I've been indulging in a guilty pleasure this month—rereading. I always feel like I ought to be reading something new. There are a lot of books out there and if I keep reading the same ones over again, how will I ever have time to finish them all? But I love rereading. First, I reread The Sparrow and Children of God by Maria Dora Russell. Next I moved on to Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead. It only occurred to me halfway through the Card that these were all novels about first contact, the struggle to understand and communicate with the other.
This led me to track down H. Beam Piper's Fuzzy chronicles. I hadn't read Piper since the fourth grade. I had chicken pox that year and my dad brought home a pile of paperback books to keep me company. One had an intriguing cover—a dark forest and a delicate creature that looked like a cross between a monkey and a teddy bear. It was that book which hooked me on science fiction, eventually leading me to authors like Sheri Tepper, Nicola Griffith, Karen Joy Fowler, and more. I'm on page fifty and have already come across countless scenes which read like distant memories, as if I actually lived the book twenty-one years ago. Other things have surprised me—all those cocktails and all that pipe smoking! Also, I'm remembering how frustrated I was, even at age ten, by how dopey and passive all the female fuzzies and humans are. No wonder I eventually gravitated to feminist science fiction.
I have the luxury of the whole summer off this year. My days are not filling up with other human beings. I read. I write. I pull weeds in the backyard. I nurture along my disorganized vegetable garden and I observe its ecology of vegetables, flowers, weeds, beneficial insects, and scary poisonous spiders. I play with my two dogs. I spend time training the younger dog, who is having trouble understanding how to live with tall two-legged aliens. She gives vent to her confusion with snarls and carpet-knife teeth, so her training has taken on a certain urgency. We are slowly learning how to communicate with each other and how to be less afraid. So, if I'm not reading about aliens, I'm making contact with strange life forms in my own home—making friendships with some, treaties with others, and full-out wars with a few.
Last week, I took my lunch and book out on the patio. White butterflies flitted from dandelions to mustard weeds. A sparrow flew in and out of a hole in the roof, feeding an invisible hoard of peeping chicks. The dogs alternated lying in the sun with lying in the shade, regulating their temperatures like lizards. A hummingbird dive-bombed my head, then perched at the nectar feeder.
In Russell's book, Jesuits upset a delicate balance by teaching an alien species how to garden. I looked at my own garden, always on the edge of an upset itself (cosmos really do reseed everywhere, you know, and let's not mention the reproductive habits of bindweed), and thought about its alien species. First of all are the predators. Every summer at least one praying mantis takes up residence. They stick around long enough to make friends with, turning their classically alien-shaped heads to greet me when I enter their hunting grounds. I like to watch one pulse its body up and down in the sun, then walk gracefully to a new vantage point. The black widows move in for an entire summer, too, but I have yet to make friends with one. They build their formless webs in corners, crevices, and leafy caverns, their carapaces glinting like Darth Vader's mask. Last year one made a nest in the middle of my Sweet 100. It marched towards me whenever I reached my hand inside; my appetite for cherry tomatoes disappeared entirely.
Some of the plants—indeterminate tomatoes, bindweed, green beans—seem more animal than vegetable to me. The tomatoes fling out branches like tentacles, sprout two new ones for every one I cut off (I am trying to train them against the fence to avoid creating appealing Death Star-like habitats for Darth Vader spiders). The bindweed tries to strangle all living things with its death grip. If I listen, I swear I can hear it hiss and chuckle. The beans keep their death grips confined politely to the fence but they grow so fast they almost slither. I speak to them all with great respect, in case they can hear me. I'd hate to offend, then disappear in the strange wilderness of my own backyard.
This is what drew me to science fiction twenty-one years ago. I liked the alien landscapes, the alternate histories and futures. What kept me reading science fiction was the way it made my immediate surroundings alien, too. Everywhere I looked, something familiar turned new and strange. Eventually, I found other kinds of literature which made the world new—poetry most of all—but science fiction did it first. I was a bookworm long before I became a science fiction reader, but science fiction made me into an explorer. These days I make my own wordy explorations by writing poetry and essays, but nothing beats the pleasure of exploring another author's alien landscape. So far, my summer vacation has taken me to some fabulous places.