You don't need to have heard of James Tiptree, Jr., to appreciate Julie Phillips' engrossing new biography of the mercurial writer who, from 1967 to 1977, churned out brilliant science fiction under the Tiptree pseudonym. Tiptree's intense tales of giant bugs struggling for higher consciousness, of warring humanoid species and space travel, became an overnight sensation with the sci-fi subculture, and their reclusive author a figure of mystery.
In fact, Tiptree was Alice B. Sheldon, a middle-aged woman living quietly in suburban Virginia. As Phillips shows in her exquisitely detailed volume, Sheldon had been restlessly trying on personae all her life. The only child of a glitzy Chicago society couple, she made headlong false starts as debutante, painter, Air Corps officer, Pentagon analyst, scientist, and egg farmer. She had violent crushes on women (and on Star Trek's Spock), but found peace in a sexually quiescent marriage to an older man. At 51, she began producing speculative fiction under a name she spotted on a jam jar in the supermarket (she was unmasked a decade later).
Only in the guise of Tiptree, Phillips argues, could the deeply insecure Sheldon find her voice. And what a voice! Phillips offers a trenchant analysis of Sheldon's complexities, but she also knows when to let her subject speak, quoting copiously from Tiptree's letters to the likes of Ursula Le Guin, which burn with an edgy intelligence you wish had found its outlet earlier.