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randwolf

Rereading Tiptree: a marriage, an apotheosis, a monster

bellatrys, having just encountered Tiptree and been surprised and unhappy at what she found, has set me to rereading James Tiptree, Jr./Alice Sheldon. Tiptree/Sheldon, for those of you hiding under a rock for the past 40 years or so, was a research psychologist and CIA field agent. She was also, almost peripherally, an sf writer from the 1960s-80s, noted as a feminist, and for her successful impersonation of a man in the sf community. So I went down to the library, and reserved a number of her books, as well as Julie Phillip's biography of Sheldon, which seems to be much more popular than Tiptree/Sheldon's fiction. I chose to start my rereading with perhaps a minor book, Tales of the Quintana Roo. This small press publication contains three stories, written very late in her career. These are rather Lovecraftian, rather Latin American magic-realist friend-of-a-friend present-day stories, set in the Yucatan.

The stories draw on Sheldon's Mexican CIA background. So we have one story about a man who married the sea, a story about a man who water-skied to Mayan godhood, and a story about a vengeful dying sea. But, you say, feminism, where is Sheldon's feminism? Not here! In fact, Sheldon's own persona is one of the few women in these stories, which are told by men about men and gods. What is here is mysticism and moral outrage. Sheldon comes across very clearly as a sympathetic and, I suspect, accurate observer of the backwater Mexican state (in Sheldon's day, territory) of Quintana Roo—the northeastern coast of the Yucatán penninsula. Outrage at what? Abuse of the land, abuse of the people—colonialism—, pollution. The obvious sorts of things, but several decades early than these had become matters of widespread interest. What type of mysticism? This is harder to characterize. "The Boy Who Waterskied to Forever" seems to me a simple admiration of masculine virtues. Be it noted—and this I hope to return to, but probably not in this article—that Sheldon had, throughout her career, a romantic streak and this is a simple charming romantic story. But "What Came Ashore at Lirios" is a sharper story of a man who was seduced by an androgynous sea, and "Beyond the Dead Reef" is a flat angry story of failed communication and an angry spirit of nature. There is something here, I think, about loving more deeply than most of us are willing to imagine—I think here of "Ting", Sheldon's husband who she loved more than life itself—, and something about the power of the natural world. Sheldon had a sense, I think, she would never admit to, of an immanent power in nature, one that views humans largely with indifference, but sometimes as tools, and sometimes with hostility; one of her famous stories, after all, is titled, "Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death." All of this makes for a much different author than the one I keep hearing about. Or perhaps I am listening in the wrong places.

More, probably, when I have reread more.

PS: my girlfriend, raised in Mexico, adds "[The Quintana Roo] is so wide and open and you know you aren't the only thing in the world; you feel the looming of something greater." And this is all through Tiptree/Sheldon's fiction. I am suspecting that Mexico is one of her major influences.


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