I have always written across the borders of genre—science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, even the occasional contemporary story. It seems to me we are every bit as distanced from the past as we are from the future, so the challenge for a writer, in bringing those worlds to life—past or future—involves the same rigorous evocation of detail and the same attention to the indelible human questions that, in my case, and even in my science fiction, are often the questions that circle around the Western American experience.
As a girl, I was a sucker for the cowboy hero and the romantic images of Western mythology. I soaked up the novels of Zane Grey, Ernest Haycox, and Max Brand—but the book I read and reread obsessively was Jack Schaefer’s Shane, the story of a solitary wanderer who wants to give up his guns and live a peaceful life but must, in the end, turn to violence as the only way to save the defenseless homesteaders from the forces of evil.
Shane is fearless and honorable, a defender of children and women and animals, but like all our cowboy heroes, all the Western heroes I loved when I was a girl, he’s a wandering, rootless paladin; he lacks family ties and a childhood history—no parents, siblings, never a wife nor children. Incredibly skilled with his fists and a gun, he solves every problem, no matter how knotted or difficult, with violence. And when he has finished with the necessary killing, he heads back into the remote mountains, sacrificing himself to loneliness.
As a girl, I was always deeply moved by that story, but I came slowly to understand that a terrible sorrow lay under the violence—that there was a dark underbelly to our Western mythology. This understanding grew from my reading the thoughtful memoirs of people who had grown up in the ranching West: Teresa Jordan’s Riding the White Horse Home; Bill Kittredge’s Owning It All; Eileen O’Keeffe McVicker’s Child of Steens Mountain(written with the guiding pen of Barbara J. Scot); and Bette Lynch Husted’s Above The Clearwater: Living on Stolen Land.
And as I began to turn away from the simple heroes of traditional Westerns, I came finally to the few women who were writing the West—Willa Cather, of course, and Mari Sandoz, Mildred Walker, Dorothy Johnson, Leslie Marmon Silko. In their work, I found a darker, more complicated mythology, and other kinds of heroes, never the rootless, violent gunslinger. When I squint hard, I can even see Silko’s novel Ceremony as a retelling of Shane—a retelling in which the bravest thing Tayo does is turn away from the killing.
In science fiction, just as in my reading about the West, it was women writers—Ursula Le Guin first and foremost, but also Vonda McIntyre, Cherry Wilder, Octavia Butler, Kate Wilhelm, Marge Piercy—who showed me a different world. Theirs were stories focused not on what a technological object could do, but on how the world is, or how it could be. The science in their science fiction could be anthropology, psychology, sociology, the human sciences —“archaeology of the mind” to use Jane Yolen’s phrase. And biology, botany, the sciences of animals and all living things, the very sea itself, and the earth.
I believe strongly that storytelling—mythology—can not only help us to understand who we are as a people, what we care about, but that stories can help us think about those things in fresh ways. In my Western fiction, following the model of Silko and Cather, I have tried to reshape the traditional story, to find a central place in it for women, to retell it as a narrative of community, to shape it around realities that are sometimes darker but always more complicated and therefore more interesting, and more human, than the stories we usually tell. And when I write science fiction, I am often following Le Guin and McIntyre, imagining another path into the future, exploring and reinventing the tropes of marriage, and of child rearing, and creating a new religion, or even a completely new culture, concretizing metaphor by imagining psychic communication or a first encounter with an alien.
I believe American culture has been fundamentally shaped and influenced by the mythology of our Western past, and that science fiction is the mythology of our modern world—or one of its mythologies, now that we live in a world profoundly changed by science and technology. It has always seemed to me that we have as much trouble believing the past was real, that its people walked the earth and felt the same things we feel, as believing there will be a future world in which people go on living their complicated lives after we are dead and forgotten. But in the novels and stories of Leslie Silko, Ursula Le Guin, Willa Cather, and Vonda McIntyre, I saw how it could be done—how they were able to bring those worlds, past or future, to life. And I saw my own way into writing new mythologies.