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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

If only Spock had a sister...

I've had some beginnings-middles-ends problem with several books I've read recently: I've liked the beginnings, the middles, or the ends of the books, but other sections are less good. It's a weird problem to have; I'd rather recommend something than dissect it or complain about it, but here goes:

I've read nothing but rave reviews about Julie Phillips' biography of Alice Sheldon, who wrote science fiction stories under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. (here's a good review from Bookforum that explains the Sheldon/Tiptree backstory better than I will in this entry, and here's the NYTBR's lead review). I was disappointed by the first few chapters, which detail every complaint Alice Sheldon ever had about her glamorous, globe-trotting mother, Mary Hastings Bradley, but I'm glad I stuck with it. The second half of the book is a fantastic critical biography of Tiptree's short stories and correspondence with other science fiction writers of the time, including Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Joanna Russ.

I was skeptical of the biography at first. Phillips' discussion of Alice's childhood tends to flatten every experience into a heavy-handed psychological diagnosis, so the narration reads like a therapist's notes:
Aggression, too, was a Bradley taboo. In any dispute, Alice wrote, "Mary is always for the underdog, but only as long as he is the underdog. The moment he gets on top, he had better watch himself." To Mary it was all right to kill lions, who were themselves violent creatures, but she went to great lengths to protect mice, chipmunks, anything that was small and weak. This might say something about the conditions on her love for Alice.

On a safari in Africa, nine-year-old Alice asks her parents if she can have a gun to shoot elephants, and her mother replies, "Don't be silly." Phillips assesses the situation:
But to call Alice's wish for a gun "silly" is an insult to her capabilities. Any kind of gun, even the kind of air rifle that is commonly given to small boys, would have made her feel more powerful against the dangers of Africa. ... [She] didn't have the one thing that would have made her feel like a real member of the party. When Alice drew the illustrations for Alice in Elephantland, she drew herself with a smoking rifle over her shoulder.

She's nine years old. What kind of gun capabilities do nine-year-old girls have? In these paragraphs, Phillips sympathizes with her subject so much that she treats the source material--usually Sheldon writing to a correspondent about her childhood as though it were the male Tiptree's childhood--as clear-eyed, accurate, and reliable. But her subject is obsessed with the complexities of self-presentation and narration of her life, and her accounts to her various correspondents contain discrepancies, elisions, exaggerations, self-deprectation, irony, self-administered psychoanalysis, and plenty of other features you'd expect from a gifted storyteller. Phillips' literary criticism of Tiptree's short stories accomodates these multiple levels of irony. That flexibility doesn't show up in the deterministic readings of Sheldon's stories about her childhood. Take this paragraph, for example, in which Alice Sheldon describes a later trip to Africa made when she was a teenager (the elisions are Phillips'):
You keep remembering the wildness, the freshness, the unknown ... now for the first time, never before this seen ... it's different from the land with the gasoline smells in the rainforest [...].

[On the plane] our fellow passenger was Major Grogan, who thirty years before had been the first white man to go from the Cape to Cairo. It took him 3 years, one whole year in the marshes of the Sudd; his two companions died. It is said he ate them; I think so. He looked like a sensible man. But the whole 3 days up in the old De Havilland he sat silent with his face pressed to the [...] porthole, staring down as we roared over the way it had taken him so long to go. Little lions scattered like grasshoppers under us. He turned a couple of times and gave us and the interior of the plane a look that was just cold death laid over us. If we had had any taste we'd have died. Instead, we and the Japanese marquis and his aide and his wild cat all vomited for three days.

This trip not only taught her what a girl stood to lose in growing up; it showed her that all the joys of childhood are fragile, vulnerable to time and history, about to be lost.

I'm not sure what's going on in Sheldon's narration: she's met an old, mysterious cannibal and she's airsick--which may be par for the course in her travels--but I don't understand Phillips' reading of that passage.

The biography gets much better when Sheldon gets older and begins writing as James Tiptree, Jr. Tiptree wrote and received a lot of fan mail, and these letters are funny, insightful, weird (there's a hilarious set of exchanges among several eminent science fiction writers about whether one of Tiptree's letters is infested with roach eggs, and whether freezing the letter, burning it, or keeping it in a plastic bag might be the best way to deal with the situation). Sheldon's writing becomes sharper when she's Tiptree, maybe because she's able to deflect and ironize her anxieties about loneliness, gender, and creative work. Phillips' writing becomes sharper, too; her analyses of Tiptree's stories generate richer possible interpretations than the flat psychological readings of Sheldon's narrations in the first half.

For sheer strangeness that's exemplary of the rich second half of the book, here's this awesome paragraph:
Around this time, Alli fell under the spell of a new story about exploration. She started watching Star Trek, and saw in the crew of the enterprise her childhood traveling party, crossing the great unknown. Kirk was the fatherly leader of the expedition, while Mr. Spock, with his pointy ears and rational reserve, fit Alli's dream of the unattainable alien. To her surprise, Alli developed a violent crush on Spock. As Tiptree, she wrote a long fan letter to Leonard Nimoy explaining Spock's appeal. Since humans were naturally exogamous, tending to marry outside of their own group, and xenophilic, or naturally attracted to foreignness, a crush on Spock was an instinctive and almost biolgical reaction to his alien appearance: "the touching shoulder-blades, the tremor, the shadowed and infinitely effective squint." To another correspondent] Harry Harrison, Tiptree sighed, "If only Spock had a sister..."

There's a wonderful weirdness to this story and many others from Sheldon-Tiptree's adult correspondence. Many of the ideas in the letters show up in Tiptree's science fiction; the experiments with narrative form and subverting a reader's expectations generate moments of unexpected insight and possibilities that don't need to be determined definitively. Phillips is at her best when she relates these moments but leaves some space for speculation, or when she reproduces Tiptree's correspondence with LeGuin and Russ to talk about gender and authorial presence. These moments are experiments in form and reader expectations in their own right (LeGuin and Russ didn't know Tiptree's identity until after it was publicized), and the results are wonderfully unpredictable and creative. Sheldon's life is an amazing story, but it's most enjoyable when the subject and the biographer don't over-think it.

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