On this day, in 1987, Alice Hastings Bradley Sheldon – better known to the wider world as James Tiptree, Jr – died in tragic circumstances.
Alice Sheldon wrote most of her fiction as James Tiptree, Jr, making a point about sexist assumptions and also keeping her US government employers from knowing her business. Most of her books are collections of short stories, of which Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is considered to be definitive. Sheldon’s best stories combine radical feminism with a tough-minded tragic view of life; even virtuous characters are exposed as unwitting beneficiaries of disgusting socio-economic systems. Even good men are complicit in women’s oppression, as in her most famous stories ‘The Women Men Don’t See’ and ‘Houston, Houston, Do you Read?’ or in ecocide. Much of her work, even at its most tragic, has an attractively ironic tone which sometimes becomes straightforwardly comedy – it is important to stress that Tiptree’s deep seriousness never becomes sombre or pompous. Her two novels Up the Walls of the World and Brightness Falls from the Air are both remarkable transfigurations of stock space opera material – the former deals with a vast destroying being, sympathetic aliens at risk of destruction by it and human telepaths trying to make contact across the gulf of stars.
To chart the end of her life, we can do no better than to refer to her entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:
Alice Sheldon’s life, whose dramas had so visibly shaped the ten years of her prime as a writer, also ended in drama. She had been married to Huntington Sheldon since 1945. For some time it was believed that he contracted Alzheimer’s Disease in the early 1980s. This seems not to have been true. Whatever the case, in 1987, herself in precarious health, she shot him (in apparent accordance with a pact they had much earlier agreed upon), telephoned his son and told him what she had done, and then killed herself. She was honoured with a posthumous Solstice Award (see SFWA Grand Master Award) in 2010 and inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2012.
And, of course, the James Tiptree, Jr Memorial Award was established in her honour, in 1991.
You can read more about James Tiptree, Jr in her entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is available as an SF Masterworks paperback and an SF Gateway eBook, and contains:
The Last Flight of Doctor Ain
The Screwfly Solution
And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side
The Girl Who Was Plugged In
The Man Who Walked Home
And I Have Come upon This Place by Lost Ways
The Women Men Don’t See
Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!
Houston, Houston, Do You Read?
With Delicate Mad Hands
A Momentary Taste of Being
We Who Stole the Dream
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever
Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death
On the Last Afternoon
She Waits for All Men Born
And So On, and So On