James Tiptree, Jr. was the pseudonym of a woman named Alice Sheldon who wrote science fiction in the mid-20th century. She entered the field at a critical time in the development of the genre. Starting in the 19th century, the public school systems in the English speaking world greatly increased literacy, especially in the United States, and with that increase a demand for entertaining fiction. Publishers and writers took advantage of the popularity of exciting, sometimes lurid, stories for the sake of entertainment to produce cheaply made (in more ways than one) fiction, leading to a large output of "pulp fiction," dime novels and penny dreadfuls. What we now call science fiction started in the 19th century as a part of this effort to satisfy the demand for popular entertainment and it's early writers seldom aspired to creating great literature. For a long time many people, including librarians, dismissed science fiction as "kids stuff," and "not really literature."
In the 1930s a group of science fiction writers, under the guidance of an editor named John Campbell, started to publish stories that departed from stock, two-dimensional characters, nonsensical "science" and simplistic "aliens bad, humans good" plotlines. They succeeded, and their names such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein remain well-known today. The next wave of highly intelligent and creative writers to come along included Harlan Ellison, Urusula K. Le Guin and James Tiptree, Jr. in the 1960s. These writers used future or distant worlds to examine the social, political and economic changes taking place in the present. Tiptree's and others' writings greatly contributed to breaking science fiction out of the "mold" of its pulp fiction origins, turning it into a genre filled with highly imaginative and intelligent ideas, stories and characters.
Sheldon worked in Army Intelligence during World War II then joined the CIA for 3 years in the late 1940s. After leaving the CIA she returned to college, completing her education with a Ph.D. in experimental psychology, then set about writing. For 10 years no one suspected that James Tiptree, Jr. was not a man. Once her true identity became known, rumors explaining why she used a pseudonym proliferated, one wilder than the next, most having to do with her work for the CIA. In her letters to friends she explained that she only wished to keep her fiction writing separate from her academic work. She selected a male name purposely given her lifelong struggle to work in male-dominated fields. With a male name people would read her words, writers and editors would evaluate her work on its merits. She was also closeted-bisexual, something she told only a small circle of close friends, including Le Guin. Tiptree and Le Guin may be the first writers to introduce feminist themes into the science fiction genre. (If anyone knows of earlier contributions, please leave a comment on this post -- I would like to know). Sheldon/Tiptree died in 1987.
In 1991 two women science fiction writers formed The Tiptree Award Foundation, which
... appoints a panel of five jurors to read and discuss among themselves the merits of gender-bending fiction published in the previous year.
At the end of a year of reading and deliberation, the jurors choose the winner(s). The jury’s only charge is to look for science fiction and fantasy that “explores and expands gender.” Each set of jurors refines and re-examines their own definitions of that phrase.
In the Mechanics Institute Library's efforts to provide our readers with a book collection as diverse as possible, I reviewed the nominees, honorable mentions and winners of the James Tiptree Jr. Awards then ordered the following titles, many of which have already arrived. To find out more about a title listed below (and/or place a hold on it), click on the link to read the summary in the Mechanics Institute's online catalog.
Honorable mentions of 2017 and 2018
Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff. (The first in the author's The Red Abbey chronicles series)
An excess male, in which author Maggie Shen King examines the effects of China's two-child policy from the perspective of 2030.
Sodom Road exit by Amber Dawn features a protagonist haunted by a queer ghost.
In The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai, women in a dystopian future battle a plague that kills more men than women.
Chercher La Femme by L. Timmel Duchamp has virtual reality, friendly aliens and an all female planet.
Glittership. Year 2, a science fiction anthology that contains 30 short stories and poems. According to the jury "these all have queer themes and characters. “The Little Dream” by Robin M. Eames (in which a character wears a t-shirt that reads “IN SPACE NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU INSIST THERE ARE ONLY TWO GENDERS”) and “Graveyard Girls on Paper Phoenix Wings” by Andrea Tang are particularly recommended. A wonderful variety of stories and a great way to find authors you want to read more of."
The winner of the 2018 Tiptree Foundation Award is
A short-story you can read for free online: They will dream in the garden.
The website of the Tiptree Foundation lists the winners and honorable mentions from 1991 to the present.
(The photograph in this post shows Tiptree with her husband, Huntington Sheldon, circa 1945).