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.
For the context of my reading this book, I want to note that I have not read Tiptree's/Sheldon's biography (it's on my wishlist) and the only fiction of hers I've read is The Starry Rift, which certainly does not contain her most well-known stories. I did listen to the Tiptree-themed Galactic Suburbia episodes and glanced at Wikipedia, but overall my general knowledge of Tiptree and especially her fiction is low. Obviously I want to read more of her fiction, but I also didn't want to put off reading this book until such an indefinite point in the potentially distant future. So that's where I was coming from when I read Letters to Tiptree.
The first section of this book collects letters from the present to Tiptree/Alice Sheldon. These letters tackle a variety of topics, mostly in the realms of feminism and Sheldon's (gender) identity. Some letters provide analysis of one or more stories — which obviously it would probably be more interesting to read having read the stories, but now I feel oddly familiar with some of them. There were also letters talking about aspects of Sheldon's life that I was less familiar with, like her death (murder-suicide). Sandra McDonald's letter was one that particularly stood out to me on that front.
A few other letters that I marked as particularly notable were Rose Lemberg's with it's discussion of which books were translated and available in the Soviet Union (and the lack of female Soviet SF writers). Valentin D. Ivanov's letter is actually addressed to Bulgarian writer Zora Zagorska about Tiptree, which makes for an interesting read. Then there was Justina Robson's letter, which talks about feminism and the literary tradition of masculine style. Lucy Sussex's letter linked her experiences with her mother's death and her travels to Borneo with Sheldon's writing and experiences, a compelling read.
After these contemporary letters, there is some additional material in Letters to Tiptree. Some reprints of letters between Tiptree/Sheldon and Ursula Le Guin, and Joanna Russ; the introductions to a couple of story collections; excerpts from Justine Larbalestier's book The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction and Hellen Merrick's The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms; and a few other things. My favourite part of this latter material was definitely the letters between Tiptree and her contemporaries. I would love to read more of them. The focus here was on Tiptree revealing her Alice Sheldon identity to her epistolary friends but I'm sure there were many other interesting conversations for us to snoop on from the future.
If you know absolutely nothing about James Tiptree Jr, this is probably not the book for you. But if you have even a passing interest in her life or fiction, this makes for an interesting read. I would probably recommend reading Her Smoke Rose Up Forever — although I didn't — so as to better appreciate some of the discussion of stories (I think the key ones are all in there). I will be reading it at some point, but probably not too soon so that the somewhat spoilery discussions in Letters to Tiptree aren't too fresh in my mind.
4 / 5 stars
Format read: ePub
Source: Review copy provided by publisher
Disclaimer: The editors (and publisher) are friends but I have nevertheless endeavoured to provide an unbiased review
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge