Reviews

Pseudo-City by D. Harlan Wilson

 

Review by Annika Barranti

 

A collection of short stories set in the titular city, D. Harlan Wilson’s Pseudo-City takes surrealism to the extreme and gives new meaning to gimmick writing. Lovers of absurdism and surrealism may well enjoy its over-the-top levels of both.

 

Most good science fiction takes our known world and twists elements to make a partially recognizable – and in many cases believable – alternate reality or possible future. Wilson goes beyond that, taking pains to make no element of his world recognizable and to point out at every turn exactly how very different it is from our world.

 

It is difficult to be drawn into the world of Pseudo-City because there is no common narrative thread. The first story in the collection, “Pseudofolliculitis City,” reads as an introduction to the world. The story that follows is in a different narrative voice, a jarring change for the reader; it does not become clear that the book is a collection rather than a novel until several stories in. Throughout, too many words are spent to ensure that the reader knows, at every moment, that Pseudo-City is not like her city.

 

I enjoyed a few stories in Pseudo-City. “Haberdashery,” the story of a man shopping

for a hat, was enticing until the tangent on the degree every hat salesman is required to earn before he is qualified to sell hats; “Classroom Dynamics,” the story of a professor who wishes to show his students affection but is forbidden (though he is allowed to murder them for goofing off in class) might have been downright enjoyable had it ended several pages sooner; the story of Pseudo-City’s superhero, “Bourgeois Man,” was entertaining and made me laugh out loud.

 

The very genesis for the book appears to have been Wilson’s love of wordplay. Citizens of Pseudofoliculitis City are known as PCP, Pseudo-City People; currency is doll hairs (in fact, there is something of an obsession with hair in Pseudo-City: an entire story is devoted to a man who steals other people’s facial hair to sell as pets, and another story details an OCD-type disease that manifests itself as a Sci-Fi razor burn unless you pretend you are not afflicted); numerous other puns populate the book, sometimes deterring from storytelling as Wilson uses more words to explain the rules of Pseudo-City than to tell the stories of its people. Most of the stories in the collection suffer because of this.

 

As I say, this book is not for me, but I can think of at least two people off the top of my head who would likely adore it, so I cannot dismiss it out of hand. As an editor and critic, I feel confident in saying that it is overwritten and overindulgent; however, the material is just right for those who like their science fiction extreme and ridiculous.

 

 

 

James Tiptree, Jr. The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips

 

Review by Carole Ann Moleti

 

I assumed Alice Bradley Sheldon wrote under a male pseudonym because the male dominated world in general, and science fiction in particular, wouldn’t have accepted her writing any other way. When one is a victim of discrimination, it’s easy to blame all your troubles on someone, or something else. But after reading this definitive biography, I must agree with Julie Phillips’ conclusion that Sheldon went to an opposite extreme, and turned the blame onto herself.

 

Phillips gained access to the journals, story fragments, art work, and personal correspondence Sheldon and her mother, author Mary Hastings Bradley, took great pains to preserve.  She conducted interviews with Sheldon’s friends, academic and business associates, editors, and literary correspondents which allowed her to take on the persona of her subject.  The effect is a biography that reads like a memoir, with interpretations that Alice Sheldon herself might have made if she hadn’t run out of the strength to fight.

 

   

The sole-surviving daughter of a wealthy society family, Sheldon suffered lifelong depression that began after the death of her sister and tragedies she witnessed as a child during travel to Africa, India and East Asia. Sheldon’s letters and journals show a life that included a brush with mother-daughter incest, her burgeoning awareness of her sexual attraction to women, and a defiant escape into a violent marriage. There is a bizarre account of a visit to a brothel during which she may have impersonated a man, the death of one of her love interests from complications of an illegal abortion and accounts of her own depression, alcohol, and drug abuse. An illegal abortion almost killed

Sheldon, and rendered her infertile. Denied these traditional pleasures of being female she scrawled in a sketch book,

“…my damned oh my damned body how can I escape it I play woman woman I cannot live or breathe I cannot even make things I am going crazy thank god for liquor. [..] I am no damned woman wasteful god not to have made me a man.”

Sheldon’s initial creative efforts were in art, but the sanitized work she presented failed to express her true vision. Erotic, disturbing images she hid away reflected gender confusion and contempt for the female body. Upstaged by her mother, Sheldon had only modest success as a writer of mainstream fiction and essays.

 

Had she been born in 1960, instead of 1915, she would have likely found the support to acknowledge that she was lesbian and move forward. But at a time when being branded homosexual felt worse to her than being branded a communist, she lived a lie; with, as Phillips concludes, her only escape taking on the persona of a man.

 

After her divorce, Sheldon enlisted in the army as a WACC, and rose to the rank of captain in photo intelligence, the only female in her division. After World War II, she met her second husband, Colonel Huntington Sheldon. They both worked for the CIA but Alice Sheldon, being female, never rose to the level her husband attained-preparing briefings for the Presidents and Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

 

Repressing her sexuality, she remained devoted to him in a sexless marriage. Sheldon eventually completed a doctorate in psychology, researching theories of perception and negentropy-defined as everything that adds to information and organization-even as she struggled with those concepts in her own mind.

 

Soon after, she wrote several science fiction stories, and on a whim sent them out under a name fabricated from a marmalade jar: James Tiptree, Jr. Finally able to express her angst and be a man, the eight years 1967-1976, when she “was” the much sought after Tiptree were the most settled of her tumultuous life.

 

The cast of characters reads like a who’s who list in speculative fiction circles and reading their correspondence is a fascinating chronicle of parallel developments in the golden ages of feminism and the genre.

 

By the time Sheldon wrote her most well known speculative fiction, the barriers were beginning to come down. But after Tiptree was revealed, Phillips concludes she lost the comfort of Tiptree’s male identity and began her final journey into despair.

 

Sheldon wrote to Ursula LeGuin, one of her closest epistolary friends,

"Ursula, Ursula, I am petrified. All the friends, the sf world—will they take it as deception? […]Will the women who mean so much to me see it all as an evil put on? […] Well dear Starbear an old age is dead and time to begin a new one. But I think I’m finished. Tip says goodbye to a very dear friend and all this is hers.”

LeGuin responded,

“[…]I suppose there are some who resent being put on, but it would take an extraordinary small soul to resent so immense, so funny, so effective and fantastic, and ETHICAL, a put on.”

Her other correspondents also reassured and encouraged her. But in letter to Gardner Dozois, she wrote,

“Alli Sheldon is maybe a mad woman, maybe a good ex-researcher, but is not a science fiction writer or any other kind of writer. I am nothing.”

There was no truth to this; she sold several stories under her female pseudonym and Raccoona Sheldon’s "The Screwfly Solution" won a Nebula Award. Editors continued to solicit work from her. Marta Randall, who was soon to become president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, personally wrote to welcome her. Joanna Russ wrote Sheldon, encouraging her to meet with a “youthful Lesbian feminist community.”

 

Reclusive until the end, Alice Sheldon met few of her speculative fiction contemporaries, and none of her female correspondents. Her suicide note was dated 1979, but it wasn’t until 1987, facing her own health problems, and her husband blind and disabled, that she carried out a suicide pact shooting him, and then herself.

 

Julie Phillips’ engaging tribute to the creative genius of Alice Bradley Sheldon, AKA James Tiptree, Jr., illustrates the insidious effects of sexism and homophobia, stripped of politics and propaganda.

 

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Review of Pseudo-city © 2007 Annika Barranti. All rights reserved.
Review of James Tiptree, Jr. © 2007 Carole Ann Moleti. All rights reserved.