James Tiptree Jr.

By: Anthony Miller
August 24, 2015


“What started out as a prank dreamed its way into reality,” wrote JAMES TIPTREE, JR. (Alice Bradley, 1915–87). When this sentence appeared in the revelatory essay “Everything But the Signature Is Me” in 1978, it had recently been discovered that the reclusive, award-winning science-fiction author was a woman. Tiptree had succeeded in duping Robert Silverberg, who averred there was “something ineluctably masculine” about the author he compared to Hemingway, and hoodwinking Harlan Ellison, who proclaimed in print, “Wilhelm is the woman to beat, but Tiptree is the man.” None of this pseudonymous subterfuge would matter were it not for Tiptree’s sui generis storytelling. There are the evocative titles, including the pointed “The Women Men Don’t See.” Stories such as “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death,” “A Momentary Taste of Being,” “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” and “Painwise” reconfigure notions of masculinity, mortality, and Mother Nature. Providing conduits to cyberpunk progenitor William Gibson and cyborg theorist Donna Haraway, “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” is a requisite text for exploring the porous frontiers between technology and humanity. Before becoming Tiptree (taking the name from a marmalade jar) at 51, the woman now known as “Alli” Sheldon had lived many lives. An only child of Chicago socialites, this Alice’s adventures on an African safari as a young girl shaped her imaginary landscapes much as J.G. Ballard’s childhood in Shanghai influenced his. She worked in Army Intelligence and the fledgling CIA and took a Ph.D. in experimental psychology. She also loved Star Trek. Her alter ego provided her with both protection and permission. She assumed another moniker, Raccoona Sheldon, claiming to be a female friend of Tiptree’s, and won a Nebula for “The Screwfly Solution.” In 1991, an award recognizing gender-bending science fiction and fantasy was named in honor of Tiptree. More than finding a foothold in a male-dominated genre, Tiptree prefigured the age of the avatar and amorphous identity and lent us closer contact with the alien world of the human being.

NEW WAVE SCI-FI at HILOBROW: 75 Best New Wave (1964–1983) Sci-Fi Novels | Back to Utopia: Fredric Jameson’s theorizing about New Wave sci-fi | Douglas Adams | Poul Anderson | J.G. Ballard | John Brunner | William Burroughs | Octavia E. Butler | Samuel R. Delany | Philip K. Dick | Frank Herbert | Ursula K. Le Guin | Barry N. Malzberg | Moebius (Jean Giraud) | Michael Moorcock | Alan Moore | Gary Panter | Walker Percy | Thomas Pynchon | Joanna Russ | James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon) | Kurt Vonnegut | PLUS: Jack Kirby’s Golden Age and New Wave science fiction comics.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Dave Chappelle, Max Beerbohm, Howard Zinn, Jorge Luis Borges.

READ MORE about members of the New Gods Generation (1914-23).