Dystopias are having a moment. A popular and critically acclaimed adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale is on TV. George Orwell’s 1984 recently became a best-seller again, more than 60 years after it was published. A slew of newer releases, such as Idra Novey’s Those Who Knew, have explored the “messy, continuing aftermath of the MeToo movement,” as Alexandra Alter wrote for the New York Times.
But one writer whose work feels especially relevant isn’t even in the mix: Alice Sheldon.
Sheldon primarily wrote under a male pseudonym — James Tiptree Jr. — in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Today, that work has an eerily contemporary feel. Her short stories depict worlds defined by familiar gender dynamics, shot through with dark themes and, often, wry humor.
In these worlds, misogyny might mutate from a psychological phenomenon into an actual virus. Women might rather take their chances with alien invaders than with the men of Earth. Men who time travel might discover a future in which their sex has been wiped out and women are getting along just fine without them.
At the time, “Tiptree’s” work was received as sharp and innovative, earning Hugo and Nebula awards and drawing a fervent fan base. Admirers included fellow science fiction writers like Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin.
But today, a mere handful of universities list these stories on syllabi of science fiction classics. The last time a publisher put out a collection of Sheldon’s work was 1990 (reissued in the mid-2000s). She has only a few thousand reviews on the popular book website Goodreads — compared to the hundreds of thousands for Le Guin or the more than 1 million for The Handmaid’s Tale alone.
Sheldon has been all but forgotten in this modern dystopia resurgence, even though what she created as James Tiptree might resonate louder now than ever. But the author herself is a fascinating figure and deserves to be recognized today.
Who was Alice Sheldon and her alter ego James Tiptree Jr.?
Alice B. Sheldon was born in Chicago in 1915 and came to writing science fiction relatively late in life, after pursuing careers in painting, the army, the CIA, chicken farming, and academic psychology.
She was born into wealth and relative privilege; her mother was a well-known Victorian author and explorer, writing about the family’s many trips to Africa (some of which Allison illustrated as a child). She went to college in the late 1930s, first at Berkeley and later at Sarah Lawrence, not a given for women at the time.
Still, Sheldon was deeply unsatisfied with the limits on what women could achieve in almost every profession. She joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps during World War II, only to be honorably discharged at the end of the war because the military no longer needed women. (It was during her military career that she met her second husband and lifelong partner Ting Sheldon, after an unhappy marriage earlier on.)
Sheldon worked a brief stint in the CIA from 1952 to 1955, developing its photo intelligence division. The grunt work of poring over photographs — something she enjoyed but didn’t find particularly fulfilling — was a far cry from her husband’s decades of advancement in the clandestine service. The couple eventually bought a chicken farm in McLean, Virginia, and in the 1960s, as she worked on her doctoral thesis in psychology, she turned to writing science fiction as an escape.
As journalist Julie Phillips explains in her exhaustive biography James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, Sheldon “wanted a name ‘editors wouldn’t remember rejecting’” and ended up taking on the name of a jam she stumbled upon while shopping at the supermarket.
It turned out that Sheldon’s fears of rejection were unfounded — within a year of publishing her first short stories, one of them, “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain,” was nominated for a Nebula award.
Simultaneously, she cultivated a following through fanzines, which gave writers a way to correspond directly with their readers (an analogue today might be how people like J.K. Rowling talk with fans on Twitter). Sheldon crafted a “macho” persona for Tiptree, exaggerating her past as an African explorer and hinting at a long career at the CIA.
“The male name turned out to have many uses,” Philips writes. “It made her feel taken seriously when she wanted to write, with an urgency that was hers. It gave her enough distance and control to speak honestly about herself.”
Eventually, Sheldon discovered the limits of her male pseudonym; jealous of contemporaries like Norman Mailer and Harlan Ellison, who wrote with such personal, authoritative voices. She longed, as Phillips records, to express feminism and “write as herself, or at least as a woman.”
She channeled this urge into the creation of the female pseudonym Raccoona, who also wrote sci-fi short stories.
But Raccoona was less successful both critically and commercially. Her work was sometimes rejected by the same editors who had accepted Tiptree’s, and Phillips writes that Sheldon “came to feel that Raccoona wasn’t taken seriously because she was a woman, and it’s possible this is true.”
Raccoona published a handful of short stories in the early ’70s, to mixed reception, even though she was given a generous introduction from “Tiptree.” Sheldon seemed to have lost some of the fan appeal that she cultivated with her gregarious Tiptree persona.
Eventually, Tiptree fans began to connect the dots between Tiptree the writer and Sheldon the person. After Sheldon’s mother died in 1976, she took a hiatus from writing, and “Tiptree” asked an editor to publish a letter explaining why. Tiptree had written extensively that his mother was an elderly explorer and author in Chicago, and his readers scoured the obituaries in Chicago-area newspapers for clues to his real identity. Sheldon’s mother’s obituary seemed to match, but only one surviving relative was listed: Alice Sheldon.
After nearly a decade, Sheldon’s cover was blown.
She continued writing, mostly under Raccoona. But according to Phillips, she never returned to the creative heights she achieved as Tiptree.
It’s unclear if her professional decline came from the revelation of Sheldon’s true identity, long-lingering issues of depression and Dexedrine dependence, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder around the time of her mother’s death, or some other issue. In any case, Sheldon’s post-Tiptree work includes some of her weakest stories.
Sheldon’s life ended tragically. When her husband became ill in the winter of 1986, she began talking about killing herself when he eventually died. His illness blinded him, and he expressed fears that Sheldon might carry through with a plan they’d once discussed to take their lives together. Then, in May 1987, Sheldon shot her husband, and then killed herself.
As James Tiptree Jr., Sheldon created some of the darkest feminist dystopias you can imagine
One of the most recognized works that Sheldon wrote as Tiptree is a novella called Houston, Houston Do You Read?, first published in an anthology of science fiction stories in 1976. It earned Tiptree both a Nebula award and a Hugo, the pinnacle of science fiction literary recognition.
Houston, depending on your perspective, is either a dystopia or a utopia — and your perspective probably hinges a lot on your gender identity and politics. It embodies a sentiment that famed sci-fi author Ursula K. Le Guin expressed in her 2011 collection of essays that “within each utopia, [there is] a concealed dystopia; within each dystopia, a hidden utopia.”
In the story, an all-male group of astronauts accidentally rockets forward in time and encounters an all-female crew. This is strange to them; where they come from, not many women are astronauts. They soon discover that a virus wiped out most of human life on Earth, save for a few thousand women. Since then, the women have been getting by, cloning themselves and living peacefully. The men discover that in the future, they’re obsolete — and unwelcome.
Houston seems to raise the question of whether women are simply better off without men, and encourages the reader to confront the idea that all dystopias are a matter of opinion. Presumably, Houston read as dystopian for many men, who might have been alarmed to learn how unnecessary they had become.
The inverse of Houston might be a 1976 short story that Sheldon wrote as Raccoona, “The Screwfly Solution.” It tells of a religious cult that views women as an evil threat that must be eliminated. Told partially through letters, newspaper articles, and government reports, it chronicles the escalation from a few disturbing incidents to mass killings of women, what the story labels “femicide,” carried out by men who scientists believe have caught a virus that drives them to murder. Morgues across America are so full, they begin refusing female corpses.
“Women,” one of the believers says in the story, “are nowhere defined as human, but merely as a transitional expedient or state.” It’s downright creepy for anyone who’s spent time perusing the darker parts of 4chan or Reddit.
Reading “The Screwfly Solution” today, the cult-turned-epidemic seems like an extreme version of today’s incels — the online community devoted to resenting women that was linked to a horrific 2018 attack in Toronto that left 10 people dead. The story depicts toxic masculinity in virus form.
The idea that ritualistic killings of women could spread throughout the world is not so far-fetched for women today. Stories like this one reflect the very real fears women have about their personal safety.
In her day, Sheldon’s work was relevant and respected
It’s surprising how lost to the popular discourse Sheldon is, given how widely revered she was and how relevant her work still feels. Other stories with similar, gender-bending themes, like Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, became science fiction classics as Sheldon’s work has faded away.
In addition to winning awards, Tiptree caught the attention of Philip K. Dick, who was so impressed with Tiptree’s work that he wanted to collaborate on a novel. (Sheldon, not wanting to expose her true identity, demurred.) In the mid-1970s, Sheldon participated, as Tiptree, in a high-profile written symposium on women in science fiction — as the token sympathetic male writer. She also developed a strong friendship with Le Guin.
Sheldon’s foresight is also notable. A short story that Sheldon wrote as Tiptree, “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” reads today almost as a commentary on Instagram — and is arguably the first cyberpunk story ever published. And its influence can be pretty clearly seen on William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, now one of the best-known works in the genre.
Sheldon’s relative obscurity could be explained, in part, by the fact that she was writing short stories — Canadian author Alice Munro suffered similarly until she won a Nobel prize. It’s a theory Phillips subscribes to: “I think Tiptree’s relative obscurity has a lot to do with the short story factor,” she told Vox in an email. “Short stories are important in science fiction, but many casual sci-fi readers prefer novels and might not pick up a collection or anthology.”
Regardless, Sheldon is overdue for a return. And perhaps she’ll get it — horror filmmaker Jennifer Kent said in January that she is developing a TV series with Guillermo del Toro based on Tiptree’s work.
It’s about time.