Thursday, May 26, 2016

Letters to Tiptree edited by Alexandra Pierce and Alisa Krasnostein

Letters By: Kathryn Allan, Marleen S. Barr, Stepahine Burgis, Joyce Chng, Aliette de Bodard, L. Timmel Duchamp, A.J. Fitzwater, Lisa Goldstein, Theodora Goss, Nicola Griffith, Valentin D. Ivanov, Gwyneth Jones, Rose Lemberg, Sylvia Kelso, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Brit Mandelo, Sandra McDonald, Seanan McGuire, Karen Miller, Judith Moffett, Cheryl Morgan, Pat Murphy, Sarah Pinsker, Cat Rambo, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Justina Robson, Nisi Shawl, Nike Sulway, Lucy Sussex, Rachel Swirsky, Bogi Tak√°cs, Lynne M. Thomas, Catherynne Valente, √Člisabeth Vonarburg, Jo Walton, Tehani Wessely, and Tess Williams

Letters From: Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, and Alice B. Sheldon

Other Material:
Introduction to Star Songs of an Old Primate by Ursula K. Le Guin
Introducton to Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by Michael Swanwick
Excerpt from The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminism by Helen Merrick
Excerpt from Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction by Justine Larbalestier

Full review: There are some science fiction authors who have changed the conversation of the genre in ways that are almost impossible to measure. James Tiptree, Jr., also known as Alice B. Sheldon, was one of those authors, and the impact she had on the landscape of science fiction was wildly disproportionate to even the magnificent oevre of work. Published during the centenary of Sheldon's birth, Letters to Tiptree is primarily a collection of letters from authors currently working in the field addressed to Sheldon, each one expressing, in their own way, what Sheldon and Sheldon's work meant to them. The volume also contains some correspondence between Tiptree, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Joanna Russ, as well as some introductions written for Tiptree's works and excerpts from a pair of essays about the author.

James Tiptree, Jr. started publishing in the science fiction field in 1967, and over the next ten years produced some of the most brilliant works of short fiction the genre has ever seen. From The Girl Who Was Plugged In, to Love Is the Plan, the Plan Is Death, to The Women Men Don't See to Houston, Houston, Do You Read, Tiptree carved out a place in science fiction as a writer who turned a brutally harsh eye upon issues related to gender and sexuality. Through his career, Tiptree refused to make public appearances, give interviews, or otherwise communicate with people in person, but did correspond by mail with many fans, editors, and other writers. In the late 1970s, aftr a decade of secrecy, a comment in a letter about her mother's death and obituary led to the revelation that Tiptree was actually Alice B. Sheldon, turning upside down many of the assumptions that many in the industry had believed about "male" and "female" writing. Even after the revelation, Sheldon remained, and remains, one of the most enigmatic figures in science fiction. In her letters she reveals that she had relationships with women, but she was so attached to the man she married that she literally could not bear to live without him. Sheldon may or may not have identified as transgender as well: The evidence on this point is somewhat unclear. What is certain is that she left behind a collection of stories that have fascinated and inspired both her contemporaries and her literary descendants.

The meat of Letters to Tiptree is, as one might expect, the collection of letters written by a collection of authors, editors, critics, and fans all addressed to the titular author. The roster of letter writers consists of thirty-nine of the most prominent figures in science fiction today, including Aliette de Bodard, Rachel Swirsky, Cat Rambo, Seanan McGuire, Jo Walton, and Catherynne Valente. Given the roster assembled for this project, it should come as no surprise that the letter are all insightful and fascinating to read, and are all wildly different as well. One recurring theme to the letters is the difficultly of knowing how to address Tiptree - does one call her Mr. Tiptree? Mrs. Sheldon? Alli? Where does Sheldon's other pseudonym Raccoona fit in? In a way, this single issue encapsulates the ambiguous place that Alice Sheldon holds in the history of science fiction. Through the course of the book, multiple letter writers grapple with the conundrum of Tiptree's identity and how to understand the author's legacy.

Although there are commonalities to many of the letters - it is obvious that each letter writer loves and respects Sheldon and her work - each one is unique in its particular subject matter and emotional tone. Some of the letters are filled with regret, either that the writer didn't get a chance to meet Sheldon when she was alive, or because the writer never had the experience of reading Tiptree's work before his identity as Sheldon was revealed, and then read them again with a new eye. Some of the letters are sympathetic, almost commiserating with Sheldon about their common struggles concerning gender, sexuality, and mental illness. Some of the letters analyze Tiptree's writing. Others speak to the inspiration Tiptree was for the letter writer. One is angry. Two are in the form of poetry. Because of the structure of this book, with such a diverse array of voices, each speaking on a subject dear to its writer's heart, it is probably not a work than can be binge read. Instead, it must be digested slowly, one letter at a time. A three hundred and sixty page long book usually takes me a day or two to read. Letters to Tiptree took almost a month. Not because the book was poorly written, but rather because so many of the letters were so powerfully written that after reading many of them, I simply had to set the book down and contemplate what I had just read.

Following the collection of letters written for this volume, the next section features letters written to Tiptree during Sheldon's lifetime by Ursula K. Le Guin and Joanna Russ, and a few letters from Sheldon in response. These letters are reprints of material that has appeared before, but in this collection they take on a new dimension, offering a contemporary and personal counterpoint to the letters from the previous section. One can see the love and concern these women had for one another, and in Sheldon's letters one can see the very human person behind the facade. Tiptree was, and remains, such a towering figure in science fiction as a whole, and feminist science fiction in particular, that it would be easy to forget that she was often crippled with self-doubt, apparently intensely uncomfortable dealing with people in person, and distraught over the fact that those she counted as friends might abandon her when her true identity was revealed. To the extent that the letters in the first section veer into hagiographic territory, the letters in this one serve as a beautiful and poignant antidote.

The third section, featuring introductions to two of Tiptree's works - one by Ursula K. Le Guin, and the other by Michael Swanwick - and excerpts from Helen Merrick's The Secret Feminist Cabal and Justine Larbalestier's Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, is almost anticlimactic in comparison with the previous segments of the book. All of these pieces are wonderfully crafted and insightful, offering meditations on Tiptree's work and its meaning in the context of the history of science fiction with respect to how gender fits into the puzzle, and, for Larbalestier's piece, an exploration of what Tiptree's experience says about gender in more general terms. But these works are all detached and professional, almost academic in quality, and as a result lack the raw emotional intensity of the portions of the book that had gone before, and as a result, they seem like almost a let down. They remain, however, a set of incredibly intelligent and incisive pieces even though they feel somewhat flat and colorless after the often brutally honest letters that the book led with.

The last few pages of the book are letters from Alisa Krasnostein and Alexandra Pierce, addressed to Tiptree. Like so many other letters in the book, they express their love for Tiptree, and their fascination with both her work and the enigma that she represents. As a means of capping off the volume, these two letters are pitch perfect, summing up the necessity of the project in just a few pages, and offering just the right amount of adoration and respect. Letters to Tiptree is a beautiful love note to an author who left far too soon and with too much left unsaid, and is a penetrating and captivating examination of what work she did produce and her place in the science fiction constellation.

Previous Locus Award Winner for Best Nonfiction, Related, or Reference Work: What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton
Subsequent Locus Award Winner for Best Nonfiction, Related, or Reference Work: The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

List of Locus Award Winners for Best Nonfiction, Related, or Reference Work

2016 Locus Award Nominees

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  1. Interesting enough if you're into this genre.

    1. @fredamans: If you are a genre fan, this book will likely be fascinating. If you aren't, then not so much.