Science Fiction Studies


#43 = Volume 14, Part 3 = November 1987


Alice Hastings Sheldon, 1915-87

On May 19, 1987, Alice Hastings Sheldon shot her husband and then herself in their home in McLean, Virginia. She and Huntingdon Sheldon, who was 84, had been married since 1945, and both had been suffering from medical problems. They were found in bed, holding hands, he with two bullet wounds in his head, she with one.                

Sheldon began publishing SF in 1968, and as James Tiptree, Jr, is the author of some of the boldest and best short fiction of the 1970s—"Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death," "The Women Men Don't See," "The Screwfly Solution," and "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" are among her most celebrated stories—and of the novels Up the Walls of the World (1978), Brightness Falls from the Air (1985), and The Starry Rift (1986). Clear-eyed and intelligent, her work explores intractable social problems and especially those involving sexual stereotypes and relations between the sexes.                

She had an adventurous childhood spent travelling in Africa and India on sometimes perilous expeditions with her parents, Herbert and Mary Bradley. Profoundly influenced by her brilliantly accomplished mother—explorer, linguist, war correspondent, and author—Sheldon had an extremely varied career that began with her working as a graphic artist, painter, and art critic. She worked for the US Army Air Force in 1942-46, becoming a Major; after the war she became the first female American photo-intelligence officer; and she taught experimental psychology and statistics at American University and at George Washington University in Washington, DC, from 1955 to 1968. She received her PhD in psychology from GWU in 1968, and began writing SF as a way of relaxing after completing her doctoral dissertation.                

The name James Tiptree, Jr, had been chosen at random; but when her early stories were well received, she continued to use it (she occasionally used the name Raccoona Sheldon instead), and effectively kept her real identity secret from her admiring readership for a decade. When she answered letters from fans who wanted to know something about her, she told the truth about her career and her background but let it be thought that this was the career and background of a man named James Tiptree, Jr. Not even her agent knew the truth until after her mother died in 1977, and obituary notices betrayed Sheldon's secret to an astonished SF world.                

The work of this remarkable individual is among the most exciting SF to emerge in the past 20 years. Sheldon felt very strongly that a writer's life and a writer's work should be kept separate, and she was upset when "James Tiptree, Jr" was revealed as an elderly lady in McLean, Virginia. But given the interest that her work has in countering traditional sexual stereotypes, it is surely both appropriate and marvellous that James Tiptree is a woman. The work and life of Alice Hastings Sheldon are each extraordinary. -- Linda Leith, John Abbott College


Censorship in West Germany: An Update

In your March 1987 issue, you published Florian Marzin's report on the indexing, by the Federal Examination Agency ("Bundesprüfstelle," or BPS), of Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream and of several "Gor" novels. Spinrad's German publishers, Heyne, immediately instituted legal proceedings against the BPS decision. As their consultant in the matter, I have followed the case through several stages of appeal.                

Though I would not want to deny the dangers pointed out by Dr Marzin, his final conclusions were a bit precipitate. On March 3rd, the BPS decision in the Spinrad case was definitively quashed by the Federal Administrative Court ("Bundesverwaltungsgericht"). In its opinion, the court referred to the "extensive" definition of art set forth, in 1984, by the Federal Constitutional Court ("Bundesverfassungsgericht"). As the case decided by the latter involved not only slander proceedings instituted by Bavarian Prime Minister Franz Josef Strauss, but—as the form of art to be judged—a somewhat varied rendering of Brecht's ballad "Der anachronistische Zug oder Freiheit und Democracy" by a political street theater, I thought the matter sufficiently interesting—and important—to report on it in detail in the May 1987 Science Fiction Times. -- Rainer Eisfeld, Universität Osnabruck  

For readers of German, the article by Dr. Eisfeld ("Bert Brechts glanz fällt auf Spinrad: Die Indizierung ist vom Tisch" can be obtained by writing to: CorianVerlag/Bernhard-Monath-Str. 24 a/D-8901 Meitingen, West Germany. Its gist in regard to Spinrad is that a German court agreed with Dr. Marzin: that The Iron Dream indeed has certain claims to artistic merit!—RMP

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