Personal Essay by Pat Murphy: "Your Future is Out of Date"
When we set out to destroy science fiction with this Kickstarter, we didn't want it to be your ordinary, run-of-the-mill campaign. We wanted it to be full of smashing, crashing women's voices, telling what it really means to be a woman reading and writing science fiction. One of the ways we hope to do that is by sharing a series of personal essays by women about their experiences as a woman in science fiction. Today's essay is by Pat Murphy.
Essay: "Your Future is Out of Date " by Pat Murphy
I credit Robert Heinlein and the Holy Roman Catholic Church and San Francisco’s Exploratorium with making me the writer I am today.
The Church gave me the time and tedium needed to practice skills I would later need. As a child, I accompanied my parents to mass each Sunday. I had no choice in the matter. I knelt, stood, and sat on cue while the priest droned on in Latin.
Since I wasn't allowed to read in church, I told myself stories. That is to say, I took stories that I had read and rewrote them in my imagination (while maintaining an appropriately pious look on my face). My rewrites almost always involved reworking a story’s narrative to make a place for myself in the tale—an active role, where I could play the hero.
This was in the late 60s, and I was a fan of science fiction. The stories I read lacked heroic girls or women. In most science fiction of the time, technology had advanced, and yet somehow women were still mothers or helpers or secretaries or in need of rescue—if they were there at all.
It was a stretch to squeeze myself into these stories, but I managed it. I usually imagined a fictional me, dressed in boy's clothes and passing as a boy. In my version of Tarzan, a scrawny fourth grade girl accompanied the lord of the jungle on his adventures. I credit all that exercise in daydreaming and plotting with forcing me to develop the skills I needed as a writer.
The church provided me the incentive to practice my plotting skills, but it was reading the work of Robert Heinlein that gave me the deep motivation to write. As a child, I discovered Heinlein's juveniles. Exciting stories—well told and compelling—like Rocket Ship Galileo, Time for the Stars, Tunnel in the Sky. Of course, creating active and interesting roles for myself in these stories required extensive reimagining, but I was used to that.
But then I read Heinlein’s Podkayne of Mars, the story of a teen-aged girl from Mars who was traveling to Venus. I was thrilled to find a girl in the novel’s starring role. At last, I thought, I had found a story I would not have to rewrite. Podkayne's mother was a famous engineer; Podkayne wanted to be the captain of an explorer spaceship. It was perfect.
Unfortunately, as I read I discovered that this was not a story for me after all. Podkayne talked about using her “feminine wiles” to learn astrogation from crewmembers. She wrote: "It is a mistake for a girl to beat a male at any test of physical strength" and "It does not do to let a male of any age know that one has brains." Throughout the book, Podkayne proved incompetent at everything except taking care of babies and some social relations. In a time of crisis, she went to pieces and wanted to crawl back into her uncle's lap for comfort.
All this led her to alter her aspirations and accept a traditional woman's role. Her new opinion: "A baby is lots more fun than differential equations. Every starship has a crèche. So which is better? To study crèche engineering and pediatrics—and be a department head in a starship? Or buck for pilot training and make it ... and wind up as a female pilot nobody wants to hire."
At age twelve, I found myself outraged. Heinlein was telling me about how the world worked—and I understood that was the way his world worked. But I didn’t, I wouldn’t, and couldn’t believe in his teenage girl or his version of the world. I was jarred out of the story and out of Heinlein’s future. It wasn't fair that Podkayne couldn't be a starship captain. It wasn't right that she had to act like she wasn’t as smart as the men around her.
I was pissed. And that was when I realized something about the power of fiction writing.
Fiction writers have, in a limited sense, the power to control your mind. When you give yourself over to a good book, you come to believe in the author's world, the author's way of thinking about the way the world works. If a book is compelling, you believe in it on some very deep level. The world portrayed in the book seeps into your unconscious and becomes part of your experience of the world. The writer’s truth—Heinlein’s truth, my truth—becomes your truth.
As a child, I believed Heinlein’s view of the world—until he wrote about something that I knew better than he did—the mind of a teenage girl. That’s when he lost me. That was when his worldview bumped into something I believed in even more: my own ability to do whatever I wanted to do.
I realized that I wanted futures that were very different from the future that Heinlein described in Podkayne of Mars. To change the world, I had to write new futures, ones in which gender roles and social relationships were different from the ones deemed normal at the time.
My stories are viruses, carrying my version of the world. My goal is to control your mind for the duration of the story—and in the process to introduce you to different possibilities. If writing those new futures means the destruction of science fiction as we knew it then, so be it.
All that was long ago. I’ve been writing science fiction—and some might say destroying science fiction—for over 35 years. Along the way, Karen Fowler and I co-founded the Tiptree Award, which rewards those writers who are bold enough to contemplate shifts and changes in gender roles, a fundamental aspect of any society.
Recently, when I was visiting Japan, I found a copy of Podkayne of Mars in translation. I was surprised to see it—and even more surprised by the Japanese tagline on the cover. In loose translation, it read: “Shame on you, Mr. Heinlein. You have shattered the dreams of young girls.” I doubt that this tagline will sell the book, but I believe it nailed the essence of Heinlein’s novel. It also described in a single line why I am committed to writing new futures. It warmed my heart.
Pat Murphy has won numerous awards for her thoughtful, literary science fiction and fantasy writing, including two Nebula Awards, the Philip K. Dick Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Seiun Award, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. She has published seven novels and many short stories for adults, including Rachel in Love, The Falling Woman, The City Not Long After, Nadya, and Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell, a novel that Publisher’s Weekly called the "cerebral equivalent of a roller-coaster ride." Her children’s novel, The Wild Girls, won a Christopher Award in 2008.
In 1991, with writer Karen Fowler, Pat co-founded the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender roles. This award is funded by grassroots efforts that include auctions and bake sales, harnessing the power of chocolate chip cookies in an on-going effort to change the world.
Pat enjoys looking for and making trouble. Her favorite color is ultraviolet. Her favorite book is whichever one she is working on right now.