Aqueduct Associate Editor Arrate Hidalgo Sanchez put four questions to Susan W. Lyons about her just-released debut novel, Time's Oldest Daughter:
Why Sin [the novel's protagonist]?
Because I always thought of her as, forgive me, more sinned against than sinning. She has such an intriguing genealogy. I think about one of her literary ancestors as the Scylla in Homer’s Odyssey but also in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, a beautiful virgin who is transformed by the jealous sorceress Circe into a woman fair above the waist but with dog’s jaws below (maybe the original vagina dentata) that whelp hellish creatures.
Another more recent ancestor, as described in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, is Errour: half woman, half serpent, who gives birth to all kinds of ugly little heresies.
Gender is destiny for them as well as both female characters in Paradise Lost, who are commanded to report directly to their authors rather than God. Eve reports to her author Adam from whose rib she is generated. Sin, less fortunate, reports to Satan, who births her parthenogenetically, the way Athena springs from the head of Zeus, although with none of his love or pride in her, nor with Athena’s early association with Wisdom.
Come on, Milton! Really?
Seriously, what kind of authority figure is Satan? To make matters worse, when Satan ignores her, it is God who assigns Sin to live with Death, bear more creepy monsters, and guard the gates of Hell. Where’s the free will in that?
She’s a character begging to tell her own story her own way.
One of the things I love about Time's Oldest Daughter is its cheerful mingling of the chemical and the biblical. It seems to reflect your background in teaching science and literature at the same time. How has this informed your writing, and more generally, your approach to art?
I learned from Milton that distinctions between the metaphor, the metaphysical, and the physical are relatively recent. When, in book 2, he describes chaos with its “embryon atoms” (900) and “shock of fighting elements” (1014-15), can particle physics be far behind? And while Milton’s timeline about Earth’s creation may be a little hazy, his ordering of light, water, and the “washy ooze” of the primordial (7, 303) travels companionably with evolutionary theory toward the origin of life. Sarah Tolmie, author of The Stone Boatmen and Two Travelers, has characterized Milton as the “domineering father of speculative fiction in English.” Although an irritating misogynist, Milton was also a marvelous world-builder who made connections between and among the emerging bodies of knowledge in 17th century metaphysics, natural science, and philosophy.
Among more contemporary academics, the temptation is often to disaggregate knowledge into piles of specialized disciplines, but the metaphor remains as useful to a physicist constructing string theory as to a writer playing with time. And who can resist a cosmic big bang?
You discovered feminist science fiction later on in life. How did it happen, and through whom?
It turns out I liked feminist science and speculative fiction all along, but I didn’t know that’s what it was called. I admired the feminist writings of Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir, Marilyn French, Elaine Pagels, and, in particular, Carol Gilligan, but I didn’t associate them with the kinds of speculative literature I enjoyed by Madeleine L’engle, Margaret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin, Angela Carter, Peter S. Beagle, and, later, Marie de France. I also liked the stories of John Milton, J.R.R. Tolkien and T.H. White, despite their offensive ground rules about race and women. I just didn’t put feminism and speculative fiction together. Nor did I associate any of those stories with science fiction. You know—Chewbacca and outer space?
Fortunately, my friend Pamela Bedore, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut whose areas of scholarship include popular literature and feminist theory, guided me gently into the vocabulary of literary genres. For non-theorists like me, Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (New York: Anchor Books, 2011) provides a wonderful introduction to the kind of world-building that can occur away from the patriarchal gaze. In the introduction, Atwood describes an amiable argument with Ursula Le Guin about fantasy, science fiction, and speculative fiction, the genre borders of which, Atwood writes, are “increasingly undefended, and things slip back and forth across them with insouciance” (7).
An insouciant little story shrugs her shoulders as she travels freely and charmingly across those genres still guarded by canons and other academic artillery. “You can call me fantasy,” she murmurs to the remaining gatekeepers, “or you can call me science fiction.” Then she whispers, “Just make sure you call me.”
You have mentioned in the past that something you admire about feminist science fiction is the ability to re-imagine myths and fairy tales that are traditionally told by authoritative male voices in new ways. What does it mean for you to reimagine Milton's particular view on Genesis, the source not only of religious dogma but also of deeply-running assumptions about humanity's purpose on Earth?
Fairy and folk tales, quests, and myths are our creation stories: the first ones we learn as children; they form the foundation of our understanding of what it means to be human and gendered. How did we get here? Why are we here? What is our purpose? Do we discover knowledge or construct it?
Genesis provides a fundamental set of western creation stories and not one but two versions of how God makes humans. In the first, from the King James version (1.27) “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created he him; male and female he created him them.” What a confusion of pronouns! Robert Alter, in his Genesis: Translation and Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), points out that “man” (the Hebrew is adam) is generic for human, and that ‘him’ is “grammatically but not anatomically masculine” (p. 5).
The second version of this story occurs in the second chapter of Genesis: God creates Adam (Man) first and Eve (Woman) out of Adam’s rib, to be his helper.
Guess which version Milton chose?
But Milton was only reinforcing the dogma already in place for 17th century Crown and Cross, when the pronouns and sources of power had syncretized into the portrait of a ruler God who is singular, male, domineering, frequently angry, dangerously whimsical, and entirely transactional. Eerily contemporary, yes?
And Milton was also writing literature that would find generations of Paradise Lost readers believing such a God was simply dull and overbearing when compared to Satan with his high energy, rhetorical flourishes, and championing of individuality. Talk about unintended consequences.
So you have to hope and believe that the dogma that locks Genesis in a dusty case in a dim room in the museum of the past can be trumped by literature that brings these stories out into the light of day and invites everyone to take a fresh look.