No one…has, to my knowledge, ever met Tiptree, ever seen him, ever talked with him on the phone. No one knows where he lives, what he looks like, what he does for a living…. He volunteers no information about his personal life, and politely refuses to answer questions about it…. Most SF people…are wild to know who Tiptree “really” is. — Gardner Dozois, 1976
From the New York Times
In an introduction to “Warm Worlds and Otherwise,” a 1975 collection of short stories by the elusive and enigmatic James Tiptree Jr., his editor and fellow author Robert Silverberg attempted to sketch a portrait of a cult figure who had never been seen in public, and whose only tangible connection to the known universe was a steady stream of letters originating from a post office box in McLean, Va. Though some fans believed that the mysterious Tiptree was actually J.D. Salinger or Henry Kissinger, Silverberg speculated that the writer was probably employed as a federal bureaucrat, around 50 or 55 years old, and enjoyed the outdoors…
As science fiction readers would learn just a few months later, Tiptree was closer in age to 61 but was an avid traveler and gun enthusiast who had worked for the United States government. Also, James Tiptree Jr. was a woman named Alice Sheldon.
Tiptree’s writing won Sheldon the epistolary friendships of science fiction masters like Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin and Harlan Ellison, as well as awards she could not easily claim (at least not in person), but her gamesmanship was growing exponentially more complicated. In 1976, she let it slip in a letter from Tiptree to a fanzine editor named Jeffrey D. Smith that Tiptree’s mother, already known by devoted readers to be an African explorer, had died. After consulting a recent obituary in The Chicago Tribune, Smith wrote back to Tiptree, “Word is spreading very fast that your true name is Alice Sheldon.” A few days later, the author dutifully replied: “Yeah. Alice Sheldon. Five ft 8, 61 yrs, remains of a good-looking girl vaguely visible, grins a lot in a depressed way, very active in spurts.”
In 1921 in the Belgian Congo, a six-year-old girl from Chicago with a pith helmet on her blond curls walks at the head of a line of heavily laden native porters. Her mother walks next to her, holding a rifle and her daughter’s hand.
In 1929, the girl huddles under quilts in a cabin in the Great North Woods, reading Weird Tales. The candle by her bed flickers as an alien gently removes a young human’s brassiere.
On Christmas Eve 1934, a nineteen-year-old in a white beaded evening gown makes her debut. At the party she meets a handsome, dark-haired boy in a tie and tails. She makes a joke; he laughs, and makes another. Five days later they elope and marry.
In 1942, a divorcee wearing three-inch heels and a fox fur jacket goes down to a Chicago recruiting station and enlists in the Army.
Sometime in the near future, a woman and a man meet an extraterrestrial exploring party. The man tries to protect the woman. The woman says she doesn’t believe in women’s chances on Earth, and asks the aliens to take her away.
In 1970, a man who does not exist sits down at a typewriter. He writes, “At last I have what every child wants, a real secret life. Not an official secret, not a Q-clearance polygraph-enforced bite-the-capsule-when-they-get-you secret, nobody else’s damn secret but MINE.”
Her legacy has led to the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award
In February of 1991 at WisCon (the world’s only feminist-oriented science fiction convention), award-winning SF author Pat Murphy announced the creation of the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award, an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender. Pat created the award in collaboration with author Karen Joy Fowler. The aim of the award is not to look for work that falls into some narrow definition of political correctness, but rather to seek out work that is thought-provoking, imaginative, and perhaps even infuriating. The Tiptree Award is intended to reward those writers and other creative artists who are bold enough to contemplate shifts and changes in gender roles, a fundamental aspect of any society.