Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist's business is lying.
--Ursula K Le Guin, Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness
When it comes right down to it, it's always about the cat. You know, that cat. Really she's just an ordinary domesticated tabby, with a bit of a belly starting to show and a couple of litters of kittens behind her; her left ear's a tad raggedy from the time she misjudged her jump while she was teasing the bull mastiff next door. Nothing out of the ordinary, except for the fact that she's not quite sure whether she's alive or dead. Either that, or she's pretty sure that she's both alive and dead. Some guy named Schrodinger put her in a box, which might have been a bit on the cruel side given the vial of poisoned gas he stuck in there with her, and the Geiger counter that released the gas if the radium (also in the box) emitted a subatomic particle. There's a 50% chance that the radium will decay and pussy will be poisoned, but because of the nature of quantum physics both radium atom and cat occupy both realities at once, alive and dead, until Schrodinger opens the box and fixes reality through his observation.
Of course, the cat isn't a real cat; she's a thought experiment. She also crops up a lot in science fiction, that cat. Ursula Le Guin has quite a bit to say about her in the introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, where the cat is used to illustrate that both physics and science fiction produce thought-experiments -- Schrodinger's term -- that allow them to describe the reality of the present in a universe where the future can never be predicted. Science fiction writers, Le Guin tells us, do this by telling lies, a sentiment Pat Murphy would agree with, except that she extends the facility for telling lies beyond the novelist. "We are all fiction writers; we are all liars," Murphy says, in the "Afterward" to her current novel, Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell. Not surprisingly, Pat Murphy is also quite taken with the cat -- both Pat Murphy, the physicist character who is the best friend of Adventures' protagonist, and Pat Murphy, the author. Indeed, both Pat Murphys have websites called The Bad Grrlz Guide to Physics, at least one of which can be found at www.badgrrlzguide.com.
Confusing? Well, that's the point, in a sense, although Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell isn't at all confusing to read. Adventures is the third novel in a series of books that feature Max Merriwell, the pseudonymous author of There and Back Again by Pat Murphy, either as author or character. As far back as 1999, when There and Back Again was published, Murphy was warning her readers that Adventures was going to take on "the shifting nature of reality and identity." And, after all, shouldn't the reader have certain expectations of a novel that contains one character named after the author, a character who is a pseudonym of the author (Max Merriwell), and two characters who are pseudonyms of the author's pseudonym (Mary Maxwell, author of The Wild Angel by Max Merriwell by Pat Murphy, and Weldon Merrimax, whose novels Pat Murphy has not apparently written)?
And if that's not enough to alert the reader that this novel is going to take her or him on a wild adventure into the nature of reality, the fictional Pat Murphy's declaration, early in the novel, that "I'm for Heat, Entropy, Chaos, and Disorder" really ought to do the trick. After all, it's a bad grrlz guide to physics. And like the physicist and the bad grrl, the reader needs to "question things that other people take for granted": why can't I dye my hair blue? what is the nature of matter? is reality a lie we all make up and come to believe in?
Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell is serious fun -- but then, I'm a sucker for a flirtation with the nature of reality. Add to that a really clever, as well as entertaining, demonstration of quantum physics meshed with a post-modernist literary style that's a cross between hard-core SF and magic realism, and you've got a definite winner on your hands. Murphy's writing about science is suffused with clarity, in contradistinction to much of the obscurantist gabble that cloaks the pseudo-science of many supposedly "hard" SF novels. While Pat Murphy, the physicist, provides the science, Murphy the writer infuses Adventures with dashes of the genre skills of all of her alter egos -- SF and space opera from Max Merriwell, romance and adventure from Mary Maxwell, and a touch of something a lot darker from Weldon Merrimax, the pseudonym's pseudonym.
Susan, the divorced librarian who is the protagonist of Adventures, wins a transatlantic cruise for two on board the Odyssey, a cruise ship with a somewhat patchy history. On the Odyssey, she meets Max Merriwell, the well-known SF author, who has been hired to teach a writing workshop on board. Or rather, Merriwell's pseudonym, Weldon Merrimax, has been hired, but Max refuses to pretend to be Merrimax, insisting that there's an important difference between writing as Merrimax and being him. However, as the cruise progresses, people bearing the same names as Max's pseudonyms start cropping up, along with yet another Pat Murphy. At the same time, some very odd things begin to happen, some of them to Susan, some of them to her friend Pat, and some which she learns about as a result of her slowly developing romantic interest in the ship's security officer, Tom Clayton.
Of course, the Odyssey's route from New York to England via Bermuda takes them through the infamous Bermuda Triangle, the subject of much speculation on the part of many passengers. Could the strange events -- card sharks whose names don't appear on the guest list, hexagrams from the I-Ching slipped under Max's door, wolves howling on the pool deck, people dancing to music that won't let them stop -- be caused by the ship's passage through the Triangle? Is it coincidence that many of these things -- the wolf pack, the entrancing music, the Clampers, the very name of the cruise ship, and so on -- also figure in the novels that Pat Murphy has written as, respectively, Mary Maxwell and Max Merriwell? Or is the explanation as apparently simple as the one Max gives to the other guests: "People lie"?
In the interests of telling better lies, Susan enrolls in Max's writing workshop, where the reader gets to watch her learn how to write -- a process which any budding authors amongst the readership could easily adapt simply by following Max's workshop instructions themselves. The way in which Adventures rather casually slips before the unsuspecting reader an entire course in prose writing is both part of its charm and part of its intensely self-reflective nature. Of course, much good SF is self-reflective, not only of the process of its own writing, but also of its position within the genre -- think of the way in which much of John Varley's work refers to Robert Heinlein, for example.
Of course, this self-reflectivity carries its own dangers, one of which is failing to function beyond the level of the in-joke. Murphy avoids this trap with deftness, much as she balances neatly along the precipice of Adventures' relationship to its predecessors -- too much reliance on them and it could easily have become precious, at best, and indecipherable, at worst. As it is, Murphy manages beautifully and Adventures is in many ways just as good a read for those who are not familiar with the two preceding novels. Indeed, the playfulness with which Murphy treats her literary references extends from science fiction -- references to the heat death of the universe in a feminist context inevitably bring to mind Pamela Zoline's work of that name, for example -- to Lewis Carroll (whose "Hunting of the Snark" provided the epigraphs for There and Back Again).
But then again, what else would the reader expect from the author who rewrote The Hobbit as a feminist space opera? Of course, There and Back Again is the subtitle of Tolkien's famous first novel, but the fun of watching that story unfold lies not only in the changes Murphy works on the "original," but also in her own wonderful inventiveness with characters and situations, an inventiveness that also infuses what initially appears to be the more conventional romance thriller beginning of Adventures.
It would spoil the fun to tell you too much more about what actually happens in Adventures, save that it naturally transforms the lives of Susan and Pat the physicist. Some aspects of the way in which the novel plays with the nature of reality and with the nature of fiction could easily have become heavy, but Murphy manages to instill a real sense of wonder into her consideration of the many ways in which we consider both the reality of our world and the nature of fiction itself. The metafictional aspects of the novel, the way in which it is also a novel about the writing of novels and about the nature of writing, are very cleverly related to the questions it asks about the nature of reality and the ways in which women live in the world.
Pat Murphy (does it matter which Pat Murphy?) tells us:
To be a physicist, you need to believe in forces that you can't see and you don't really understand -- forces like electricity and magnetism. As a Bad Grrl, you often have to deal with people who would rather not see you and who certainly don't understand you . . . . Not the same thing, but strangely related. As a Bad Grrl, I figure I am like electricity and magnetism, an invisible force acting on society in mysterious ways.
Perhaps that's also the essence of the impetus that lies behind fiction writing, the hope of "acting on society in mysterious ways." Who knows why some books, like The Hobbit or Stranger in a Strange Land become icons of a whole generation. Some books act on society like electricity and magnetism, a process which hasn't much to do with the author's intentions, which are often, as Pat Murphy tells us, to create the kinds of lies that have us believing in impossible things. It doesn't matter whether those impossible things are wolves howling on the pool deck of a cruise ship, UFOs, or peace in our time. What matters is the power of the imagination to make the reader look again at the world.
Adventures in Space and Time with Max Merriwell is a novel that makes us think about what it means to be a science fiction writer, among other things. It's a novel which shows us that the imagination is a powerful thing: if a writer needs a drink called a Flaming Rum Monkey, she makes one up, and maybe -- just maybe -- the next thing you know everyone is drinking Flaming Rum Monkeys (the recipe is on p. 178). The imagination is also, as Max himself tells us, a dangerous thing, but that doesn't alter our need to exercise it and to live, at least some of the time, in the world Susan comes to inhabit, where she doesn't "know what will happen next."
In Adventures in Space and Time with Max Merriwell, the reader rarely knows what will happen next. The future is as unpredictable for us as it is for Schrodinger and his cat. And that's ninety percent of the fun.
Wendy Pearson is a Ph.D. student with a particular interest in SF. Her article "Alien Cryptographies: The View from Queer" won the SFRA's Pioneer Award for the best critical article in 2000. She has published a number of articles on sexuality and gender issues in science fiction. Her most recent article deals with the figure of the hermaphrodite in SF novels by Melissa Scott, Stephen Leigh, and Ursula Le Guin. Her previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.