Letting Go of Our “Heroes”: Ongoing Humanist Training and the (Ex-)James Tiptree, Jr. Award

Letting Go of Our “Heroes”: Ongoing Humanist Training and the (Ex-)James Tiptree, Jr. Award September 12, 2019

Let’s begin with a story. This one is Alice Sheldon’s, and it’s complicated.

Dr. Sheldon gained her doctorate in experimental psychology, but her career was centrally in the arts–both visual and literary.  She famously published science fiction under the name James Tiptree, Jr. (among others pseudonyms, like Raccoona Sheldon)–and in ensuing years so thoroughly tricked the SF scene into believing she was a male writer that, in one notorious introduction to Sheldon’s stories, Robert Silverberg wrote the following:

Inflamed by Tiptree’s obstinate insistence on personal obscurity, science-fictionists have indulged themselves in the wildest sort of speculation about him. His real name, it is often said, is something other than Tiptree, though no one knows what it might be. (That “Tiptree” is a pseudonym is plausible enough, but I rather hope it isn’t so. I like the name and want it to belong by birthright to the man who uses it on these stories.) It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing. I don’t think the novels of Jane Austen could have been written by a man nor the stories of Ernest Hemingway by a woman, and in the same way I believe the author of the James Tiptree stories is male.

This is especially amusing because so very many of Sheldon’s stories offer incisive treatments of gender relations–a theme often thought of as “feminine” or “soft” SF–and indeed, it’s this harmony between (some of) her content and the form of her life as a storyteller (i.e. as a woman attracted to men and women, whose masculine pseudonym helped her achieve marketplace success in a world that also had room for Ursula K. Le Guin publishing as herself) that made Sheldon’s pseudonym a solid choice for the naming of a related annual SF prize, the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award.

Since 1991, the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award has been given to the story (short or novel-length) that in the last year best expanded or explored our understanding of gender. It’s gone to work by male and female writers alike–Mary Dorian Russell, Ursula K. Le Guin, Patrick Ness, Geoff Ryman, Nisi Shawl–and covered a great deal of discourse that quite often diverges from the mainstream path for gender as a political topic. (Lizard Radio, for instance, is a YA novel that looks to the in-between states that could easily be lost in too-binary an approach to trans identity among queer-and-questioning youth.)

Chances are, though, that while the award will go on exploring the nuances of gender discourse for many years, from 2019 on, it will be bestowed under another name.

What’s in a(n Award’s) Name?

Where did the “trouble” began? Some might cynically suggest that it began with Jeannette Ng’s Hugo-Awards speech this year. In that speech, the latest winner of the then-John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer called out the award’s namesake, a golden-era SF editor, for holding fascistic/racist views, the likes of which would have excluded someone like Ng from full inclusion and safety in those SF communities of old. The prize’s name was promptly changed by Dell Publications (under the editorial leadership of Analog), to the Astounding Award, to resounding approval from the community… but the conversation wasn’t over yet. The community was still talking about the difficulty of naming awards after anyone.

And so, soon enough, an uneasy eye was cast upon the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award.

Why the Tiptree?

Because the real story of this “trouble” began on May 19, 1987, when Alice Sheldon shot her disabled husband, Huntington D. Sheldon, in his sleep, then herself. A “suicide pact”? That’s what lots of family and others close to them claimed, and Sheldon’s own journals showed a great deal of discussion about the possibility of a suicide pact in their increasing age and fragility. But… we have no confirmation that her husband, “Ting”, had actually agreed to it that night–if ever.

For 32 years, then–almost my entire life–Sheldon’s achievements have been celebrated with that final, violent act set to one side. And why set to one side? Why brushed off as merely unfortunate? In large part, because in our culture there is a tremendous amount of what’s now called “ableism” and “ageism”: the tacit valuation of able bodies over disabled bodies, that is, and of young bodies over old. So when Sheldon’s version of the story argued that her husband was losing his sight and becoming fully dependent upon her for survival in his older years, this broader social cushioning for prejudice against more dependent bodies made it easier for many folks in dominant social positions to sympathize with her making no more than a “hard decision” for the couple on whole.

But if we’ve known Sheldon’s life to be brutally marked by this incident for so long–if we’re no stranger to the idea that Huntington’s consent was missing–then why the sudden change in approach to Sheldon in SF this year?

I’d argue that it has to do with the ease with which Ng’s observations about Campbell were heard and answered. So quick and decisive a change! How could this not amplify the sense that in the SF community some bodies were still deemed more valuable than others? (And in an awards season that also saw the first deaf-blind winner of a Hugo: Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, as part of the editorial team that took home the Semiprozine Award!) So when disabled persons won the Tiptree, the SF community posited, would they not similarly be reminded of feeling unwelcome on a systemic level, as Ng had felt with the “Campbell” in hand?

Disabled persons and allies thus called for the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award to change its name, and the Tiptree Motherboard originally said that though it wasn’t considering a name change, it was open to continuing the conversation. And it did.

Yesterday, it then publically announced that it would no longer go forward with the name “Tiptree”, and that more details about a future designation would emerge within the month.

Which is when my own chance for humanist reflection arrived.

When Our Own “Heroes” Fall

I’m not as big a fan of Sheldon’s human-gender stories as I am of her other work. “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever,” for instance, was a story that got me through an incredibly difficult Christmas. It imagines that our “afterlife” is the repetition of our strongest emotional memories over and over until the psychic imprint fades, but here’s the twist: Our strongest emotional memories won’t be love, or joy, or contentment. They’ll be pain. They’ll be fear. They’ll be shame and anger and anguish. In a Greyhound station late in the evening on Christmas Day, contemplating whether to even bother going back to the city where I lived or just walk off into the night and find some quiet part of Toronto in which to end my life, that was… very much the story I needed to read. Sheldon reminded me that I was joined to all humanity in carrying all-consuming pain from time to time. Sheldon’s story reminded me that I was not alone.

Sheldon’s “Love Is the Plan, the Plan Is Death” also left a huge impact on me as a writer, by being one of the first, best stories I read that depicted a world as it might be known by non-humanoid species (in this case, arachnoid). I kept this story’s approach in mind when I wrote my own “Aquatica“–with its angler-fish-esque protagonist similarly trying to resist the call of its species. It is by no means a stretch to say that this published work would not have existed without my having read hers.

Nonetheless, Sheldon herself wasn’t a hero to me–I don’t have heroes! I’m a pragmatic humanist, dagnabbit!–and so I surprised myself, in the course of this online debate about the Tiptree, by being on the knee-jerk defensive, a champion of her accomplished pseudonym over living people’s articulated concerns. Everybody knew the Tiptree! How could this speculative-gender award not be named after her?

…And right after my knee-jerk reaction, I sat with that reaction’s strangeness to me: its clear ideological contradictions. Was I not a humanist? Did I not emphatically try to question my givens, challenge my comfort zone, and remember always to deepen my practice of empathy through a full, careful reading of the facts of the world?

Ah. Right. But I’m human, too–and the difference between being “human” and a “humanist” is what makes the latter so much ongoing work.

Ongoing Humanist Training: The Tiptree Edition

I asked myself three questions, then, to challenge my knee-jerk defense of the status quo–and I’d encourage you to employ similar the next time a group decision focussed on harm-reduction finds you, initially, “on” or “on the other side of” the fence.

1. To whom are you listening in this debate?

In the wake of my defensiveness, I had to make a concerted effort to read counterpoints to my perspective. Lots of them. And as I did, I took note of the times when I felt the greatest urgency to seek out both-sides-ism, to return to the security of others whose initial reactions were the same as mine: folks reluctant to change the name of this award, to own up to the pain Sheldon’s story has left in the hearts of many living human beings.

Critically, too, I didn’t then seek out those arguments when I wanted to–because what need did I have of them? They’d be sheer preaching to the choir, like the reading of apologetics for some Christians when faced with doubts. But I did note the contexts in which I most wanted to dive for shelter… and those contexts? They were usually when someone said something that challenged me to reason from empathy, to recognize the humanity of other people marginalized by Sheldon’s prominence at potential cost to the value of her disabled husband’s life. At those points most of all, I felt the urge to hide behind the presumption of neutrality, in superficial phrasing like, Well, no one can say for sure what happened that night! 

Which, sure, is true… but then why was I still automatically favouring one interpretation–the more convenient interpretation–over another that people were actively telling me did harm to their sense of full and safe inclusion in SF?

2. What’s actually at stake for me in this debate?

After reading and processing the harm that others felt emerged from Tiptree’s abiding prominence in the SF&F world, I then reflected on similar situations where I’d more unhesitatingly sided with harm-reduction. I’d firmly agreed, after all, with the Best New Writer Award changes… so what made this situation different?

Was it because I saw myself in Sheldon? Because I too was a queer feminized person who’s strongly contemplated a male pseudonym (and finally goes by gender-neutral initials, after wanting to from the outset) to publish in SF; who’s also undergone long depressive spells (and deeply valued Sheldon’s work within them); and who’s frequently joked about controlling the means of my departure in old age?

Yikes. It totally was. And was this not also why a lot of other folks prove so reluctant to give up prominent celebrities to #MeToo and other major social movements for more public accountability? Because they over-identify with famous strangers and worry about become pariahs in a social-media heartbeat themselves?

If so… what did that say about my real point of contention? Was I really upset about the Tiptree Award changing its name so that fellow writers and readers would feel better valued and systemically safer in my community? Or was I mostly worried about myself, and what I perceived to be a threat to my personal narrative of “where I fit in” in so swift a move to strip Tiptree from ongoing SF prominence?

3. What kind of “principled” person do I aspire to be?

By this point, obviously, I’d realized how selfish my knee-jerk reaction was, and how critical it was to support harm-reduction and increased inclusivity… but I still needed to consider the ultimate consequences of my reframing. I needed to think about preventative measures, for the inevitability of another cultural change like this in time.

After all, there is much chatter in debates like these about dissenting for “the principle of the thing”–which is usually code for, “Yes, I agree with you in spirit, but I’m nervous about the haste of it all. Surely if we let majorities get what they want so quickly, we’re going to be ruled by fickle and vengeful mobs!”

There are many ways, though, to worry about one’s “principles”–and that’s where this self-interrogation becomes especially critical. If you’re “just” worried about the pace at which a legitimate change is happening, there are ways to contest the pace without condemning the whole project. But usually when someone appeals to the haste of the thing, what they mean is, “I don’t like change, so can we just… not? for a while? until maybe everyone forgets and it goes away?” In so doing, they tend to make the conversation more about the speed of social transformation than about consensus on its necessity. (Unsurprisingly, we’re seeing this in relation to climate change, too.)

Instead, I think we owe it to ourselves to be far more direct: either we agree with the proposed action, or we don’t. And if we don’t, it’s time to revisit those first two questions. Whose perspectives are we prioritizing? What’s really motivating my dissent?

Because it’s not about Tiptree, and it’s not about me… except as a measure of my ego, and my ability to put that ego aside and listen with greater care to the stories of those around me. It’s about people directly harmed by the prominence of Sheldon’s legacy, and its reminder that the world continues to be a place that employs caveats with respect to the value of differently abled / disabled lives. And in SF, no less–the genre ostensibly attuned to the potential in our futures, and how to aspire to the best of those potentials now!

Adios, James Tiptree, Jr.

And yet, there is some sadness in letting go of someone who meant a great deal to me, and whose work moved me at critical junctures both personally and professionally. It’s okay to be sad to see a major figure’s time in the sun ease into moonshadow–and I think if we had better mechanisms for this kind of grief we wouldn’t see as much knee-jerk defensiveness in relation to a great many human beings whose time in the limelight has drawn to the sharpest and most unfortunate of closes.

For myself, I’m comforted by the fact that Sheldon’s own work speaks so plainly about the legacy of pain. I don’t think she was a unilaterally awful person–she was a human being, like the rest of us–and if “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” had any truth to it, I suspect the murder of her husband would be right up there with the rest of the worst moments of her own life, endlessly revisited as a postmortem psychic impact.

And so what we who have grown under Sheldon’s fraught legacy owe it to ourselves to do–not for fear of any otherworldly psychic impact, but with full cognizance of the ongoing impact of trauma in this lifetime–is to mitigate the worst of that “smoke” she gave us as a metaphor for the most deeply felt of human experiences. To focus now on the needs of those we know still think and feel, love and dream, suffer and sometimes inflict suffering in turn. Those who still have stories to share, and who long for what every human being longs for, really: inclusion, that is, in the sheer wonder of having existed at all.

May we always strive to improve the practice of our humanism. And when we waver, may we always find our way back to the work of restoring dignity to our fellow human beings.


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