Two roads really did diverge in a wood near the townhouse complex where I spent my ‘tween years. On one side of the road was suburbia: bland and uniform, dozens of doors with numbers and letters and little else to distinguish them. We were 14-B for many years—a ground-floor two-bedroom apartment—until a fire caused us to relocate into an identical townhouse closer to the complex’s main entrance.
Across the street I could enter the woods: overgrown and mysterious, tracts of land settled hundreds of years ago by Pennsylvania Quakers. There, my best friend Falle and I took our dogs Kimba and Emma on daily walks, constructing an alternative universe with magical stumps and malevolent wells; a majestic castle and an invisible spaceship; and—because we were girls—unicorns, unicorns, unicorns.
My mother, sister and I had moved to this particular outpost of suburban Philadelphia in the wake of my parents’ divorce, downsizing from a multi-storied house with two staircases and separate bedrooms for my sister and me. My acclimation of the following few years coincided with my first reading of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which celebrates its 50th birthday this year. I read the book and suddenly recognized my new environment—identical townhouses with identical squares of green in front and identical walled-in porches in the back—for what it was: Camazotz. I had been unwittingly resettled on a black planet ruled by IT, where everyone was expected to look and act the same. I was the misunderstood heroine of this story: Meg Murray, minus the math skills and Auspergianesque little brother.
I was certain the mysteries of the universe were about to be revealed, even though childhood had already yielded disappointments of the mystical variety. I had spent countless hours in various closets (my sister’s walk-in closet in our old house had been my favorite) waiting for Narnia to appear. I attributed its lack of manifestation in part to the concurrent lack of fur coats in most of the closets to which I had access (I was strangely literal in my thinking for someone convinced an alternative reality was just a closet away).
The teleportation and telepathy of A Wrinkle in Time gave me more with which to work. I practiced reading Falle’s mind (kything) as often as she would let me by commanding her to think of numbers so I could guess them (it only took guessing right once every now and then to convince me I was making psychic progress). In the room I shared with my sister, my bed was positioned next to the window. I sometimes opened it and popped out into the night in case any strangers from other worlds were hanging about waiting to take me to another planet where my services were needed. As a back-up plan, I considered the possibilities presented in Goldenrod, a YA book written by Mary Towne in the ‘70s. In this book, a babysitter is hired to care for the five Madder kids, whose newly single mother needs childcare help. Goldenrod’s special gift is the ability to teleport anywhere that starts with the letter “G.” She is able to share this gift with her charges, and they travel to places corresponding to the names of the kids: Venice (Val); Laramie (Laurel); St. Martin (Susan); the Himalayas (Heath); Danbury (Daisy’s choice, because that’s where her Daddy lived). Domestic and international travel didn’t seem quite as exciting to me as inter-dimensional tessering, but worth a shot. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that many places that started with the letter “J.” There was New Jersey, minus the “new” part, but the three of us drove there regularly when we went to visit my grandparents in New York, all of us rolling up the windows to block the smell of landfills and refineries as we passed through Newark. I focused instead on “Jamaica,” but fuzzily since I didn’t know where it was or what it looked like. That my two favorite books featured fatherless children who could beam in and out of their lives at will escaped my notice at the time. I was not actively unhappy—diary entries from the period indicate a whirlwind of activities ranging from museum visits to tennis lessons—but displaced and disoriented.
Then came Lois Duncan’s 1982 Stranger With My Face, introducing the concept of astral projection. This I practiced nightly in bed, trying desperately to leave my body before concluding that perhaps this only worked if one was: Native American, a twin and in a coma.
When I wasn’t actively trying to transport myself to another world, I wrote stories about short misunderstood girls who had more success. I typed up descriptions of these stories onto index cards that I kept in a small orange file box. I assiduously noted the stories’ progress at the top of the card (the vast majority were “unfinished”). For example:
SUSAN, MISSY AND SPACE: TWO GIRLS BY ACCIDENT GO TO ANOTHER PLANET…AFTER A SERIES OF ADVENTURES SUSAN GETS HOMESICK. TEAREFULLY (sic) THEY LEAVE UNAWARE THEY WILL COME BACK.
What I lacked in spelling and story arc I made up for with single-minded focus: I wanted to be somewhere else, but I wanted to be able to come home when I was ready.
I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale my senior year of high school, an all-girls boarding school planted in Amish Country, Pennsylvania, where the breeze blew either the scent of chocolate from the factory down the street or pig manure from God knows where. As I always had with every book I liked, I read The Handmaid’s Tale 10 times in a row. The ‘80s were drawing to a close along with my adolescence, but not fast enough for me. I fancied myself politically knowledgeable, and nursed an antipathy toward Ronald Reagan and the decade’s culture wars that was short on details and long on emotional angst. I took Atwood’s dystopic reality seriously and thought I had one or two years tops before I was rounded up and forced to procreate and wear a red cloak. (When I interviewed Atwood three years ago following the publication of The Year of the Flood, I tried to broach this incident by telling her that some people think she’s prophetic; “I know,” she said, “but I’m not.”).
My shift from fantasy to speculative fiction coincided with my exit from childhood and adolescence to adult-in-training. I was no longer interested in leaving my body or my planet, but had honed in on the alternative possibilities of the future. Marge Piercy’s 1993 He, She and It depicts a North American post environmental disaster, in which corporations rule the world, technology has advanced to cyborgs and full “Net” immersion, and in which no one can breathe the air. I had just purchased my first Apple computer and stared at it warily when it talked to me. Jean Hegland’s 1998 Into the Forest chronicles two sisters’ struggle to survive as the world collapses into decay. I read this in the midst of the pre Y2K hype and immediately began stockpiling water and panicking over my lack of useful survival skills (a willingness to discuss New Yorker articles did not strike me as a bargainable commodity in the future I envisioned). There were several power outages in my neighborhood the winter I read Into the Forest, one of the same early warning signs in the book that society is crumbling. As I had done when reading The Handmaid’s Tale, I became convinced it was not a matter of if, but when. I spent much more time imagining the grim future than focused on my recent marriage, which was, unlike the world, actually imminently doomed.
Just a few years ago, I was struck with the desire to re-read A Wrinkle in Time, but was unable to find it on any of the dozen poorly organized bookshelves in my house. So I paid a visit to a local bookstore and broached, with slight embarrassment, the Young Adult section. I was fuzzily aware of the boom in YA spec fiction, but this was the first time I’d come face to face with the werewolves and vampires and…more vampires. But there, among the bloodsucker romances, was The Adoration of Jenna Fox, Mary Pearson’s 2008 story of a 17-year-old girl who eventually learns that her parents cloned 90 percent of her after a car crash left her facing certain death (an operation illegal but doable in the bioethically uncertain future). Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies constructs a world in which everyone is “ugly” until the 16th year when extensive plastic surgery strips individuality and makes them beautiful (or “pretties,” as the second in the four-book series is called). I was re-hooked, but also embarrassed. Wasn’t I a slightly serious person? Why was I reading books that took less than an hour to finish? Was my brain rotting? Was I regressing? Was I having yet another mid-life crisis? Also: was I actually pretending to buy these books for an imaginary teenage girl? Reminding myself that I had a graduate degree and had read many other books that were not written for teenagers was momentarily comforting until I realized that my one major academic paper—published and delivered to a room of very old men—had been on Gulliver’s Travels. Sure, I had gussied it up with an analysis of linguistic manipulation, but underneath all that was just a 12-year-old girl saying: “Look! A world where horses talk!”
In her 2011 book In Other Worlds, SF and the Human Imagination, Margaret Atwood delineates science and speculative fiction respectively as literature that is concerned with things that can’t happen versus things that could happen, but have not yet. Her demarcation reminded me of my own shift away from L’Engle’s centaurs and cherubim toward the inchoate dangers of technocracy and environmental devastation. Both genres privilege human tenacity against the unknown, but science fiction and fantasy always provide the extra boost of magical elements. We root for Harry Potter because he’s good, but vicariously enjoy the possibilities of winning the supernatural lottery, through which we can read minds, disappear and have an tactical advantage over dark forces. In spec fiction, the darkness is a direct consequence of humanity’s greed and blindness. Spec fiction does not provide magical spectacles to fight off evil, only bravery and perseverance.
The book helped me recast my ongoing love affair with speculative fiction—regardless of intended audience. I was not, it turned out, a stunted geek, but, actually a highly imaginative and empathetic human being. And only slightly stunted. Subsequently, I read on a recent 10-hour flight all 900-and-something pages of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. The books—coming to a theater soon—concern a dystopic future in which the country has been divided into districts, and teenagers compete annually in a reality-TV style live-or-die competition. The heroine, Katniss, wins against all odds and ends up leading a rebellion in a war against a government that has sacrificed the well being of most of its citizens in favor of the few who live lives of wealth and privilege. The books are clever and poignant and dark. They conclude with the harrowing deaths of innocent characters; the heroine’s victories are shadowed by permanent sorrow and a determination to never forget those who were sacrificed to make a better world.
As I finished the final book, Mockingjay, I tried to imagine reading it as a teenager and accepting its grim realities. The book failed to provide the vicarious escape valve I had come to expect; the line it drew between now and maybe later was too thin. Perhaps I have not changed as much as I think I have in the last 30-odd years but, clearly, the world—real and imaginary—has.