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4 must-read sf biographies (and 1 brilliant autobiography)

By / October 11, 2016 / no comments

News that there is a new biography of Angela Carter, The Invention of Angela Carter by Edmund Gordon, reminds me how few really good biographies there have been of science fiction writers. Partly, I suppose, that is because writers spend their lives hammering on a keyboard, which doesn’t necessarily make for an exciting narrative. But there are some excellent literary biographies out there, so it is sad that more attention hasn’t been paid to sf writers. (On the other hand, I’ve read some pretty appalling biographies of sf writers – but let’s not go there …)

Still, there have been some that I found interesting and revealing, and that I think are worth your time. These are my particular favourites:

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon1: James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips

Frankly, this has to be one of the very best literary biographies. Alice Bradley Sheldon, who wrote as James Tiptree, Jr. and as Raccoona Sheldon, and who managed to keep her real identity secret for much of her literary career, was an extraordinary woman. She was the daughter of an African explorer and children’s writer; she worked on photo-identification with the OSS during the Second World War; she was a failed chicken farmer; she trained as a psychologist; and in the end she killed her terminally-ill husband and committed suicide. That’s enough of a life to make for a fascinating biography anyway, but along the way she wrote some of the most powerful and most haunting sf stories of the era. And all of this is sensitively and elegantly told in a way that makes us understand Tiptree and her stories more than ever before.

H. G. Wells: Another Kind of Life2: H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life by Michael Sherborne

There are probably more biographies of Wells than of any other writer outside of Shakespeare and Dickens, but many of them focus on particular aspects of his life. Wells as political animal, Wells as feminist, Wells as serial philanderer, and so on. For me, this is the book that most clearly and most readably ties it all together and relates it all to his extraordinary literary output. Wells had too big a life to fit neatly into one volume, but this comes as close as you are likely to get to covering every aspect of his career, and illuminating those staggering early scientific romances within the context of his entire career.

Mad Madge: Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, Royalist, Writer and Romantic by Katie Whitaker (2011-07-05)3: Mad Madge: Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, Royalist, Writer and Romantic by Katie Whitaker

You don’t get many lives more dashing and exciting than that of Margaret Cavendish. Rich, barely educated, Lady in Waiting to the English Queen just as the Civil War got started. She was with Henrietta Maria aboard her ship fleeing into exile, pursued by the Cromwellian navy until they ran aground on the French coast in the nick of time. In Paris she met her husband, and through him the greatest names in philosophy and science of the age, including Descartes, Hobbes, and Evelyn. She lived a precarious, poverty-stricken exile in the Low Countries, where she became the first woman to write for money and under her own name. She was aboard Charles II’s ship for the return from exile. She was denied membership of the Royal Society because of her sex, but was still the first woman to ever attend their meetings. She outraged convention by appearing bare-breasted at a performance of one of her husband’s plays. And she wrote poetry, philosophy, essays on science, and that classic of early science fiction, The Blazing World. If all of that doesn’t keep you eagerly turning the pages, nothing will.

Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick4: Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick by Lawrence Sutin

I suppose Dick is now coming to rival Wells for the number of books that have been written about him. This wasn’t the first by any means, but it was one of the best, and the one that, for me, best captures that weird, damaged personality. Haunted by the twin sister who died at birth, physically and mentally damaged by the drugs he took, convinced that the CIA was spying on him, and subject to a mystical religious revelation that directly informed his last few novels, Dick did not live a conventional life. He also spent most of it under-appreciated and convinced he was a failure: his early mainstream novels did not sell, he disdained the science fiction he wrote quickly for money, and yet he became one of the most significant writers of his generation.

The Motion Of Light In Water: Sex And Science Fiction Writing In The East VillageThe Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, 1957-1965 by Samuel R. Delany

Okay, there have been a few sf writers who have written memoirs, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and George Turner, for instance, but to be honest you’d need to be a real fan to get anything from most of them. But The Motion of Light in Water is something else: bold, brave, and absolutely rivetting. Anyone who has read books like The Mad Man or Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, would expect his account of the gay life to be uncompromising; anyone who has ready early novel like The Jewels of Aptor or The Fall of the Towers will relish discovering the context from which they emerged; anyone who has read his earlier brief memoir, Heavenly Breakfast, will anticipate the sumptuous, rich and engaging account of his life. It’s just a wonderful book: if you haven’t done so, you should read it now.

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