Browsing articles in "Gender"
Aug 30, 2015
Alex Dally MacFarlane

“how can I escape it”

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Alice Sheldon’s birth, Twelfth Planet Press has released Letters to Tiptree eds. Alexandra Pierce & Alisa Krasnostein. In it I have a tiny piece, a paragraph more than a letter, called “how can I escape it”. I’ve written about James Tiptree Jr. before and here I’m writing again, about questions without easy answers.

I’ve dipped into the book and some of the letters are so very personal, so very direct, that it’s an– I don’t know. I don’t have a personal connection to Tiptree or Tiptree’s fiction and I don’t have a letter I would write — I might ask for the answer if I thought there was one — but I live in the present-day conversations about Tiptree, Sheldon, gender, identity. That’s what I wrote “how can I escape it” in, to, for.

Jun 17, 2014
Alex Dally MacFarlane

and now you the players, handsome and rare

The third volume of Lavie Tidhar’s excellent anthology series The Apex Book of World SF is now available for pre-order. The page includes bundled deals with the first and second volumes. Lavie notes that the full set contains 58 stories, from 34 different countries. I highly recommend taking a look at these anthologies, if you haven’t already. They’re strong and important collections of SF.

The Table of Contents for XIII, ed. Mark Teppo, has been posted. It reprints my story “Feed Me the Bones of Our Saints” among many new works. It is due out in March 2015.

Speaking of anthologies, I’ve recently seen a preview of the cover art and a PDF of the page proofs for Phantasm Japan, ed. Nick Mamatas & Masumi Washington. It looks very attractive. I can’t wait to get my contributor copy later this year.

A cool thing I saw on Twitter: manuscripts used as dress linings.

A less-cool thing I read: my post about Ice Song by Kirsten Imani Kasai is live at It’s a really unfortunate book, terrible in so many ways that I couldn’t find a single positive thing to say about it. I got it for the gender-change and the possibility of interesting conversation about bodies/gender/fluidity. Instead I found… that.

I didn’t even mention the dire quality of the writing. Or some serious problems: the house of forced sex and manpain, where a bell tolls daily to commemorate the moment Chen’s ex-partner left him. (If you do decide to read this book, TW for rape. I decided I’d be far happier if I skipped some chunks, and I was.) The non-animal woman who decides to lead the animal-people for their own good, because they’re too disorganised without her guidance. (She’s also a bit of a quirky object of male desire: a manic pixie white saviour?) The herbalist who finds herself pregnant, a condition that could kill her due to an irreparable bone condition, but doesn’t even consider abortifacents. Or, on a far lighter note, the house of waterlogged marble that the main characters intend to set alight. Good luck!

There’s a sequel. I won’t be reading it.

Jun 16, 2014
Alex Dally MacFarlane

“to be a man”

I’ve spent parts of today re-reading Julie Phillips’ James Tiptree, Jr. The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (I’m up to the 1950s so far, pre-Tiptree). It remains an incredibly interesting read, but also a very discomfiting one, because Phillips is very committed to the idea of Sheldon as a “woman writer”. Compare this line of Phillips’ narration in Chapter 9:

“Yet her life does have a pattern, the pattern of a woman writer.”

to Sheldon’s own words, written in a sketchbook, quoted in Chapter 10 as “probably drunken” in Phillips’ assessment:

“goddamn I want to ram myself into a crazy soft woman and come, come, spend, come, make her pregnant Jesus to be a man to come in coming flesh I love women I will never be happy.”

“they say it is ego in me I know it is man all I want is man’s life. […] 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.”

It’s an absurd contrast. How can you read Sheldon’s words and not consider that Sheldon might not have been a woman? Sheldon certainly experienced a lot of life as a woman, sought (and struggled to find) solidarity with women, including in women-only spaces, struggled with the tension of achieving success in a sexist culture by acting in “male” ways, struggled with sexuality and what to do about desire for women (and desire for men). It is a complex set of factors in a complex life — not an easy narrative, not an easy conclusion, especially as the sense I get from Sheldon’s very varied writing about women and being a woman is that Sheldon was conflicted, confused, unsure. The closest Phillips gets to addressing this (so far) is later, in Chapter 17:

“She never explicitly identifies with men, but she doesn’t feel like a woman either. She often seems to be trying to get free of gender entirely, as if her ‘scientific’ inquiry is a way of climbing out of her own skin.”

Pages earlier, in the same chapter, Phillips writes:

“…when she wrote objectively about ‘women’ she was always also writing about herself.”

Phillips writes about the alienation Sheldon felt, but seems to root it in Sheldon being a woman — which isn’t to say that Sheldon didn’t identify with female identity (going by the writing quoted in this book, I think Sheldon did), but that a person who is assigned female at birth and is not female may feel alienation both from sexism and because they are not actually female. I think it’s very telling that Phillips opens the book with two epigraphs, one of female alienation in Tiptree’s “The Women Men Don’t See”, the other of Joanna Russ writing to Tiptree, saying, “To learn to write at all, I had to begin by thinking of myself as a sort of fake man.” The possibility that Sheldon may have been a real man is not the narrative Phillips seems to be telling. It is a narrative of female oppression — a fine and important narrative, and one of relevance to Sheldon’s life, but not the whole truth.

I’m not the first person to notice this. In 2006, Farah Mendlesohn reviewed the book at Strange Horizons and flagged up the problem, saying: “Julie Phillips wants Alice Sheldon to be a woman. … Based entirely on the evidence presented by Phillips, I am unconvinced that Sheldon ever so wanted.” I know friends of mine (including trans friends) have wondered about this too. Mendlesohn makes a useful point in saying:

“None of her careers, however interesting, lasted more than five years. In 1976, when Tiptree was outed, his career had lasted almost a decade: had Sheldon not become so engaged in Tiptree as self, Tiptree’s career might well have ended at about the same time anyway.”

Taking a man’s name, being perceived male, is no more a universal experience than any other. I cannot say that it means x or y about Sheldon’s gender, nor that a life of brief careers can never have a longer career without it being super, specially important, but I can say that a person dedicating a lengthy part of their life to living (partly) as a man — a person who earlier wrote of longing to be a man, a person who had breast reduction and expressed bodily discomfort — is a person whose female gender ought to be considered an uncertainty. There is a neutrality in being male, in a male-dominated culture. There’s also maleness in being male. If Sheldon wanted to escape gender entirely, it may have meant a significant confusion. If Sheldon found it easier to write as a man, it may have been because of significant cultural sexism and because Sheldon’s own gender was masculine-leaning.

I’m uncomfortable declaring that, yes, Alli Sheldon was a man. (Only Sheldon could have said that, and — it seems — didn’t in as many words, although “to be a man” and “I play woman” is more than suggestive!) I’m equally uncomfortable saying Alli Sheldon was a woman. I’m profoundly uncomfortable with prioritising the difficulties of a “woman writer” over the consideration of possible trans/queer gender.

Out now!

"...the 33 stories that MacFarlane has gathered for this volume dazzle with the virtuosity of their contributors’ talents."

- Publishers Weekly: STARRED REVIEW

"Works from around the world, some in translation, provide an invaluable snapshot of this moment in the genre as well as some tremendously enjoyable reading."

- Publishers Weekly: Best Books of 2014

"The stories range widely in scope and form — from prose poems to metafiction — to capture a dynamic, forward-thinking genre that plays with history, myth and science."

- The Washington Post: Think science fiction is dominated by men? Think again.

"...ground-breaking and superbly conceived..."

- Nina Allan: Strange Horizons: 2014 In Review

Aliens: Recent Encounters

"...this [anthology] blew us away more than any other. Mostly because of the sheer volume of greatness contained in these 32 stories... These are classic stories of alien encounters, from some of the best science fiction writers working today."

- Best Books of 2013

Short Stories