Monday, September 24, 2012

Special Guest Author: Pamela Sargent

This week it is our great pleasure to welcome award winning author Pamela Sargent as a guest on Heroines of Fantasy.

Pamela Sargent has won the Nebula and Locus Awards and is the author of the novels Cloned Lives, The Sudden Star, Watchstar, The Golden Space, The Alien Upstairs, Eye of the Comet, Homesmind, Alien Child, The Shore of Women, Venus of Dreams, Venus of Shadows, Child of Venus, and Climb the Wind. Ruler of the Sky, her 1993 historical novel about Genghis Khan, was a bestseller in Germany and in Spain, where she was invited to speak at the Institute of American Studies, the University of Barcelona, and the Complutense University of Madrid. She also edited the Women of Wonder anthologies, the first collections of science fiction by women, published in the 1970s by Vintage/Random House and in updated editions during the 1990s by Harcourt Brace. A short story, “The Shrine,” was produced for the syndicated TV anthology series Tales from the Darkside.

Tor Books reissued her 1983 young adult novel Earthseed, selected as a Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association, and a sequel, Farseed, in early 2007.  Farseed was chosen by the New York Public Library for their 2008 Books for the Teen Age list of best books for young adults. A third novel, Seedship, was published in 2010. Earthseed has been optioned by Paramount Pictures, with Melissa Rosenberg, scriptwriter for all five “Twilight” films, set to write and produce through her Tall Girls Productions. In 2012, Sargent was honored with the Pilgrim Award, given for lifetime contributions to science fiction and fantasy scholarship, by the Science Fiction Research Association.

Heroines of Fantasy: Thank you, Pamela, for joining us today!  What sparked your early interest in science fiction?
Pamela Sargent: As a child, I wasn’t what you would call a sophisticated reader – what child is? – and pretty much read anything I could get my hands on. The first science fiction novel I recall reading was Man of Many Minds by E. Everett Evans, which I got by mistake with some other paperbacks. This was when I was about eleven, and this novel was a revelation. People going to other planets, aliens, mental telepathy – I had this vague notion that Evans had come up with these ideas all by himself. Eventually I discovered that there was a whole body of work devoted to these kinds of ideas, but I still remember how strikingly original Man of Many Minds seemed to me at the time.
I was also a fan of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone on TV. What I appreciated most about the TZ episodes was the way they used science fiction and fantasy elements to offer a different perspective on our own world and its dilemmas – and maybe it was a more honest perspective, one that could reveal many of the hidden, unspoken assumptions we usually take for granted.

But the book that really turned me into a science fiction reader was Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, partly because of its sheer bravado brilliance and partly because of the circumstances under which I discovered it. I was messed up during my teens, have spent much of my life wrestling with manic-depression since then, or bipolar disorder as they call it these days, and spent some months in my early teens in one of those facilities sometimes referred to as a “nuthouse” or a “hat factory” with other troubled young people. During the first couple of days I was there, frightened and disoriented, I found an old beat-up paperback of The Stars My Destination, read it, and clung to it like a lifeline or a talisman. I imagined myself, like the novel’s antihero Gully Foyle, “jaunting” out of that place; I’d try to conjure up a future self who would be looking back at that time, who would finally have escaped. I suppose I identified with Gully Foyle. As I said, I wasn’t a very sophisticated reader. 
I went on to discover the works of Arthur C. Clarke and H.G. Wells at the local library. By then I was looking for some rationality and intellectual thought in my fiction, another escape from my troubled emotions. The private girls’ school I attended, which fortunately took a chance on admitting me and also gave me a scholarship, required every student to research and write a junior and senior paper on a subject to be approved by our English teacher. She allowed me to write my junior paper on the science fiction of H. G. Wells – and even gave me an A.
HoF: Have the reasons you write science fiction changed over the years?  If so, how?
PS: That’s a good question, and it has me thinking about what actually got me writing science fiction in the first place. The first stories I wrote before attempting sf were slice-of-life stories, imitations of writers I admired, or ludicrous attempts at historical fiction – I say ludicrous because from what I remember, I committed every offense possible, including stuffing the stories with anachronisms and sentimentality and passages of purple prose. Most of my early stuff was really bad, but occasionally I would produce something that, at least to my English teachers, showed promise. That usually happened whenever a story took hold of me and demanded that I write it; that’s how it would feel to me anyway.

Writers are always being told to write what they know. For me, science fiction offered a way of doing that while also giving me some distance from the material. Having to work only with what I knew struck me as a recipe for writing something claustrophobic and self-indulgent. As it turns out, you almost can’t help writing out of what you’ve known and experienced anyway, but what anyone knows goes beyond – or should go beyond – personal experience.
It also helped that some of my favorite reading as a kid was historical fiction, which has much in common with science fiction. Both the historical novelist and the science fiction writer have to write about societies unlike their own; both require a fair amount of research. They also have to write convincingly about times and places completely removed from the experience of their readers.
It was my good luck that I also began writing at just the time more women were gaining notice as science fiction writers. They’d found the perfect literary form for posing questions about assumptions often taken for granted, to explore how things might be different. Editing the Women of Wonder anthologies was as educational and inspiring an experience for me as it was for anyone reading those anthologies. 
And now we’re living in Philip K. Dick’s world, as I often say. Or as Eleanor Arnason put it in a speech she gave at a Wiscon some years back: “We are living in an age of revolution and in a science fiction disaster novel. No, we are living in several science fiction disaster novels at once. The stakes are huge. Human civilization may be at risk. The solutions are going to require science and technology, as well as political and social struggle.” I don’t know how anyone can write convincingly about the present without bringing a science-fictional perspective to the work.
HoF: Tell us a little about Earthseed and its companion novels, Farseed and Seed Seeker.
PS: To begin, I’ll give you my usual answer, which is that Earthseed was inspired by Brian Aldiss’s Starship, Robert A. Heinlein’s Universe, and Muriel Spark’s The Primer of Miss Jean Brodie. Of course that doesn’t tell you a whole lot if you haven’t read Earthseed, or tell you anything at all about Farseed and Seed Seeker.

I began Earthseed with the intention of writing a novel about a long-term space voyage, with the characters living inside an interstellar vessel that is the only home they have ever known. In Earthseed, that vessel – Ship – is a hollowed-out asteroid controlled by an artificial intelligence with the mission of seeding habitable planets, and the main characters are all kids in their middle teens. I’m not giving anything away if I mention that Ship is as important a character as any of the human beings in the story and that this AI is in its own way also an adolescent. Ship is also the only parent or mentor that Zoheret, the central character, and her companions have had, as they’ve all been gestated from stored genetic material and born and raised inside Ship. Eventually Ship has to allow these kids to establish their own community apart from its guidance, because they have to be prepared for when they reach a habitable planet, settle it, and must survive on their own without Ship’s help. Some have compared Earthseed to Lord of the Flies, although I wasn’t thinking of William Golding’s novel when I wrote it.
Farseed is about the conflicts among the children of the characters in Earthseed after they’ve settled their new home and Seed Seeker is set about a century after events in Farseed, with the people of two very different cultures hoping for and yet fearing that Ship might return. Among the problems all these people face are adapting to an environment that, however Earthlike, is altering them biologically, how much to depend on a technology they lack the knowledge to develop further, and resolving the distrust and hostility that has grown between those who cling to their identity as “true humanity” and those who have become more a part of their settled world.
Writing Farseed and Seed Seeker presented the challenge of showing what some of the characters in Earthseed become as adults. I remember what it was like in my teens, when I would swear to myself that I would never turn into the kind of conventional, boring person others expected me to be, that I would never give up my youthful ambitions, however fanciful, that I wouldn’t just sink into middle age and turn into just the kind of horse’s ass I’d always hated as a child. You might recall that line at the end of the first Back to the Future movie, where Michael J. Fox’s character asks Doc Brown, who has just returned from the future in his souped-up DeLorean, what happens to him and his girlfriend: “Do we become assholes or something?” Most of us end up making compromises later or abandon our youthful idealism, but I wanted my characters, in their very different and sometimes tragic or even destructive ways, to be consistent with their earlier selves. That’s of course a concern with any novel or series that presents its characters over a long period of time, but I might have been a bit more conscious of it while writing Earthseed since it was to be published as a young adult novel.
HoF: You have published prolifically over the years, including several anthologies featuring the contributions of women to science fiction.  In what ways do you think women authors have changed science fiction? 

PS: The easiest way for me to answer that question is to say: Go get my Women of Wonder anthologies, either the three published by Vintage in the 1970s or the rebooted two-volume set Harcourt Brace brought out in the 1990s, where I deal with that question at length. But I’ll come at this question from another angle. 

Greg Benford has often said that genres are also like immense discussions that develop and trade and ring variations on ideas. He claims that science fiction is more like a jazz band doing riffs as opposed to so-called serious fiction, which he compared to a solo performance of an accepted “classic,” or something that stands alone. Now if that’s the case, you’re obviously going to have much more interesting riffs with women developing and ringing changes on ideas, than having science fiction written mostly by men, which kind of limits the possibilities for new riffs. And if you look at the field now, you see that you can’t get away with simply assuming certain things about, for example, the future of gender roles or that there are immutable unchangeable differences between men and women. Doesn’t mean you can’t write something that makes such assumptions, only that you’ve got to have a good reason for the assumption; you’ve got to make a case, or at least make it plausible. Same goes for having more science fiction by people of color, different nationalities, or members of the LGBT community; it’s bound to make the conversation much more interesting and much richer.
HoF: What challenges remain for women in science fiction, both as authors and as characters?
PS: The same ones that remain for all of us who write sf, and I’m not sure it makes much sense to talk only about science fiction here, as what we have now are a number of subgenres – high fantasy, urban fantasy, vampire stories, supernatural fiction, horror fiction, with science fiction still hanging around and keeping company with all of them. And a lot of what’s called science fiction is actually, in my opinion, a kind of science fantasy that uses the standard tropes but that isn’t all that plausible as realistic extrapolation. But whatever you write, you have to be aware of what that particular story or novel demands and then meet those demands. Different stories demand different things, and some will inherently have wider appeal than others, and all a writer can do is make whatever she writes the best kind of story or novel of its kind that she is capable of writing.
You can visit Pamela Sargent and learn more about the novel Earthseed on Facebook at



Terri-Lynne said...

It is truly an honor to have you here, Ms. Sargent. I feel a little agog!

My step into reading fantasy fiction was quite similar to yours into science fiction. I was not a--ahem--sophisticated reader when I first picked up The Once And Future King. I have been a voracious reader my whole life, but in my early teens, I devoured Harlequin romances, and didn't seem to mind that they were all the same story set in different locations. Ah-me. And then one day I was at the local library and noticed the nickle bin. Those were the books the library was getting rid of for a nickle (actually, a dime at that time, but it was always known as the nickle bin.) In with the romances was a blue, jacketless copy of The Once And Future King. I knew that The Sword in the Stone was in there someplace, and I did so love the Disney film. On a whim, I took it home.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Thank you for being here!

writerknv said...

Thank you, Ms. Sargent, for your fantastic post! I enjoyed reading about your journey.

It's funny, I think so many of our stories are similar: coming across that random sci-fi/ fantasy paperback by accident, then discovering whole new worlds. My story began with Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey. I think it made it into my elementary school library by accident. After that, I read everything SFF I could find... which wasn't much.

I envy my girls because they have access to so much excellent SFF, so many choices, and without the stigma that came along with being a fan when I was growing up.

And I wish I'd come across your novels when I was a girl. :)

~Kim Vandervort

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

I loved the Once & Future King! Of course, you both know by now what did it for me: Grimm's Fairy Tales. Yay, Grimm!

I am really looking forward to reading Earthseed, and hope to see it on the big screen in the not-so-distant future.

Thanks again, Pam. It's great to have you!

Unknown said...

I have to admit I have never been a big sci-fi reader, but Pamela's books sound quite interesting. I have always loved fantasy, however. My favorites fantasy books as a kid were The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede. I happened upon them at the library and loved the covers, so I thought I would give them a try. They're still one of my favorites. I've been re-reading them with my kids.