Alice Bradley Sheldon/
James Tiptree, Jr.
• Science fiction writer who inspired an award
for work that “expands or explores our
understanding of gender”
• Had a complicated relationship with her male
• Born: August 24, 1915
• Died: May 19, 1987 (age 71)
• Country of origin: United States
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Alice Bradley Sheldon was a sci-fi writer with a life that was stranger than fiction. As a
child, she went on several trips with her parents to Africa and illustrated children’s
books that her mother, Mary Bradley, wrote about Alice and her adventures there.
After a brief young marriage, an attempt at college, and stints as a painter and an art
critic, she joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in 1942, and in 1943 she was hired
by the Pentagon. And that’s just the beginning.
After World War II ended, in 1945, Alice was transferred to a new unit and soon
married her commanding officer, Col. Huntington Sheldon. In 1952 they both joined
the CIA. Alice left the CIA in 1955…and used her intelligence training to disappear
from her marriage, which she had become unsure about, for about a year. After
earning a college degree in 1959 she pursued graduate studies in experimental
psychology. While writing her dissertation, she also began writing science fiction
stories under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. Tiptree’s stories received several
awards and were praised by critics for their treatment of themes such as death and
gender and later for their feminist leanings. Tiptree corresponded extensively but
always closely guarded “his” personal life and identity. Sheldon felt that Tiptree was
not just a pseudonym but also part of her personality, a character she played.
The only detail Tiptree gave about his life was that his mother was an explorer from
Chicago. When Mary Bradley’s obituary was published in 1976, the sci-fi community
put the pieces together and figured out Alice Sheldon was Tiptree. This revelation
helped contradict assumptions within the sci-fi genre about perceived differences
between men’s and women’s writing. Sheldon, however, was deeply affected by the
loss of her alter ego. She continued to publish as Tiptree, but her work was never the
same. Having dealt with depression for much of her life, Sheldon shot her ailing
husband and then herself in 1987. In 1991 an award was established in her honor: the
James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award for work that “expands or explores our
understanding of gender.”