There’s an important aspect of Alice Sheldon and her alter ego James Tiptree Jr. that I didn’t get to in the last post, so here goes.
In Tiptree’s story “The Girl Who Was Plugged IN,” we meet P. Burke, a suicidal 17-year-old girl with a disfiguring disease. A corporation offers her the opportunity to become a “remote”: she is to be kept naked in a kind of capsule, hooked up to electrodes that allow her to control a specially-bred, literally brainless beautiful girl-body named Delphi. Delphi is a kind of future Paris Hilton whose main job is to be seen in glamorous settings, buying and using products chosen by the parent corporation. Young jet-setter Paul falls in love with Delphi and tracks down P. who is of course the real person behind the shell, but while she calls out “I love you Paul!” he sees her as a flabby, slimy, evil monster who has somehow possessed his beloved.
This story is, understandably, regarded as a forerunner of cyberpunk, but to me it is most strikingly a parable about desire and body-image. Men are drawn to the glossy surface of a gorgeous meat-puppet, but when they find the emotional, sexual human behind it they (please supply whiny Jack Nicholson voice) can’t handle the truth. This idea has a million avatars—a typical one is the figure of Sin in Milton’s paradise Lost, with her beautiful top and her reproductive system inhabited by hideous, voracious dogs.
“Girl” is too relentlessly bitter to be really enjoyable reading, but it has a fascination that comes, I think, from its being a twisted self-portrait. This is revealed in her private writings, where she says that she can “play a woman,” (and certainly she used her lovely blonde public exterior to attract gratifying attention), but also wrote of her loathing for her body (“My damned body—how can I escape it?” “I live in my body as in an alien artifact.”). She envisions women’s bodies as frightening unruly, nasty animals that grope through the world with their pseudopod. And the part that frightened her most was the same part that scared Milton, the reproductive system, which, in a strange early essay fragment, she envisions as a vampire and a hostile mechanism:
At the time when the machine comes to life, at puberty, the development of everything else is tremendously slowed up, and never recovers from the new tyranny. The muscles are neglected, the brain is checked, the stamina of every organ is sapped. It is as though a great muffling hand were clamped down over the young being, from whose stifling pressure many never emerge.
There are several things at work here: she hated the subjection and powerlessness that came with a woman’s body in her society, and she wanted a man’s body in order to have sex with women (many women, including Joanna Russ, offered to show her why that wasn’t necessary, but she never took them up on it). Still, it seems to me that there is something more in the shame and revulsion we see in “Girl” and elsewhere, the conviction that one’s public shell conceals a horrible inner reality. I am reminded of the shame and confusion experienced by victims of childhood sexual abuse, and in this connection I keep thinking of an incident that Alice later recounted in a couple of different versions. She (aged 14) and her mother were cuddling in their cabin on a ship, and things strted to get steamy (in one account Alice says her mother was seducing her), until at the last minute Alice pulled back, grossed out by Mummy’s dental work. I think most parents would consider even a near-hookup with a 14-year-old daughter a bad idea.
Whatever the details, Alice remained close to her mother, but also had a lifelong fear of being crushed and consumed by her emotional demands, and a breader terror of being mothered (or being a mother). I am obviously not suggesting that maternal abuse made her a lesbian; rather, that connecting her sexuality with the duty to gratify her mother’s needs confused and distressed her, and made it harder for her to find fulfillment when the opportunity arose. It may also have lent a distinctive character to the depictions of aggression and violence against women that are so central to her fiction.