Andrea Hairston’s Redwood and Wildfire Wins 2011 James Tiptree Award

Redwood and Wildfire by Andrea Hairston (book cover) - the 2011 James Tiptree, Jr. Award winnerHairston’s Novel of a Turn-of-the-Century Hoodoo Woman Wows James Tiptree Award Jurists

Still playing catchup, this time with all of the awards news that took place this month, not the least of which was the announcement of the 2011 James Tiptree, Jr. Award, which went to Redwood and Wildfire by Andrea Hairston. James Tiptree, Jr. – in case you didn’t know, let me enlighten you – was the nom de plume of science fiction author Alice B. Sheldon, an extraordinary woman who led an extraordinary life. The award, per the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award Council, is “an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.”

Sheldon, you see, felt she couldn’t be taken seriously as a woman author at the time she was writing, so she invented a male persona which she maintained for much of her life. Among Tiptree’s peers, her identity – and gender – were a topic of considerable debate. Ironically, there were those who were positive that Tiptree was a man, because of the way she wrote.

To learn more about Alice Sheldon and her literary alter ego, James Tiptree, check out this biography.

According to the council’s website, apparently there was Redwood and Wildfire, and then there was everybody else. To wit:

Redwood and Wildfire was a favorite of the jurors from the moment they read it. They reported: “This vivid and emotionally satisfying novel encompasses the life of Redwood, a hoodoo woman, as she migrates from rural Georgia to Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. While Redwood’s romance with Aidan Wildfire is central to the novel, female friendship is also a major theme, without deferring to the romance. Hairston incorporates romantic love into a constellation, rather than portraying it as a solo shining star. Her characters invoke a sky where it can shine; they live and love without losing themselves in cultural expectations, prejudices and stereotypes, all within a lovingly sketched historical frame.

“Intersections of race, class, and gender encompass these characters’ entire lives. They struggle with external and internal forces around questions of gender roles, love, identity, and sexuality. This challenge drives how they move through the world and how it sees them. The characters in Redwood and Wildfire deftly negotiate freedom and integrity in a society where it’s difficult to hold true to these things.”

Sounds interesting, to say the least. But to say “then there was everybody else” isn’t quite fair; to make the annual Tiptree Award honor list is no small feat; the other works in the running can hardly be described as also rans. Here’s the breakdown of the 2011 honor list, as cribbed from the Tiptree Award site:

  • Libba Bray, Beauty Queens (Scholastic Press 2011) — In this atypically comedic Tiptree candidate, a cast of iconic characters trapped on a hostile island (populated by the capitalist analog of Doctor No) illuminates the limited palette of roles for women and offers the hope of more rewarding and rounded lives.
  • L. Timmel Duchamp, “The Nones of Quintilus” (in her collection Never at Home, Aqueduct Press 2011) — This standout story addresses the relationships between mothers and daughters and how the world looks different when you become (or intend to become) pregnant.
  • Kameron Hurley, God’s War (Night Shade Books 2011) — Set on a marginally habitable world divided by a common religion with diverse interpretations, this engaging work explores a militaristic matriarchal society.
  • Gwyneth Jones, The Universe of Things (Aqueduct Press 2011) — Running through these gorgeous stories is a fierce awareness of how gender roles and other social power imbalances are always factors in how we think, how we approach one another, how we see the world. The author questions the status quo, and then questions the questioning, so what emerges is a mature, honest, thoughtful complexity.
  • Alice Sola Kim, “The Other Graces” (Asimov’s Science Fiction, July 2010) — This elegantly written short story revisits the role of mirroring in self-actualization and casts that path in a new and skiffy light as its heroine, Grace, is mentored by her older alternate selves. It also depicts racial/cultural intersections with gender roles.
  • Sandra McDonald, “Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots” (Strange Horizons, 2010.10.04) — A surreal and subversive take on human-AI relations. An older female character exploring her sexuality is a rare thing in science fiction, and it is refreshing to see it handled here with such a deft hand.
  • Maureen F. McHugh, “After the Apocalypse” (in her collection After the Apocalypse, Small Beer Press 2011) — This title story of an impressive collection brings to the foreground gender expectations concerning the practice of motherhood in extreme situations and then completely and matter-of-factly upends them.
  • Delia Sherman, The Freedom Maze (Big Mouth House 2011) — A clear-hearted, magically immersive time travel story that explores powerful ideas. Thrown back through time to an antebellum plantation, a thirteen-year-old comes to understand how women’s experience is shaped by cultural expectations as they interweave with social, economic, and racial truths.
  • Kim Westwood, The Courier’s New Bicycle (Harper Voyager Australia 2011) — This compelling novel depicts a variety of sexually transgressive characters and looks at themes of fertility and alternate family structures through a dystopic lens.

Kameron Hurley's God's War (book cover) - named to the 2011 James Tiptree Award honor's listAll of those sound interesting and worth reading as well, although there are two that stick out among them, in my humble opinion. The first of these is Hurley’s God’s War; religion almost always makes for an interesting topic in the right author’s hands, and a matriarchal yet militaristic culture sounds intriguing.  Religious war is also obviously a very topical theme, in this day and age.

As for McDonald’s “Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots,” I’m inclined to read any short story that has the words sexy and robots in it – which probably reveals more about my psyche than you might be comfortable with – throw in cowboys and it’s a done deal.

Fortunately for me and everyone else who likes science fiction, speculative fiction and related genres, Strange Horizons – in it’s total awesomeness – keeps its previously published fiction archived online (props to the authors that allow them to do this, as well). Which means you can check out McDonald’s “Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots” at Strange Horizons right this instant.

Said it before, say it again: living in the future is a mixed bag, but generally, by and large, pretty cool.

P.S. I feel compelled to add this note, in these Internet times of shoot-from-the-hip emotional reactions and cries of reverse racism and sexism at every turn. For the cynical or misinformed among you, I’ll point out that there have been have been plenty of dudes that have won the Tiptree Award in the past.

Indeed, previous award jurists have been quite open minded; in 2009 the award was split between a novel and a manga title.

Get 2011 James Tiptree, Jr. Award winner Redwood and Wildfire by Andrea Hairston here.

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.