The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

Editor’s Note: This was originally posted on my personal blog, over at the Gecko’s Bark. I’m reposting it here, for obvious reasons — it’s a book review.

Julie Phillips Brings James Tiptree, Jr. Back to Life

Her in-depth biography of the ground-breaking science fiction author illuminates the life of a literary recluse

Julie Phillips' James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. SheldonWriting a nonfiction book and making it both interesting and entertaining is not always easy to do. Writing an in-depth biography on a relatively obscure author and making it interesting and entertaining to read over the course of the entire book, all while squeezing in historical lessons on the feminist movement and gender roles, is certainly even more challenging.

But author Julie Phillips proves adept at doing just this with her biography on science fiction author Alice B. Sheldon.  James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon is an exhaustive look at Tiptree’s  life, illustrating that she is one of the more fascinating characters in the pantheon of oddballs known as science fiction authors (and I say oddballs as term of love and endearment). By all rights, this book should be the literary equivalent of watching paint dry: a book about someone who writes written by a journalist by profession.

But in fact, Phillips’ book proves hard to put down. While this is largely because of her subject matter, it is also in no small part because of Phillips’ writing. Throughout her linear portrayal of Sheldon’s life story (another reason this book should be boring), Phillips sprinkles her text with context and insight, both her own and that of Sheldon’s contemporaries, those who knew her as the colorful figure she was in life, and those that knew her only through her correspondence as a reclusive science fiction writer James Tiptree, Jr., her nom de plume.

But at no point does the book ever get bogged down in either biographical or contextual detail. Again, that is partly because of the interesting subject matter; Sheldon had a colorful outer life by anyone’s standards, as well as a dark and troubled inner life. As others have noted, including one of my favorite contemporary science fiction authors, William Gibson, this is an exhaustive and entertaining biography that Sheldon surely deserves.

Even if one is not interested in science fiction and has never heard of Sheldon/Tiptree, Phillips’ book may still be a fascinating read, as it details the life of a woman from the Greatest Generation. Sheldon actually enlisted – to the extent that women could – in the U.S. military in WW II, and later worked in intelligence, specializing in photographic interpretation, and later worked briefly for what became the CIA.

As such, Sheldon was a first-hand witness to the social changes that occurred in women’s roles in our culture, from the first tentative steps of the feminist movement before and during WW II to the social upheavals that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s.

Sheldon’s life, and one could say her psyche, straddled this pivotal point in modern history, and her writing reflected this. In fact, many of the feminist science fiction authors that were Sheldon’s contemporaries – science fiction was a bastion of feminist fiction at the time, and a front for gender battles, as Phillips details – hailed Tiptree as a man who “got” feminism and women, as Phillips illustrates.

Her subsequent exploration into why Sheldon felt more comfortable writing with a male persona in Tiptree is fascinating, to say the least, and provides an insight into that time in American culture that I doubt most history texts provide.

Even Geeks Can Be Sexist Swine

Julie Phillips, author of The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon.I personally found Phillips’ book fascinating, because for me, it’s really hard to understand bigotry in general and sexism in particular. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not some ultra politically correct do-gooder idiot; it just genuinely mystifies me.

One reason for this is, I suppose, the fact that I’m a guy, and as such, I’m not routinely subject to sexism. But my father has told me that he made it a point to raise my siblings and I to be as open minded as possible (I should note that he and my mother are both from the same generation as Tiptree, albeit slightly younger, but my father also served in WW II). I guess he succeeded.

But then when I was 10 years old my father suffered a heart attack, and took early retirement. My mother went to work and dad became the house husband, taking over the bulk of the domestic chores (yes, he once even turned all my adolescent tidy whities pink). This experience has no doubt something to do with my outlook as well.

In any event, as a sci-fi geek from an early age, I read all the classics as a kid – Clarke, Asimov, and so forth, and later, in high school, getting into Heinlein (adolescent boys probably shouldn’t read Heinlein, come to think of it) and some of the harder sci-fi, as well as the space opera type stuff – my fellow Gen Xers and I were raised on Star Wars, after all.

It was in college that I began to discover some of the women authors that were Tiptree’s contemporaries, such as Ursula K. LeGuin and later Joanna Russ and Marge Piercy – as well as Tiptree himself … er, herself. I originally sought out Tiptree after reading about the woman author with the male pen name who killed her husband and then killed herself in 1987, the year I graduated high school. I encountered some of these authors in a women studies class and in an English class that concentrated on women authors (I have to come clean here: while one reason I took these classes was genuine interest, the fact that they fit in my schedule and tended to be inhabited by all manner of interesting and attractive alternachicks factored into my decision).

What I didn’t know and didn’t learn – until I read Phillips’ book, and it surprised me – was that women writing science fiction was such a hot button topic in the sci-fi community itself in the 1970s; apparently there were many (men, of course) who thought that women couldn’t write “real” or “hard” science fiction. Ironically, some of these same people also thought that Tiptree was most definitely male – Tiptree’s gender and true identity were a frequent hot topic of discussion within the sci-fi community, as Phillips portrays.

The idea that women can’t write real science fiction merely because of their biology is of course complete rubbish, as evidenced by the aforementioned authors’ work, and many others — Rebecca Ore (Rebecca B. Brown), A.C. Crispin, Ann McCaffrey come to mind off the top of my head. As for the ability of women to grasp and write hard science fiction, Sheldon herself was playing around with hard science in her writing; her stories exhibited characteristics of hard sci-fi even before the term had come into vogue.

She was certainly aware of orbital mechanics, and the problems introduced by traveling at or near the speed of light (such as the relative passage of time between a spaceship and its planet of departure – obviously she had read up on Einstein). There were no shipstones or warp engines for Sheldon’s spaceships; her space-going vehicles also depended on rotation to simulate gravity – no convenient artificial gravity on her spaceships, either. So the fact that many of the very names I had cherished in the sci fi pantheon of authors, the people (men) that were so forward looking, were saying that women couldn’t write sci-fi – that was surprising news to me.

I was aware of course that women authors in general had fought an uphill battle against sexism over the years; Sheldon was hardly the first female author to secretly publish under a male pseudonym. And I have read some militantly feminist science fiction here and there. But until having read Phillips’ book, I guess I thought that science fiction would have been one genre where sexism wouldn’t have been an issue — at least not among its cognoscenti.

James Tiptree, Jr. aka Alice B. Sheldon, worked in intelligence for the United States during WW II.After all, us sci-fi geeks, we understand what it’s like to feel alienated and judged not on our own merits but on people’s preconceived notions. We should know better than to subscribe to sexism or any other sort of bigotry; that just reeks of hypocrisy. But Alice Sheldon’s life, particularly after James Tiptree, Jr. was outed as a female author, is a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

Fortunately for us, Phillips presents that mountain of evidence in an entertaining and at times fascinating package. While one can’t help but wonder what Sheldon would have written had she not killed herself in 1987 at age 71, or what she might have written had she been born later, say in the 1950s or 1960s, she nevertheless leaves behind a wonderful body of work that, like all science fiction, is not a reflection of the future but of the times in which it was written.

With Julie Phillips’ James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, she also gets a fitting epitaph, and we readers get an excellent lesson in literature and modern history.

Here is an NPR interview with Julie Phillips regarding Tiptree and the biography.

Mao: The Unknown Story

Editor’s Note: I originally published this on my personal blog, The Gecko’s Bark. I’m reproducing it here for obvious reasons — it’s a book review. I’ve also a few thoughts to add, which I’ve done at the end …

Carrying (Historically Accurate?) Pictures
of Chairman Mao

It Might Not Be a Hatchet Job, But Amidst the Axe Grinding Historical Context Goes Missing

Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon HallidayWhere to begin a review of Mao: The Unknown Story? I guess by starting off by refuting some of its critics who claim that it is a hatchet job. First off, the book’s authors definitely have an axe to grind, and considering that one of them, Jung Chang, suffered through China’s Cultural Revolution, it is difficult to blame her.

It is certainly true that this work can make no claim to being unbiased, but on the other hand, it cannot legitimately be called a hatchet job in any real sense. The term “hatchet job” implies that the author or authors of said job have set out to spin something about their subject that isn’t true; Mao is nothing if not meticulously and exhaustively researched. The book goes to great pains to establish Mao’s culpability in many needless deaths, from the early days of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party and its battles with Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists through the founding of Communist China to the Great Leap Forward and finally the Cultural Revolution.

While I can’t claim to be a historical scholar, I have not seen anyone else refute the facts and historical data Mao’s authors have so painstakingly compiled.* On rare occasions they do stray into innuendo, such as implying that Mao was the progenitor of the idea for the Berlin Wall (they do their best and establish that it is not beyond the realm of possibility, but it seems a bit of a stretch at best, especially given the history of East Germany and the Communist rulers there). But this is an exception rather than the rule. In fact, sometimes the book is downright overwhelming in the amount of data the authors provide in establishing the aforementioned culpability of Mao.

The book is not without its other flaws. While the book is a scholarly work, at times it becomes overwhelmingly so, getting monotonous in its level of detail and scholarly tone. It reminded me of history professors who would lecture endlessly about dates and facts, rarely returning to what is important, the historical context of said facts and figures. While this is the exception rather than the rule in Mao, it is not an infrequent occurrence. Those expecting the prose of author Jung Chang’s other notable work, Wild Swans of China, may be disappointed.

Which leads me to my principal criticism of the work: Mao rarely is about Mao; rather it is about what he did. It goes to great lengths to establish what Mao did and did not do, but rarely delves into why he did what he did. Mao only scratches the surface of Mao’s psyche and his motivations.

It Begs The Question: Why? Why Did Mao Do What He Did?

Chairman Mao declares the People's Republic of China in October, 1949.We learn that Mao thirsted for power, and basically much of what he did was not out of some dedicated belief in collectivism, but rather initially to get a cushy job, and eventually to consolidate and hold his power over China and its people. But we don’t learn why Mao thirsted for power, we only get cursory early discussions about his peasant birth and upbringing. We do learn that apparently for Mao, violence was a means to an end, not an end in and of itself; it seems like most of the deaths attributable to Mao’s reign came about simply because he wanted to be the undisputed ruler of a world power, and the Chinese people were simply a means to that end.

But that’s about all we learn about Mao’s motivations. This glaring lack became somewhat disconcerting for me, as I neared the end of this epic book, and realized that I was never going to get a satisfactory answer to that question from this book. I felt a little cheated, quite frankly, because that was the principal reason I read it.

I spent a month traveling all over China in October 2005 for work, and came away with, among many other things, the need to understand modern Chinese history – because it was clear to me that Mao’s ghost still lingers in China, even as the country continues to become more open to the West. Like someone who was abused as a child still bears the psychological scars as an adult, China still bears the scars of Mao’s reign today, even as it is in the process of emerging from that reign as a global economic center and a world power (rather ironic, considering Mao’s personal vision). And also like an abused child and her abusive parent, modern China’s relationship with Chairman Mao is … complex, shall we say.

I remember having a conversation with a young Chinese architect, one who had studied in the United States and had an excellent command of English. He voiced a sentiment that I heard often from people, even when we were speaking in private: Mao was a terrible politician, and what happened during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution was horrible, but he was nevertheless was a great military leader and a great man, having unified China at a time when it needed it, and helped usher it, for good or ill, into modern times.

For us in the West, it is hard to swallow that view; those that know history equate Mao with Stalin and his purges and labor camps, with Hitler and his Gestapo and concentration camps. It is easy to write this off as propaganda and brainwashing, and to a certain extent it likely is. The cult of Mao still persists to this day, that much is clearly evident.

But after having spent some time there among its people – I can’t help but believe there is more to it than that. Understanding Mao and his legacy and how Chinese youth view him today I think is a critical component to understanding Chinese culture. The Chinese are nothing if not pragmatic; this is one of the main reasons I believe they have been able to come so far so relatively fast after Mao’s death, courting capitalism and Western industry even as the government retains near totalitarian authority and control of speech (as a Chinese friend once told me, the Chinese have free speech, just not freedom of the press – this is a uniquely Chinese way to see things).

While many people inside and outside of the country no doubt share the same view of Mao as the authors of Mao do – and rightfully so — others nevertheless revere him as the father of modern China, even while acknowledging the horrors that occurred under his rule. Again, the Chinese are nothing if not pragmatic, but I don’t think that goes far enough in explaining modern day China. After all, this is a culture that is thousands of years old.

Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China and co-author of Mao: The Unknown StoryBut I think to understand China it is necessary to understand the legacy that Mao Zedong has left behind. In that sense, Mao perhaps leaves something to be desired. But having said that, the book is based on an incredible amount of research, and is quite illuminating in that respect; I would challenge any Mao supporters or apologists to refute the author’s research. This, if no other reason, makes the book an important work, to say the least, and well worth a reading.

And perhaps it is not so difficult to understand, at least partially, the apparent dichotomy of Chinese reverence for Mao and abhorrence of the Cultural Revolution. After all, here in the United States, one of our greatest historical leaders, Andrew Jackson, graces our 20-dollar bill. His role in forming modern America is undeniable, and in some ways, he should hold America’s reverence.

Yet this was a man who was one of the leading advocates of removing Native American Indians from their lands, an abhorrent practice if there ever was one. As president he signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 into law. Don’t misunderstand; I’m not trying to equate Jackson with Mao (although it would be hard to blame Native Americans if they do). But in this context it is easy to understand how people can revere one aspect of a historical figure and revile another. Another example: Thomas Jefferson was undoubtedly a great man in many ways, yet he owned slaves.

I doubt if there is any culture anywhere that reveres historical icons that could bear the scrutiny of hindsight and scholarly research and come away squeaky clean. But I digress.

Mao is worth the read for anyone interested in Chinese culture and modern history, in fact I would argue that it is critical, given the level of research that went into it, and for this its authors deserve much praise. In fact, there are all manner of fascinating historical tidbits to be gleaned from this book beyond China, namely about Stalinist Russia and the Nixon administration here in the United States. But be warned, Mao: The Untold Story at times is definitely not a fun or engrossing read.

* While looking for an author photo of Jung Chang, I checked out her Wikipedia page, since she doesn’t seem to have her own Website, and there isn’t a photo of her at the Random House site, either; Random House being the publisher of her Mao bio. At Wikipedia there are actually a couple of citations of newspaper articles from Australia and the UK about the scholarly controversies over Mao, The Unknown Story that I hadn’t seen before, however.

Apparently there are more than a few Chinese scholars who take exception with some of the facts as portrayed by Chang and Halliday in The Unknown Story, or rather the context in which they are used (or lack of context, mayhap). I’d be curious to read those; because I’m still pondering over the legacy that Mao has left behind, namely his impact on modern Chinese culture. I really think it reverberates in many subtle ways that aren’t necessarily readily evident, yet nevertheless is expressed in such ways as to leave Westerners scratching their heads — such as Chinese citizens reaction to the recent demonstrations and crack-down in Tibet and elsewhere in Western China.

Anyway, I’m sure Mao and China will be a subject I return to in the future, both in terms of reading and writing. And hopefully I’ll return to the country itself soon for a visit; I’ve had China on the brain since I went there in 2005.