that only 6.7% of its readers were female. Similar surveys from
the 1970s, when Tiptree started gaining recognition in the field, suggest
that women had grown to around a quarter of the audience for sci-fi. But
female writers still struggled to find acceptance in the field—1970s surveys
of 'all-time favorite' sci-fi stories gave all the top spots to men.   

By taking on the Tiptree image, Sheldon bypassed the stereotypes and
biases that might have limited her otherwise. Many of her predecessors
in the field, such as Andre Norton or C.L. Moore, had already taken
similar steps. Sheldon no doubt recognized that attitudes were changing
in the 1970s—in fact, she corresponded with
Ursula K. Le Guin and
Joanna Russ, who were enjoying success with an overtly feminist brand
of sci-fi during this period. But Tiptree had a different attitude. She was
sympathetic with feminism, joined NOW and at one point started referring
to other women as "sisters." She had romantic entanglements with women,
and saw herself as essentially bisexual. But she also delighted in her ability
to convince the leading men of sci-fi that she was one of their own. Above
all, she took pride in her skill in constructing a double life, and was reluctant
to give it up.

But eventually someone penetrated behind Tiptree’s façade. Sheldon had
shared some details about her mother, whom she had described as an
explorer living in Chicago. A fan used this information to track down an
obituary from the Chicago Tribune, which identified Alice B. Sheldon as
the only survivor of Mary Hastings Bradley, a noted travel writer. The details
of the deceased matched Tiptree's account of his mother, and the author
was soon confronted with the results of this successful sleuthing.

Related Essay:
When Science Fiction Grew Up

Sheldon decided to publicly acknowledge her real identity. She wrote
'coming out' letters to Le Guin and others, taking the opportunity to
apologize for deceiving her literary friends. But like a true master spy,
Sheldon disliked having her cover blown. She continued to publish works
under the name James Tiptree, Jr. and in later days grumbled about
researchers who wanted to write her life story. She even asked her
agent whether she could charge them money for answering their questions.

Sheldon’s final years were marred by illness, both her own and her
husband's. Her 1987 death was a shocking one—the result of a suicide
pact between the couple . After first shooting her husband in his sleep,
she calmly phoned her lawyer to describe what she had done, then turned
the gun on herself. She had been talking about suicide for many years—
the note she left explaining it was dated from 1979. When the police
arrived on the scene, they found the two bodies side-by-side, holding

Tiptree’s reputation has been in the ascendancy since the author’s death.  
A full-scale Tiptree/Sheldon biography was published by Julie Phillips in
2006—and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. And I suspect
a Hollywood movie will eventually bring her story to an even larger
audience. If Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking deserve a bio-pic, why
not the remarkable Alice B. Sheldon?

The centennial of this author’s birth gives us an opportunity to marvel over
the extraordinary deception practiced by the most mysterious woman in
20th century genre fiction. I hope it also gives a few readers an excuse to
get familiar with her writing. But as much as I admire these works, I can't
help concluding that the most impressive fictional character created by
James Tiptree, Jr. was the author himself.

Ted Gioia writes on books, music and popular culture. His latest book Love Songs: The Hidden
, is published by Oxford University Press.

This essay was published on August 23, 2015
Alice Sheldon (aka James Tiptree, Jr.)
Alice Sheldon in Africa as a young girl
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Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
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
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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