For nearly a decade, a middle-aged woman in Virginia (her own words) had much of the science fiction community in thrall. Her short stories were awarded, lauded and extremely well-reviewed. They were also regarded as “ineluctably masculine,” because Alice Sheldon was writing as James Tiptree Jr.
In celebration of Alice Sheldon’s centenary, Letters to Tiptree presents a selection of thoughtful letters from thirty-nine science fiction and fantasy writers, editors, critics, and fans address questions of gender, of sexuality, of the impossibility and joy of knowing someone only through their fiction and biography.
Catherynne M. Valente
Aliette de Bodard
L. Timmel Duchamp
Nicola Griffith – read online at LA Review of Books
Valentin D Ivanov
Alex Dally MacFarlane
Brit Mandelo – read online at Tor.com
Tansy Rayner Roberts
Lynne M. Thomas
And bonus reprint material including:
– archived letters from Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ and James Tiptree Jr./Alice Sheldon
– excerpts from The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms by Helen Merrick
– excerpt from Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction by Justine Larbalestier
– essay by Michael Swanwick
Edited by Alexandra Pierce and Alisa Krasnostein
Published: 2015 by Twelfth Planet Press
Many of these letters were written by writers I admire today. It was fun to follow these varied thoughts and reflections on Tiptree’s work and figure, as they crossed over and diverged on many personal reading paths across time. Even if you are a reader unfamiliar with Tiptree’s work (or a new reader to her stories like I am), this eclectic collection of letters will inspire anyone to pick up a story by James Tiptree Jr. Perhaps, a story from the writers of these letters, too.
There is a clear sense of self-awareness around where and when letters are being penned and sent – 100 years after Tiptree’s time. Each letter in this collection approaches Tiptree’s work and/or being from a personal place or frame of thought.
Some writers like Seanen Maguire were inspired by her presence in what appeared to be a male dominated SF field in the past. Many writers also reflected upon the social expectations that weighed upon Tiptree and how ideas around gender identity, gender fluidity, multiple identities and sexual identity have developed since Tiptree was alive. These thoughts are sparked by the biography of Tiptree’s life in addition to her fictional stories which featured many characters who experienced what it meant to be Other.
“…It is the fact that you made people understand what it was like to be trapped, so complicated, so-in-between.The stories that you wrote often deal with that sense of not-quite-right-ness, and while in them it might be alien or otherwise in nature, the truth is much closer to home: the space of one’s love and one’s body can be an in-between or contested space, and reading narratives that explored that affectively was important to me. Still is, even. ”
– Dear James/Alice (and sometimes Raccoona), Brit Mandelo.
In the bonus material of Tiptree’s own letters, Tiptree expressed fear around her work being dismissed following the intense spotlight drawn upon the revelation of her gender. (The varied responses to this revelation is also the compelling subject of a few letters here.) A few more letters alluded to how historically, SF written by women have frequently been omitted and the responsibility of readers to talk about these writers today.
(*I have only recently read some of Tiptree’s SF short stories in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever and Byte Beautiful but their powerful endings in particular, haunt my thoughts. I have yet to read the Julie Phillip’s biography on Tiptree. Though there is a copy on my TBR shelf. I recommend the Galactic Suburbia podcast for more on Tiptree’s work and life.)
After I finished reading Letters to Tiptree, I was struck by how the impression of Tiptree’s brilliant stories and the story of a writer can comfort and/or inspire. Both Tiptree’s writing and presence had a huge impact on the SF community.
I really enjoyed reading the wide range of letters presented in this collection. I appreciated the inclusion of the critical essays at the end. The sampled correspondence between Ursula K. Le. Guin, Joanna Russ and Alice B. Sheldon/James Tiptree, Jr was another great contextual addition.