The Women Men Don’t See, Indeed.

While enjoying GD Deckard’s latest installment of Bob vs the Aliens, I was moved to ask him if he was a Tiptree fan. Just something about the rhythm of his dialogue, and the subject matter, struck a resonant chord. He’d heard of Tiptree but no, he hadn’t read her.

For those who don’t know, James Tiptree Jr was the pseudonym of author Alice Sheldon. A noted recluse and “mystery man” during the seventies, she published numerous stories in the science fiction magazines of the time, including the story Houston, Houston, Do You Read? which won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards.

She also wrote two novels—Up the Walls of the World and Brightness Falls from the Air—but it’s really her short stories she’s known for, and for good reason. During the late sixties and seventies, she was a mainstay of the sci fi magazines, publishing nearly 70 stories, often anthologized. She had a distinctive voice, crisp and incisive—sometimes called Heminway-esque, though that label is mainly based on one story in particular, The Women Men Don’t See. That story garnered a lot of attention when it was published in 1973. Insiders considered it a shoe-in for the Hugo and the Nebula, but Tiptree withdrew it from consideration. It was one of the earliest examples of mainstream science fiction with an overtly feminist message, yet told by a male (and frankly sexist) narrator in a very masculine, hardboiled style. The narrator is not mocked and yet, by the end, it is quite obvious that he hasn’t understood anything that has actually been going on.

A lot of readers weren’t sure what to make of it.  No one knew that Tiptree was a woman at that point, though there were apparently some who speculated she might be. Robert Silverberg, in his introduction to the anthology featuring the tale, insisted that Tiptree’s writing had to be the work of a man, that there was “something ineluctably masculine” about it. To his credit, when the truth came out, he congratulated Tiptree for fooling him so successfully and said “You’ve given my head a greatly needed wrenching.”

Even today, 40 years later, the story has the power to surprise and confound, and god knows there are still plenty of heads around that could use a good wrenching. It’s a beautiful piece of writing.

But Tiptree’s work is too varied and too rich to be adequately represented by only one story, no matter how good it is. She was a deft craftsman (ahem) and a dazzling world-builder, as much at home with appalling pathos and bleak despair as with laugh-out-loud comedy and exuberant fantasy—and she had an uncanny ability to shift seamlessly between those many moods. She didn’t shy away from brutality, particularly the brutality inflicted on women by a male-centric society. She boldly courted the polymorphous and the perverse and didn’t spare her readers the messy details. She wasn’t afraid to use an unlikeable protagonist or of being misunderstood, and her work is all the stronger for the audaciousness of her choices. Describing her own stories, she said: “There’s this backward little type, and he’s doing some gray little task and believing like they tell him. And one day he starts to vomit and rushes straight up a mountain, usually to his doom.”

I own nearly all of Tiptree’s stories in four dog-eared paperbacks salvaged years ago from second-hand stores. Sadly, none of those volumes are in print any more. There is one anthology available on Amazon. It’s called Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, a hefty 500-page collection of most of 510dhU+8avL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_her best-known tales. The choices are worthy and unsurprising, and I can absolutely recommend it. But something about the choices saddens me: where is the funny stuff? Where is the lightness? Tiptree wrote some of the most delightfully whimsical and downright hilarious stories I know, and none of them are here. Out of the Everywhere, All Kinds of Yes. The Time-Sharing Angel, The Night Blooming Saurian, Mama Come Home. I really could go on and on, but since you probably can’t find any of those stories, I guess there’s not much point. It’s not that every story is perfect. There are bits that don’t work and the odd tone-deaf joke, and yes, some of the stories are lightweights. But by dismissing them in favor of the heavy stuff, we rob ourselves of much of the charm, the energy, the inventiveness that characterized Tiptree. It’s too bad. Someone should do a second anthology and I happily volunteer my services as editor.

But until that unlikely day, I’m hanging on to my paperbacks.

Tiptree was a late bloomer. She didn’t publish her first science fiction stories until she was in her fifties. Before that, she had been a graphic artist, a painter, an art critic. Later she joined the Air Force, analyzing photographs for the intelligence corp and rising to the rank of major. From 1952 to 1955, she did a stint working for the CIA. Then, at the age of forty, she returned to college, eventually earning a degree in experimental psychology.

Her use of a pseudonym was ostensibly to protect her academic reputation (science fiction writing was a punk occupation in those days), but the anonymity suited her. There was a darkness in her soul. She once said: “I dream about oblivion like other people dream of good sex.” She and her husband lived in near-seclusion, reliant on no one, until poor health finally overwhelmed first him and then her. In 1987, at the age of seventy-one, she shot her critically ill, bed-ridden husband while he slept, then turned the gun on herself.

It was, in many ways, a typical Tiptree ending.


7 thoughts on “The Women Men Don’t See, Indeed.

  1. GD Deckard says:

    Well, there’s a project for you, Atthys. You just volunteered as an editor for an anthology of Tiptree’s humorous stories. What are you waiting for? A publisher? This is the era of self-publishing. Get to work.

    Thank you for the amazing summary of Alice “Tiptree” Sheldon. If there still be science fiction magazines out there with an interest in Sci-Fi history, your blog is worthy of submission to them. Well done!

    Liked by 3 people

    • atthysgage says:

      Thanks. I don’t know from publishers, but SOMEBODY has to own the rights to the stories, right? I’m not sure the few dollars I could maybe make publishing the anthology is going to balance out the thousands of dollars worth of legal fees I might incur.

      Ultimately, I guess I’m just grousing about some of my favorite stories being excluded, but what I really wanted to see was a more diverse anthology, with the lighter, more agile stories sitting cheek-to-jowl with the heavier, darker stuff. Also, there are stories, like ‘Painwise’ that manage to do both with remarkable deftness.

      Liked by 4 people

  2. mimispeike says:

    The Newtown book sale comes up next weekend. I will look for her. You’ve got me curious. I will send you whatever I find after I read it. If I’m really in love with something, I’ll image it at work on my break, keep the pdf for myself, and send you the hard copy.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for this, Atthys. I have been a great fan of Ursula K. LeGuin for many years, but somehow, I have never heard of James Tiptree, Jr. And now I have five of her books on hold in our library system, to be delivered to my favorite branch within a few days.

    Liked by 3 people

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  5. Here’s me giving you a standing-o and cries of “encore, encore!” for the work you did in writing this public service announcement. I say PSA not to disparage or in any way minimize your writing here; on the contrary I heartily applaud your efforts in bringing Alice “Tiptree” Sheldon’s work to the attention of a wider reading audience, many of whom—alas!—have never heard of her. She deserves to be read. (For those who don’t know, Alice Sheldon can knock you on your ass with a cutting phrase or particularly piercing observation re: any damn thing she chooses to write about. She fashions words into hard-edged iron sentences with the deft precision of a village blacksmith hammering out plot and theme in a shower of sparks ‘gainst unyielding anvil. Which makes me mourn even more the loss of her whimsical work—until you wrote about it, Atthys, I didn’t even know such existed!)

    Let me urge anyone interested in Sheldon’s work to pick up Julie Phillips’ biography, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (St Martin’s Press, 2006). A couple of excerpts follow.

    Excerpt 1 (Alice as a little girl in Africa):
    Then one day when Alice was walking at the head of the party, they went around a bend and came upon two dead bodies hanging by the side of the trail. The men had been stripped naked, tortured, tied to posts, and left to perish in the sun.

    Alice’s parents hurried her away, explaining that the men had probably been accused of witchcraft. Alice got the message: these men were “just like other folk,” too—and so were the men who had killed them. Mary [Alice’s mother] didn’t write about the dead men in her book, but the Bradleys took photos and put them in their album of the trip. Years later Alice could recall the scene in detail: the flies that swarmed up as she approached; the rough, crooked little posts crawling with ants. “You think of a crucifixion as taking place on well-edged beams, straight from the wood polisher. No such thing.” (pp. 34-35)

    Excerpt 2 (Alice as a little girl in India):
    Almost everything Alice saw in India went into the category of “horror recitals”. In Calcutta, as she said later, “As we went for some morning sweet cake, we’d step over dying people with dying babies in their arms.” She saw “starving dwarf children roving round racks of bones that were mothers trying to nurse more babies, toothless mouths and unbearable eyes turning on me from rag heaps that were people.” Again she saw frightening scenes she was told were normal, such as “a man on the steps of the Ganges reverently—and quite inadequately—burning his mother’s body, and then leaping into the water to fish up the still recognizable skull and pry out the gold teeth.” She thought of her own grandmother, lying in a silk-lined casket in Chicago. She wondered if that was normal. She wondered if this is what it meant to be human. (p. 36)

    Liked by 1 person

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