James Tiptree Jr. was a science fiction author in the 1960s and 1970s but the author wasn’t a junior, a Tiptree or even a James. That was the male pen name for Alice B. Sheldon, who was born this day in Chicago, 1915. Sheldon was a well-traveled child who, by age seven, racked up a trip to Africa in her life experiences. She went on to write, paint, earn a degree in experimental psychology, conduct photo-intelligence for the Army Air Forces and later join the CIA.
That list alone would make her notable, especially since women’s right to vote was newly awarded in 1920 and society still expected women to stay at home and tend to their families until the labor shortages during World War II. Sheldon had written columns and reviews occasionally, but she wanted to delve deeper into the science fiction world. That world was mainly written by men. She knew she would face gender bias and she wanted success more than attention, so she picked her new last name from the label on a marmalade jar and constructed her new identity. As Tiptree, she wrote tech-savvy, hard sci-fi short stories, and was seen as a man’s man with a keen sense into the woman’s mind. Since her life thus far had been comprised of typically male experiences like guns, strategy and the military, it was the only way she could follow the old literary axiom, “Write what you know.” She did, with authority and determination, and earned the respect of the science fiction field in the process, producing more than 60 short stories, novellas and novelettes. Her story “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” won a Nebula Award in 1977 and was a co-winner of the Hugo Award that same year.
Her ruse worked until 1976 when she made a comment about the passing of her mother, also a writer, and her true identity was discovered. She continued writing under the Tiptree name and an additional name, Raccoona Sheldon, until her death in 1987. Five years later, the James Tiptree,Jr. Award was created to honor her, and is presented each year for a science fiction or fantasy work that explores how the world understands gender. Although Sheldon became Tiptree because , in her words from an 1983 interview, “I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some **** occupation,” she still managed to make history and break new ground.