Science friction

Dallas author Patricia Anthony's sci-fi caught Hollywood's interest. But her decision to chuck the whole genre caught New York's wrath.

It's about a woman risking everything--her career, her financial success, her reputation, even her health--because she must. In the end, after all the success and all the praise, Anthony claims, "I didn't know I could write until I finished Flanders."

At age 51, Patricia Anthony has an intense, sagacious stare that sometimes contrasts with the easygoing Texas twang that stretches the edges of her speech. The stare overtakes the twang when she discusses the limitations of sci-fi. She is not always charitable to--is sometimes downright dismissive of--the genre that made her name. "I'm too messy, too passionate for science fiction!" she declares.

Before everything--before her first publisher, Harcourt Brace, inaugurated its first (and now defunct) line of science-fiction hardcovers in 1993 just to showcase her novels; before the slobbering reviews from normally reticent sources such as The New York Times and Publisher's Weekly; and before her frustrating extended foreplay with one of the world's hottest filmmakers--Anthony was just a reader, a teacher, an observer from the sidelines. She didn't even begin writing until 1980.

She had spent the '70s traveling as an English professor with her then-husband--a man she now refers to as "Darth Vader"--and their two children. Her husband also taught English, and they wound up working together at universities in Brazil and Portugal.

They divorced in 1978, and Patricia landed in Dallas. The only fiction writing she'd done up to that point was as a kid in her native San Antonio, when she was "going through my science-fiction phase, as all kids do." She had submitted a couple of pieces to Amazing Stories written in long-hand on lined paper. As it happens, that was pretty much the last time she considered herself a serious sci-fi reader.

"The '70s were a big time for horror and thrillers," she recalls. "That's what I read before I started writing. One day I was sitting in the back yard catching some rays and reading Stephen King's The Stand. And I thought, 'I can do this; I'm an English professor.' It was blind egotism. Writers have to have that. You have to think you're good enough to write something that people not only want to read, but that editors will pay for."

She began earnestly, diligently writing short stories, then novels. She accrued a stack of rejection notes "two feet high," she recalls; if nothing else, she figured editors would remember her name from the rejection letters alone and wear down long enough to give her a shot. Eventually, it worked: She sold her first story in 1987, and over the next few years earned enough of a reputation to sell her first novel, Cold Allies, to Harcourt Brace in 1992. Indeed, they bought and published her first three books to introduce an ill-fated sci-fi line.

But the question remains: Why did she start writing sci-fi, a genre so often associated with male authors?

"The best way I can answer it is to say I've always been fascinated with people facing the impossible, and a great way to explore that is through aliens," she explains. "I've always been charmed by ufology and accounts of alien sightings, which many sci-fi writers dismiss as ridiculous. They're interested in the 'science' part of it, and from that angle, it is silly. But I don't care whether it's scientifically provable that a woman in Nebraska saw a two-seater UFO outside her front door. I care that she believes it, and what it means to her."

Anthony describes the gulf that's always existed between her and traditional sci-fi--a chasm that widens every time Anthony releases a book--like this: "Let's say I'm telling a joke to the sci-fi community," she begins. "I start off with, 'An alien walks into a bar...' and they interrupt me: 'What does the alien look like?' The sci-fi community doesn't get my joke."

Indeterminate classifications. Metamor-phoses. Startling epiphanies. They not only describe Anthony's career, they are themes that pop up obsessively in Anthony's sci-fi--whether it's the healing intervention of a robot who helps an astronaut cope with his wife's tragic death in Conscience of the Beagle; or the are-they-angels-or-are-they-aliens? philosophical question at the heart of God's Fires, her story of an Inquisitor experiencing a crisis of faith during the Spanish Inquisition. It was God's Fires that threw down the gauntlet for sci-fi fans by putting the alien stuff in a pivotal but limited role. But hers are themes that become her defense when she starts talking about why she has abandoned sci-fi.

Wait a minute. Patricia Anthony has not abandoned sci-fi. She claims that from the beginning, she never really was sci-fi, at least not in that emotionally distant, sense-of-wonder, where-is-technology-taking-us? way. "I've always used aliens as a tool to talk about people," she says. "They put 'science fiction' on my books because they didn't know what else to call me."

Past reviews have spoken sotto voce about Anthony's awkward fit in the niche. The New York Times Book Review described Brother Termite as a "dark, moody, scary, imaginatively written novel" that is "suffused with poetry," but despite all the mentions of aliens who sleep in hives to absorb communal brain energy and alien-human DNA experiments, the Times reviewed it under the "Spies & Thrillers" section. Happy Policeman--her story of a cosmetic saleswoman's murder in a small Texas town that just happened to be isolated from the rest of the world by a race of aliens called the Torku--was included in the Times Book Review's "Science Fiction" section. But the critic described it as "more of a crisp police procedural" full of the "petty jealousies and rampant adulteries that bedevil small-town law enforcement" rather than a straight sci-fi triumph.

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