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Alice B. Sheldon
The Woman who was James Tiptree, Junior
© 2013 James LaFond
When Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein was published in 1818 it went without saying that a woman’s name on the cover would kill sales. Such was once the way of the world. Now, when I peruse the science-fiction/fantasy section at Barnes & Noble fully half of the authors, including most of the best sellers, are women. So, in nearly 200 years we have gone from a world where few women read and fewer engaged in any type of speculative and/or literary pursuit, to a world where young men are basically sub-literate mating drones and women dominate what was almost exclusively a male literary genre a mere generation ago.
In the 1970s there were only three female authors in the speculative fiction category that I can recall [not counting Sheldon, who I thought was a guy]. Most female authors were relegated to romances, mysteries and cook books. It now occurs to me that there is something important to be made from the fact that the first female literary figure to break into the men’s club that was the literary circle by writing a gothic horror novel that is regarded as a sci-fi precursor did so under a male pen name, and that one of the last women to write under a male pen name wrote in this genre. However, my male mind is not connecting the dots. Perhaps you, the reader, will help the rest of us out in the comment section at the bottom of this article.
Indeed, when you read Sheldon, you can see how hard 1970ish editors thought she would be for the overwhelmingly male readership to swallow as a man. You can also see where she is obviously a woman with a vested interest in the fate of her genre apart from humanity as a whole.
I am currently rereading her collected short stories, and have selected two to review below, that bracket her most productive and critically acclaimed years.
from Her Smoke Rose up Forever
The Great Years of James Tiptree, JR.
with an introduction by John Clute
and illustrations by Andrew Smith
James Tiptree, Junior [Alice B. Sheldon]
Arkham House Publishers, INC. 1990, 520 pages
The Last Flight of Doctor Ain, 1969, 8 pages
This is an emotionally distanced tale of a mad scientist who goes out among us, even to the birds about to take their migratory flights, and spreads a virulent virus he has engineered to cause mankind’s extinction. The story has an unsettling feel. I wonder if the author’s work for the CIA had anything to do with her choice of such a practical approach to viral terrorism by her protagonist.
The Screwfly Solution, 1977, 24 pages
This story was better crafted then the one above. Then again I may just be prejudiced because it was told in a more personal style. The story follows a handful of people through the various stages of an alien engineered extermination of humankind. The aliens actually co-opt our reproductive impulsiveness in such a way that we do their work for them. This is a disturbing masterpiece.
Slovomir Rawicz, The Long Walk
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