2015 is the centenary of the birth of Alice B. Sheldon, who was one of the twentieth century’s best writers of science fiction—under the name of James Tiptree, Jr. Tiptree began writing SF in 1967 and was outed as Alice B. and Raccoona Sheldon in 1977, after which her writing career never fully recovered. Letters to Tiptree, edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Alexandra Pierce, seeks to celebrate both Tiptree's biography and bibliography, and what they have meant for people in the field. Most of the book consists of letters from a range of contemporary writers, scholars, and critics, which the editors have supplemented with extracts from Tiptree's correspondence with Ursula K. Le Guin and the late Joanna Russ in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as selections from scholarly works pertaining to Tiptree and the Tiptree Award, named in her honor.
I admit it seems somewhat unfair to criticize the letters that the contemporary writers have penned to Tiptree. I was, however, struck by the fact that some of them, like L. Timmel Duchamp, muse on the difference between the largely lost art of letter-writing versus texting and email but neglect to consider the significant fact that these letters were designed to be read by the readers of Letters to Tiptree. Being written for publication makes them very different than the letters between Tiptree and Le Guin or Tiptree and Russ that are included in the second part of the book, and which are always fascinating, frequently wrenching, and sometimes just flat-out wild, such as the letter in which Russ essentially propositioned Sheldon after her outing. The latter were personal correspondence; the former are public statements, even if they tactfully pretend otherwise.
So what do these statements say? Almost all of the letter-writers are well-versed in Julie Phillips' biography James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (2006), to the point that the biography is almost as much of a presence in this volume as Tiptree's own works. Phillips' book examined "Alli" Sheldon's views on her own gender and sexuality and her choice to begin writing science fiction via a masculine persona with nuance and understanding, with the result that the rare letter written by someone who is apparently either not familiar with or who chooses to disregard Alli’s tortured reaction to Tiptree being outed is difficult to read. Although Tiptree’s eventual unmasking as "an old lady in Virginia" pulled the rug out from under science fiction's chauvinists, Alli Sheldon herself paid dearly for the revelation, and Karen Miller's writing about "the delicious glee [whose?] when the truth was finally revealed" seems to belong to some other, triumphalist narrative that isn't Tiptree's. Yet one thing the anthology makes clear is that as readers and writers we construct our own influences, and what we take from the books and authors we encounter is ultimately entirely personal: Miller's Tiptree is an outlier in the anthology, and not grounded in the historical record, but that doesn’t make her vision of Tiptree invalid, just idiosyncratic.
Since they are ultimately so personal, some letters resonated far more with my own feelings on the state of the field in 2015, particularly for women, than others. It's a shame that most of the letters are undated, but it seems likely that at least some predate the rise of the so-called sad puppies, and I have to wonder whether the events of the past six months have led any of the letter-writers to change their assessments. Many letters rightly point to the state of LGBTQ rights, of trans and genderqueer activism, of women in science fiction, as evidence of progress since the year of Tiptree's unmasking in 1977, or of Alli's suicide a decade later. But the narrative of progress is only part of the story, and I wonder whether these letters can't productively be read in conversation with the narrators of many Tiptree stories who, in Phillips' phrase, have "no idea what is really going on." We should probably be asking ourselves whether the profoundly deluded protagonist of "Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!", one of the stories most frequently mentioned in the anthology, isn't much more relevant to our own situation than any of us would like.
Of those who are openly skeptical, despairing, or angry, Tiptree Award-winner Catherynne M. Valente’s letter stood out to me as perhaps the one that most accurately depicted science fiction's current gendered contradictions. She writes that:
Publishing is an industry overwhelmingly led by women. . . . But the readership/viewership of science fiction and fantasy is still assumed to be overwhelmingly male. Male taste (the simplistic formula that is assumed to be male taste—violence, science, profanity, unclothed women, the id given free rein) is considered mainstream. A male protagonist is normal, literary, serious, even edgy. A female protagonist is YA or urban fantasy. The level of abuse and humiliation piled on women in movies, video games, and television was once reserved for exploitation flicks. Now it is prime time.
I wish I had better news than that.
Those very gendered contradictions are what make this book so important. As more than one letter-writer notes, the afterlife of big-name male authors in the field is a given, but for women writers of equal or greater stature and talent, it's anything but a certainty. Just as men have readers and women have fans, men have legacies while women have their papers found in an abandoned storage unit by pawnbrokers and sold to the highest bidder—if they’re lucky. Too many of the openly female authors who were Russ and Tiptree’s contemporaries in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s are utterly forgotten now despite the quality and even quantity of their works. Rule zero of Joanna Russ' How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983) isn’t, but might as well be, "Forget that she wrote it at all," and rule 0.5 could be phrased as "Don’t reprint it."
All of which is why Letters to Tiptree is such a valuable project: the anthology is an eloquent testament to the power of both sides of Tiptree’s story, both the classic science fiction stories themselves and Sheldon’s complicated, painful life. Again, as Valente puts it in her letter:
And so I reach back to my foremother. A word that my computer's dictionary doesn’t recognize as English. I reach back through the fishing net of time and space and death and grief and fame to say that I have not forgotten that you lived and wrote and showed a large number of people that language is not male or female, that stories are not, that history is not. Some of these people have let it slip their minds again, back into an intellectual oubliette. But many have not forgotten. We have always lived in a world of women. Women have always spoken and written and stood up. Women have never known their place or kept their peace.
It's only that some of them have had to do it in drag.
Change (its presence, its lack, whether and what "things have changed" since Tiptree’s death) is a major theme of the letters. In that respect, reading one of the scholarly works in the third section of the book was particularly disorienting. Wendy Gay Pearson presented "The Text of this Body: 'Reading' James Tiptree Jr. As a Transgender Writer" in 1999, and in a 2015 prologue to the essay in Letters to Tiptree she writes that in the interim the gender theory it was based on, Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter (1993), "was criticized by many trans people for treating transgender issues as an allegory of gender, rather than recognizing the materiality of people's lived experience," among other things, and that she would approach the topic differently now. This foreword is a stroke of inspired editing on the part of Krasnostein and Pierce, because in 2015 the entire premise of the paper seems borderline offensive on multiple fronts, not least of which being the fact that the mistakes and misgenderings in Tiptree's work don’t really need being-transgender-as-metaphor to make Pearson’s ultimate and interesting point about "the artifice of our systems of thought, our attempts to know the alien, the other, even when it/she/he is us." Some things have changed since 1915, 1977, 1987, 1999, and that's all to the good.
On the whole, I much prefer Tiptree winner Nike Sulway's take on Tiptree's body in her letter to Tiptree:
In a story nobody has yet written, a human and an angel-without-a-body sit on a ledge overlooking the city. The angel's body (your body) is a body made of words, made of clouds compressed by the Divine power of story. The words sink and rise along the streets, are breathed in and out by the citizens, are pressed like bombs into the hands of the children, and thrown against the walls of the city. And the walls of the world tremble and shudder. And the walls of the world fall down.
Confronting the alien is a secondary theme in many of the letters, particularly since several of them, whether by accident or design, are written by writers from the former Eastern bloc countries, many of whom have emigrated. These and other letters discuss the colonialism of Tiptree's past, noting that her career was founded on her privilege and her privilege on the existence of Empire, despite her many personal tribulations as a woman in a deeply sexist society. One of the most interesting letters, by Valentin D. Ivanov, is written not to Tiptree herself but to writer Zora Zagorska, the author of the first Bulgarian science fiction novel, The Treasure of Planet Earth (1967). Ivanov compares this novel to Tiptree's works: while Zagorska's book does not fare entirely well in the comparison, his point about imagining alternatives and changing the future is timeless.
The Tiptree Award is another frequent presence in the letters. Tiptree Award co-founder Pat Murphy notes in her letter that the Award was originally proposed as a joke at the WisCon convention in 1991—but "today, more than twenty years after Karen [Joy Fowler] and I joked about starting an award, the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award is still going strong." Other letter-writers mention the curious development that "Tiptree works" have become a byword for some (albeit vague) strain of SFnal works that explore gender in interesting ways. It seems clear that there's much more to say on the entwining of the legacy of Tiptree the writer with the existence of the Award, and the Award with WisCon, which bills itself as the world's leading feminist science fiction convention. After reading the too-short extracts from Helen Merrick's The Secret Feminist Cabal (2009) and Justine Larbalestier's The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction (2002) on the history of gender and feminism in science fiction in this volume, and after all the WisCon controversies of the past few years, I can only hope that someone comes along and says those things soon.
As well as launching a thousand feminist bake sales, the Tiptree Award was also the inspiration for the Sense of Gender Awards given annually by the Japanese Association for Gender, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and their founding was actually announced at WisCon in 2005 by critic Mari Kotani as "Japanese Tiptree Awards." Given this history, and the fact that Kotani once brought and won a libel suit in Japan partly by translating and submitting as evidence extracts from How to Suppress Women’s Writing, it would have been very interesting to hear what she or other members of the contingent of Japanese feminists who routinely attend WisCon have to say to Tiptree. On the whole Krasnostein and Pierce have assembled a fairly globally inclusive list of letter-writers, which makes the comparative dearth of voices from Asia particularly unfortunate.
These quibbles aside, Letters to Tiptree does what any book like this should do, which is inspire readers to pull the works of the author being celebrated off the shelf and put them immediately into the to-read pile: I'm halfway through Tiptree's second novel Brightness Falls from the Air (1985), and I devoured the Phillips biography (it's stellar) in a few days. Letters to Tiptree introduces a whole varied cast of people from around the world whose viewpoints, so personally expressed, are that much more interesting, and whose works, judging from these letters, are themselves well worth seeking out. Many of them are women, proving once again that the notion that there is only one woman science fiction writer of significance at any time is bunkum, and many of them aren’t, proving that—contrary to what many of Tiptree's female admirers in the 1970s feared—one doesn’t have to be female to Get It. In this way, fifty years later, Letters to Tiptree also demonstrates that Tiptree was unique in the annals of science fiction, and why: a product of her time in every complicated way, the impact of Tiptree's unmasking was so profound because her work was so good and because it came at a time when all the old categories were already coming into question, and because it demonstrated precisely how unstable those categories already were. That we’re still arguing about gender in SFF forty years later is entirely on us. Jo Walton's poem "Dear Tiptree," at the beginning of the anthology, functions as an epigraph to the entire work, and sums up its achievement and its analysis of and challenge to the genre nicely:
You rocked our spaceport,
Left it changed, wider,
More solid, more open,
Containing doors undreamed of,
Marked 'men,' 'women,' 'other.'
Now, each reaching out,
Shall we walk forward
Step into 'other'
To see where it takes us?
Electra Pritchett lives in Tokyo, where she splits her time between reading, research, and her obsession with birds and parfait. She blogs at electra.dreamwidth.org.
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