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Of Masks & Metaphors
(excerpted from Locus Magazine, January 1999)
Photo by Beth Gwinn
Melissa Scott graduated from Harvard/Radcliffe in 1981 with a B.A. in history, magna cum laude, and received a Ph.D. in comparative history at Brandeis in 1992. Scott began to sell SF and fantasy novels while still a graduate student and teaching assistant, so writing has been her only full-time occupation, but she did have numerous part-time jobs during her college years, as well as serving as a founder and contributing editor for gay/lesbian SF/fantasy magazine Wavelengths. Her partner since 1979 has been Lisa A. Barnett. Scott's first SF novel, The Game Beyond, appeared in 1984, followed by ''Silence Leigh'' trilogy Five-Twelfths of Heaven (1985), Silence in Solitude (1986), and The Empress of Earth (1987), as well as A Choice of Destinies (1986) and The Kindly Ones (1987). With Lisa A. Barnett, she wrote alternate-world historical fantasies The Armor of Light (1988) and Point of Hopes (1995). Other SF novels: Mighty Good Road (1990), Burning Bright (1993), Dreamships (1992) and quasi-sequel Dreaming Metal (1997), Trouble and Her Friends (1994), Shadow Man (1995), and Night Sky Mine (1996). Her latest, The Shapes of Their Hearts (1998), is a good example of her successful combination of cyberpunkish action, socio-political observation, and character insight. She has also written romance novels, Trek novelizations, and non-fiction Conceiving the Heavens: Creating the Science Fiction Novel (1997). Melissa Scott won the John W. Campbell Award in 1986.
''I got hooked on science fiction kind of stupidly. In seventh grade, in the middle of gym class, I fell and broke my arm, managed to break both bones and frighten the gym teacher enough that she didn't want to see me again. So I ended up as a library monitor. I was reading techno-thrillers, the early-'70s version, and one of the librarians said, 'Well, if you like that, you might like this,' and handed me a Heinlein – I believe it was Space Cadet. And I was hooked. She had me try Andre Norton, Robert Silverberg.... I ran out of books in the junior high library, went downtown to the Little Rock Main Library, and discovered not only did they have a tremendous collection of juvenile science fiction, but the adult library had something called the Á Son Gôut Trust – as in chacun à son gôut!. A local banker had set up a trust fund for the library to buy the books he knew he liked to read and that everybody else liked to read, which were westerns and science fiction. It had a Science Fiction Book Club subscription since god knows when, and they had a tremendous collection. They gave me an adult card at age 11, and I went to town!
''My first book was The Game Beyond, a sort of galactic empire novel. In retrospect, it probably was my literal response to Dune and to four years of social history, especially how bureaucracies work, and how would you really get an aristocracy in a society that has already experienced the French Revolution a long time ago. I was interested in those things. It also involved games and gaming – serious competition deciding the fates of the nobility. Better than actually killing people!
''I've done two fantasy novels in collaboration with Lisa Barnett. (I can't write fantasy as a solo to save my soul.)Our collaborations are strongly historically influenced. Our first, The Armor of Light, an alternate-world Elizabethan fantasy, was recently reprinted by NESFA. Point of Hopes is an astrologically based fantasy, except it's a different astrology. The sequel should be finished in April '99. It's turned into something of a police procedural series. We're treating it as a mystery with fantastic elements, as well as a fantasy with mystery elements, and bending genres has been really fun.
''I get a fair amount of criticism for really talking about 'now' in my SF, particularly with the near-future, cyberpunk stuff. I certainly got some reviewers who said that about Trouble and Her Friends, that it's too gay, these kind of cool cyberpunks where you just drop in all this weird politics.
''Obviously, a lot of my books have had gay rights themes, gay community concerns. One of the reasons I do it in science fiction is that it's possible to have the good and the bad. You can have the fantasy – so far it's a fantasy – of a world where it doesn't matter, where that's not the contested issue, and look at what an odd place that would be in some ways, where that identity that is so crucial to me, to this whole society, disappears. It's certainly getting better here. But in science fiction, you can go so much further in both directions, and by doing so the readers who'd be scared of the themes can say, 'It's not now, not about me. I'm not being accused of anything.'
''I've also done a book on writing science fiction called Conceiving the Heavens, which basically turned out to be a better learning process for me than it may be for the readers! Actually being able to sit back for four months and think about how and why I do things, how and why other writers do things, analyze the craft.
''The Shapes of Their Hearts took an abrupt right turn halfway through, and became a much different book than the book I started to write. I think it's a better book. Normally my books don't take off on me, the characters don't change that drastically, and these did. It went in this philosophical, religious direction, and brought in the idea of biological robots, as well as artificial intelligence. Where do you draw the line on a human being? That took me into a new place, and into a new way of looking at the universe, a question of what does happen with traditional religion. How would a traditional religion adapt, cope, mutate? And what would it do to the people who, through choice or accident of birth, believe in it?
''The project I'm working on now is called The Jazz, and it's starting from the premise that everything you read on the Net is just jazz; a lie, a story, made-up. It's somebody's joke that went wild and infected everyone. And it's also an artform. People manipulate it for fun; the guys who write that Schoenberg Twelve-Tone was a Nazi spy tool are having fun with this, and the unhip people still take it seriously. It's about somebody who acquires a program that can read it, tell you what the subtext is, what the writer's intent really was. It belongs to a film company that wants it because it can tell you whether a film is going to be a hit or not, sort of as a side-effect: this pushes all the buttons you want. And the book is about what happens when a 16-year-old kid gets hold of it and panics, because he stole it. He's going to be in trouble, and his parents are going to be in trouble. And what happens to the world if you've got one of these? The book is also turning out to be structured rather like The Wizard of Oz.
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