How embarrassing to admit that until recently I had not read anything by James Tiptree, Jr. The realization about this gigantic hole in my reading came when Christopher J. Garcia asked me to review Letters to Tiptree edited, which forced me to answer, “I can’t until I’ve actually read Tiptree’s works,” because a simple perusal revealed that Letters wasn’t a biography, but a collection of letters commemorating that great author’s one-hundredth birthday. I concluded that to appreciate the emotions behind these entries I’d better feel the power on my own. Amazingly, only Julie Phillip’s magnificent biography James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, and the anthology Her Smoke Rises Up Forever were in print when I started gathering volumes in hardcopy format, a downside for those of us hesitating to embrace electronic formats. But I did manage to find the novels and enough volumes of the short stories to embrace Tiptree’s style and themes.
Now after having absorbed the stark messages of, to name a few stories, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read,” “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” “The Women Men Don’t See,” “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain,” and “The Screwfly Solution,” I was prepared to rank Alice Sheldon, the writer operating behind the curtain of the Tiptree and Raccoona Sheldon aliases, with Margaret Atwood, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf, and Adrienne Rich as a twentieth-century woman author whose impact won’t fade any time soon. And that’s the thing. I label her a “woman author,” but for a goodly portion of her career she remained the mysterious Tiptree, a reclusive figure, a man writing stories showing a stunning prescience and sensitivity toward women’s situations. Then when her true identity was revealed the myth of masculine and feminine writing styles received a tremendous blow. Science fiction needed and still needs Sheldon/Tiptree, and that’s the point of Letters to Tiptree.
As the title indicates, Pierce and Krasnostein have gathered letters from authors including Nicola Griffith, Rachel Swirsky, Seanan McGuire, Theodora Goss, Jo Walton, Nisi Shawl, and others who discuss not only how Tiptree — or Sheldon, or Raccoona Sheldon depending on which part of the whole the letter writer has decided to address – has affected their writing, but how they view gender identity and sexuality in general or personally. That’s not all, however. The Hungarian writer Bogi Takács examines Tiptree’s childhood experiences in Africa, comparing them to her own moving back and forth between her post-Communist homeland and the Midwestern United States. E (Takács identifies as gender neutral) then makes special note of Tiptree’s affinity for the peripheral:
Your sympathies were with the peripheral, the occupied, the colonized. But these people, the marginal, were often aliens in your work, in the literal sense. Extraterrestrials, as in “We Who Stole the Dream.” I’m only an alien in a figurative, government-speak sense of the word, a “legal alien” as Customs and Border Protection would have it. (40)
Whether in terms of gender, of gender and sexual identity, or cultural identity, Tiptree spoke to the liminal within all of us. This signifies now and will forever signify her importance not only in science fiction but in literature in general.
The editors also include sections devoted to correspondence between Tiptree and Ursula K. Le Guin, and between Tiptree and Joanna Russ. Finally, readers will find a section written by the editors themselves, letters letting Tiptree know how she’s inspired and motivated others. All is deeply personal, but one must experience Tiptree’s writings firsthand to understand what these authors mean and to grasp the references to various stories and to novels. While not a difficult read, the book’s meant for those who have digested at least some of Tiptree’s oeuvre. Also, I suggest reading the aforementioned James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips. Not only does Phillips provide essential biographical information, she provides the go-to biography of Tiptree, a biography that ranks with Diane Wood Middlebrook’s Anne Sexton: A Biography and Louise DeSalvo’s Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work in revealing how authors’ lives intertwine with their literary outputs.
For too long, I’d ignored Tiptree, not consciously but out of pure happenstance. Don’t make my mistake. Approach Tiptree’s work consciously, with an eye toward gender, toward culture, toward damn-fine science fiction, and finally toward allowing yourselves to perceive “you” through her narratives. Then read Phillips’s biography. Then finally read Letters to Tiptree and join the congregation honoring the contributions Tiptree made not only to science fiction but to our lives.