In 1922, when she was 7 years old, Alice Sheldon’s parents, wealthy Americans who liked to play at being explorers, took her to Africa. The photo above, showing the curly-haired blonde girl in pith helmet and white dress surrounded by nearly naked Kenyans at a ceremonial dance, is a striking record of her visit. Her mother wrote genial children’s books recording the adventures of Alice in Elephantland and Alice in Jungleland. But Alice herself had harsher and more vivid memories of her time in Africa. As she wrote late in life in Africa she “found herself interacting with … lepers, black royalty in lion skins, white royalty in tweeds, Arab slaves, functional saints and madmen in power, poets, killers, collared eunuchs, world famous actors with head colds, blacks who ate their enemies and a white who had eaten his friends; and above all, women: chattel-women deliberately starved, deformed, blinded, and enslaved; women in nuns’ habits saving the world; an Englishwoman in bloomers riding out from her castle at the head of a personal Moslem army; women, from the routinely tortured, obscenely mutilated slave-wives of the ‘advanced’ Kikuyu, to the free, propertied Sumatran matriarchs who ran the economy and brought 600 years of peaceful prosperity to the Menang-Kabaui; all these were known before [Sheldon] had a friend or playmate of her own age.”
Sheldon had a variety of careers as an adult: as a painter, as a scholar in psychology, and as an analyst for the CIA. But she found her niche and a lasting reputation when she took the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. and became one of the leading science fiction writers of the 1970s. Tiptree was particularly celebrated for two qualities: his sympathetic portrayal of women (although many were surprised when the authors true name and gender were revealed) and an equal skill in depicting alien life forms and extra-terrestrial civilizations with imaginative empathy.
A surprisingly large number of science fiction writers have had backgrounds as exotic as Alice Sheldon’s, often involving time spent in far flung European colonies during the age of empire. Paul Linebarger (1913-1966) had a life that paralleled Sheldon’s farflung career in many ways. His father was a close confidant of Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese nationalist. Linebarger grew up partially in China, had a fluent command of Chinese, and after World War II worked as a consultant on Asia policy for the CIA. As Cordwainer Smith, Linebarger wrote science fiction stories much loved with their ability to evoke an utterly alien far future civilization.
J.G. Ballard was born in Shanghai in 1930, the son of a chemist who worked for the China Printing and Finishing Company. With his parents Ballard was interned by the Japanese during the Second World War, an experience he described in his memorable novel Empire of the Sun (1984). Ballard is also known, of course, for his apocalyptic science fiction novels which often show civilizations wrecked by ecological and technological disasters. “I show all these entropic universes with everything running down,” Ballard told an interviewer in 1979. ” I think it has a lot to do with my childhood in Shanghai during the war. Shanghai was a huge, wide open city full of political gangsters, criminals of every conceivable kind, a melting pot for refugees from Europe, and white Russians, refugees from the Russian revolution — it was a city with absolutely no restraints on anything. Gambling, racketeering, prostitution, and everything that comes from the collisions between the very rich — there were thousands of millionaires — and the very poor — no one was ever poorer than the Shanghai proletariat. On top of that, superimpose World War II.”
One last example: Gregory Benford, born in 1941, grew up partially in Japan where his father was part of the American occupation on the staff of General MacArthur. Some of Benford’s science fiction novels are very interesting because they attempt to bring in a Buddhist cosmology into a literary tradition that general takes for granted Judeo-Christian morality.
The questions worth asking are: to what extent has science fiction been a product of the age of empire, and especially its violent expiration? Are the aliens in science fiction simply an attempt to imaginatively render the experience of living being a westerner in an non-western culture? Is science fiction less about the future than about the encounter with other cultures?
(The photo in this post is from Julie Phillips’s 2006 biography James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon).