Prompted by the publication of The Bird Shaman, I dug out this old interview and digitized it (with Marty Halpern's technohelp). Several of Farah's questions and my answers, especially toward the end, now have a context they didn't have in 1994, and some may find this of interest.
The following interview took place on January 29th, 1994, in the Quaker Study Center at
Pendle Hill, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Judith Moffett lived nearby at the time (she
now divides the year between Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, and Swarthmore, Pennsylvania),
and Farah Mendlesohn, who spent the first half of the academic year 1993-94 at Pendle
Hill, invited her there for an interview, and for an evening’s discussion of Pennterra, her
“Quaker novel,” with the other Pendle Hill residents. Some of the evening discussion has
been incorporated into the following interview, which first appeared in Foundation: The
International Journal of Science Fiction, No. 62 (Winter 1994-95).
Judith Moffett has four [now five] SF books to her name. Her first SF story, “Surviving”
(The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, 1986) was incorporated with “Not Without
Honor” as Two That Came True (1991). Her three novels, Pennterra (1987), The Ragged
World (1991), and Time, Like an Ever-Rolling Stream (1992), have achieved
considerable critical acclaim. [There is now a fourth novel, The Bird Shaman (2008).] In
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute describes her as “a risk-taker of very
The Profession of Science Fiction: Grinding Axes
FM. When did you first come across science fiction and what made you want to be a
science fiction writer?
JM. Well, I’m a writer of lots of different kinds of things. I’ve published eight [now
eleven] books, of which only five are science fiction. When I came here to [teach at the
University of] Pennsylvania it was as a poet, and the last thing on my mind was giving up
writing poetry. Most science fiction writers begin in their teens; my first science fiction
story was written in 1983, when I was 40. It was a third or fourth career for me. But I
read SF in junior high and high school. I read science fiction specifically written for very
young readers, books like The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, whenever I
found them—I must have been eight or nine—and then I discovered, as young science
fiction writers-to-be always do, the young adult books of Robert Heinlein. I really loved
those. But I also read books by Lester del Rey, and... who else? The thing that really
stands out in my mind is how Heinlein would introduce his aliens so casually. The
example that’s always given is “the door dilated,” to denote a way of assuming, of
pretending to assume, that the reader understood, because the reader was part of the
culture: without explaining, we now have doors that dilate. He does the same with his
aliens. I was completely charmed and captivated by being told that the Martians were
resting on their resting stands as all the people went by, and had been there for several
weeks, without moving, as they sometimes did, without a production being made of this,
without having it explained. That really struck me as the way to handle aliens. Not that I
follow his example. But I think that it’s done very, very well, and in fact I read a number
of Heinlein’s later potboilers, and found them to be much inferior in structure and—
FM. Which did you think of as the potboilers?
JM. Oh, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, his adult science
fiction, not the short stories (there are some classics there), but the full-length novels that
are very full-length. I once taught The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress to a college class and
decided that that was the last time I would ever do such a thing. It simply doesn’t hold up
to the pressure of teaching, the sort of analytical pressure that’s brought to bear in the
classroom, very different from simply reading.
Then in high school I kept on; I was very devoted to Heinlein still and stayed with him
and reread books as I ran out of new ones, and then I went to college and got serious
about literature and decided, well I didn’t exactly decide, I was just very taken up with
important classical literary works, including contemporary works by Faulkner,
Hemingway, Fitzgerald—most of these were American writers—but I was majoring in
English, focusing on contemporary American literature and I didn’t have time for science
fiction and really did, I think, view it as a less serious, less important thing to be
concerned with. I remember that sometimes in college, on vacations, I would go to the
public library in the spirit of slumming and get one of the Heinlein books off the shelf
and read it with great pleasure, but it was like watching The Simpsons on TV.
FM. So what brought you back to science fiction as something serious?
JM. Two things. First was Star Trek, and not because I thought the program in its totality
was so marvelous, but because I was crazy about the character of Spock. The complexity
of that conception and the way that the writers were able to develop it through three years
of production... I still think it was wonderful and I have a tremendously strong
identification with that character, which is why I was so devoted to Star Trek, and it did
bring me back into the world and the mentality of science fiction. The other thing was
that a friend recommended Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness to me,
somewhere around 1972, just a few years after it was published in 1969. And that was a
riveting experience, because it taught me that science fiction had grown up, that a person
can have serious literary aspirations in the field of science fiction. Le Guin proves it can
be done, with that one book. She wasn’t the only one, but she was the most important one
FM. Do you regard science fiction as valuable? You say that you teach it.
JM. I regard it as extremely valuable, and as extremely undervalued by the reading
public in general. I can’t tell you how many times someone has said to me, “I’ve read
your book and I really liked it. I was so surprised. I don’t like science fiction and I had no
idea that this was the kind of thing....” And I try to tell them, “This is not unique, there
are lots of writers doing serious work, trying to explore serious themes in a complex way,
with and without lots of hardware and robots and computers.”
FM. Do you find that your interest in science fiction is different to what it was when you
were younger? Have the reasons for your interest changed?
JM. Yes, I guess so. Although sometimes I come across a book that does the Space
Opera type of thing and does it very well. I’m very interested in alien encounter SF, and
when I find a novel like The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle...
The sexism in that book is almost intolerable, but I do tolerate it for the sake of the
wonderfully realized aliens and for the story-telling, which is superb. I taught that book
also. Maybe I should mention how I got to thinking of science fiction as something I
might actually write myself. I was a poet, and very serious about that, and had published
one book and was working to put together a second and had published lots of poems in
journals, at the time when I was hired back by the University of Pennsylvania, where I
had done my PhD, to teach in the Creative Writing Program. When I started teaching at
Penn, in 1978, I was mostly teaching poetry-writing courses. But I was full-time then,
and you had to do a number of other courses, and the first course that I designed myself
was a freshman seminar called “Science Fiction and Science Non-Fiction.” I put together
a syllabus with some fiction—I know The Left Hand of Darkness was on the syllabus,
along with Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves and some other novels. And then non-
fiction: books like James Watson’s The Double Helix, and Jacob Bronowski and C. P.
FM. So you do have a positive interest in science as well as science fiction?
JM. Yes. My undergraduate minor was in biology.
FM. The major part of the science in your work does seem to be biology. How do you
see this inter-relating with your other work, with your poetry? Do you write science
JM. I don’t write poetry much at all these days, although I hope that’s not always going
to be the case. But I certainly have used biology in many poems. The last long poem that
I published, called “The Missing Link,” deals with evolutionary biology. It’s very long,
with lots of different forms and sections. This was just before I began writing fiction, so I
see it as a sort of transitional work. The following year (1979) was when I set up my
science fiction course.
FM. Does your experience as a poet affect your science fiction?
JM. My poems, as I said, were getting longer, and more discursive: I was really moving
towards prose. I think poetry has made me acutely aware of style.
FM. Let us move on now to the specifics of Pennterra, which is what you have come to
talk about later on this evening. It is probably the novel that has made the major impact.
It’s the novel which, when I mention it, makes people’s ears prick up. I have met people
who have read it and don’t read science fiction, and there are people here who decided to
give it a chance even though they don’t like science fiction. There is definitely something
about the idea of Quakers settling a planet—
JM. I’m sorry to interrupt, but I just want to frame this question by saying that I think
actually my second novel [The Ragged World] is more widely known in the science
fiction community. But Pennterra would certainly be the one that was best known in this
community, so the question may have been put to a self-selected audience in a way...
FM. Quite possibly. But Pennterra is the one of the three which made an impact on me.
So back to the point. Why Quakers?
JM. Why Quakers? Well, that’s a good question, and I’m not sure how directly I’m able
to answer it. I grew up in a Fundamentalist family, Conservative Baptist, and I was very
involved in the church.
FM. This is something that is used in Time, Like an Ever-Rolling Stream.
JM. Yes. Far more than any other work of mine, in any genre, TimeStream (to use its
nickname) is an autobiographical story. And I did leave the church, in college. When I
studied evolution, for the third time, I finally realized that this was scientifically true, and
that there was no way to go on believing the Bible story of Creation and also be honest
intellectually. I resolved that conflict by leaving the church. But it was very difficult. I
had a really rough time, because the church community had made up for some failings of
my family, and it was a very important part of my life, all through high school. It wasn’t
until I went to college and found another community, among academics, that I became
able to face the implications of evolution and make the decision to leave. This threw my
family into turmoil. My mother never got over it. She died five years ago, and to the day
she died she never really forgave me. So I have a strange relationship to religion in
general. I think if I had discovered the Quakers back then, I would almost certainly be a
Quaker now; but it was a case of timing. I didn’t come across them until I came back here
to teach, and met the person who is now my husband, who was a Quaker. The Society of
Friends appeals to me the most of all the religious groups I know, including the
Unitarians, who seem to have the next most secular, or the only more secular, religious
orientation. I admire the Quakers through history. The social positions that they have
always taken on race relations and women... How much ahead of their time they were! I
was interested in them without quite being able to feel that I wanted to join, but I still felt
that I understood what they were about.
FM. Has your earlier religious experience influenced your writing?
JM. I left the church, but it certainly hasn’t left me. I’ve internalized the fundamentalist
approach to life, in such ways as thinking that some things are critically important, and in
feeling a kind of missionary urge to change people’s minds. I tried to do that in poetry;
but contemporary American poetry does not take up a cause and argue it in the poem.
That couldn’t have been a less trendy thing to do. Science fiction, on the other hand, is
more accommodating. You mustn’t preach without entertaining but if you tell a good
enough story, people will hold still for a lot. And I had axes I so much wanted to grind
that this was a great relief.
I had a weird experience at Pendle Hill, which may or may not play a part in this. I came
here one summer to take a course that was not exactly in organic gardening, but it used
the garden to illustrate the points it was trying to make. I found the approach to be
unnecessarily childish: she was using children’s books—you had to read little fables and
discuss them. There seemed to me to be no point in sticking with kid’s books; why
couldn’t we use books for adults? I mean, we were all adults, it was not a class of
children. It seemed deliberately infantilizing. And then we went into the garden, and
everyone was given a plate and a paper napkin, a knife, fork and spoon, and a trowel, and
we were all supposed to walk around the garden and ask the ground for permission to dig
up a trowel-full of soil, which we put on the plate. If we found pieces of ground that said
“No,” we were supposed to keep looking till we found a piece that said “Yes.” Then we
sat down and used the knife and fork to poke through the soil: this was a way of
dramatizing the fact that it’s the soil that produces food—the elements in the soil right
there on the plate were going to be turning into the tomato which would turn up in the
FM. This seems to be an image which is quite clear in Pennterra, this whole business of
requesting something to become food. Is this where you got it from?
JM. No, it’s definitely not where I got it! That experience, while useful to people who
had never considered where food came from, I found embarrassing: it made me
uncomfortable to have to go through these exercises, and everyone else in the group
appeared to be really into it and to go along with the spirit of it. Then we stood around in
a circle and held hands, and we were supposed to feel the earth coming up through our
feet, the power, the force. And up to a point all this was exactly on target, what I was
looking for, but then the leader told us what the force was that we were feeling: it was
Love. And given that the whole reason I’d come to Pendle Hill was that I was concerned
about the dual nature of life on earth—the fact that so much beauty and goodness was
balanced by so much evil and suffering—this was just not helpful. To be told that the
force coming up was Love was only half the story, and I thought, this isn’t working out.
FM. Because that is the dualism that appears in all three of your novels: in return for one
you have got to accept the other.
JM. Exactly. Pennterra is a thought experiment, an attempt to construct a better way, to
go one better than God. I was trying to figure out how life could exist on a planet, how
things could be food for one another, without involving fear and pain. The way the
ecosystem works on Earth and on Pennterra, everything is a meal for something else.
Except for the few animals at the top of the food chain, every other form of life gets
eaten. But on Pennterra they had this other system: competition for resources was not the
way it worked. Animals would reproduce themselves and then it was their time to offer
themselves as food to something else; that was the appropriate end of their lives. And
they did this without fear and without experiencing pain.
FM. That’s interesting: the Hrossa have no predators?
JM. The Hrossa are at the top of the food chain; but there are no “predators” on
FM. To go back to the image of Quakers. There’s one question that Edward James
brought up (and he’s also not a Friend) and that is: How far is Pennterra a re-creation of
William Penn’s dealing with the Native Americans?
JM. A very close one, and it was set up to be so. I’ve got files in my file cabinet now
crammed with stuff about the Delawares, who were the Indians Penn encountered when
he came here. By fifty years into the life of Pennsylvania we had three populations: the
Quakers, the Delaware Indians and the non-Quaker European settlers, most of whom
went to the western part of the state. But the same tensions and the same potential
conflict of values were represented historically here, as those I set up on Pennterra. Now,
a great deal of what happens in this novel was not planned. I didn’t deliberately set out to
do everything that happens here, by any means, but I did deliberately set that up. That
three-way conflict was planned from the start.
The historical parallel is specifically brought out in a conversation that George and
Danny have on a trip that they take together to visit the Hross village. Danny is asking
George: “What happened with William Penn?” and he learns about how Penn’s sons did
not carry on in their father’s style, and the legislature which had been dominated by
Quakers got into difficulties because non-Quakers were settling in western Pennsylvania
and they were having skirmishes with the Indians and appealed to the legislature for help.
The Quakers couldn’t resolve this [nonviolently] and had to step down. And what Danny
wants to know is, when William Penn began all this, did he know what might happen, did
he think about it; and George says: “No, people never do, they never think about the
consequences of what they’re doing.”
FM. How did you pick the name “Hrossa”?
JM. That was what C. S. Lewis called his Martian animal, which the Hrossa vaguely
resemble. They too were amphibious, for instance. And I thought that C. S. Lewis would
be someone that a Quaker colonist would be familiar with. I remember going for a walk, I
was living in England at the time I wrote the first part, in Cambridge. I walked from the
city to Grantchester, along the path by the River Cam, just thinking and thinking “What
are these aliens going to look like?” And by the time I came back from the walk I had it
worked out. They turned out to resemble Lewis’ Hrossa—enough so that it was a
FM. Something that concerns me (and my work is on science fiction and conflict
resolution), is that to me, the ending is not Quakerly. But this is something that only I
seem to have felt. You say you want to remove fear, and you wanted presumably to set
up something without punishment, and presumably in the Quakerly context, but in the
end the resolution is brought about by punishment. Now admittedly human beings didn’t
do it, and there was no physical violence as such, but there is certainly room to argue that
in the end the planet is extremely violent.
JM. That’s true. Pennterra’s not a Quaker novel; it’s a novel in which Quakers are
characters, and in which Quakers’ values are tested and dramatized. It’s not written from
the Quaker point of view; in other words it’s not (and I don’t mean this pejoratively
either) a piece of Quaker propaganda.
FM. You mean “it’s not a piece of pleading on behalf of the Society of Friends,” as
Edward put it?
JM. That’s very well put: no, it’s not. I think the Quakers are very attractive and likeable
characters in the book, but ultimately they are helpless. The planet where they have come
as uninvited guests is in charge of the way things work.
FM. But isn’t it maybe more important that in the end they are helpless against the
Sixers, the newly arrived non-Quaker colonists?
JM. Well, they’re helpless against the Sixers, but they are working with the grain of the
planet, and the Sixers have set themselves up to conquer the planet, so in a way if you
step back far enough it looks as if the Quakers and the planet are on one side and the
Sixers on the other.
FM. So there is that need for distance and process. I mean, Quakers traditionally work in
long-term solutions, not short-term ones.
JM. Well, the Quakers didn’t try to make the Sixers do anything. They were lucky the
Sixers decided not to try and make them do anything. I suppose the Sixers thought, It’s a
big planet, we can go clear over here and do our thing. If they had tried to settle side by
side, I am sure there would have been direct conflict which would have put the Quakers
under a great deal of pressure. But this is not an instance of conflict resolution using
FM. To move onto one of the means used by aliens to control humans: the imposition of
sterility. You use it twice, in both Pennterra and The Ragged World. Is there a reason for
JM. This is an example of the unconscious at work, although I certainly do think that
overpopulation is the number one problem facing the world, and I see no easy solutions.
In fact, I see no solution at all. Each of my fictional solutions has required extraterrestrial
assistance. In Pennterra the whole planet limits its population automatically; it’s the way
that the ecosystem operates. Populations are limited in size and therefore don’t
overwhelm the environment. In The Ragged World and TimeStream I didn’t consciously
remember that this theme had been so central in Pennterra. I didn’t consciously pick up
the same axe and start grinding it. But the question of how do you keep people from
having more children than is good for the world is on my mind all the time.
FM. The other major issue I want to discuss is this whole area of sexuality. I got talking
to one person here, and one thing she said was, “Oh yes, there’s a lot of sex in that.” This
person was actually a nun, who was quite shocked that we had lent it to a young priest
who was here last term. There is a lot of sex in Pennterra. There’s not so much in The
Ragged World, though we do have the short-story “Tiny Tango” included within it,
which explores sexuality both in abeyance and practice and what that means to people.
TimeStream touches on issues of celibacy, homosexuality, transsexualism. This issue of
multifarious manifestations of sexuality seems quite important to you: Do you see that as
part of readjusting to a more balanced ecology?
JM. I’m not sure what I was up to. I certainly set out when I was writing Pennterra to do
two things: to construct a world where natural selection was not the evolutionary
mechanism, and to run a thought-experiment about human sexuality. What are the limits?
What is there about human sexuality which helps define what being human is? That
second thought experiment I planned less. It took off by itself, but once it had taken off I
steered it, so that the question would have some kind of answer.
FM. You allow sex for pleasure, and not just for reproduction.
JM. That’s what the Hrossa do: sex for pleasure overwhelmingly more than sex for
reproduction. Very little of the energy spent on pleasurable sex actually bears fruit, or is
productive. The humans raise this point with the Hrossa, and the Hrossa reply that it
depends on how you define “productive,” because the community bonding in their
society is a very fruitful thing, and it comes from the copulating. I don’t think I’m
recommending deviant sex as a solution to overpopulation.
FM. What are you defining as “deviant”?
JM. Anything other than ordinary heterosexual sex.
FM. Are you using deviant in a pejorative sense?
JM. Oh no. My sympathetic characters all turn out to be outside the normal heterosexual
framework. I was using “deviant” as a sort of technical, biological term. Deviance is
good in these books. The characters are none of them mainstream. By the end of
Pennterra Danny has turned into something that isn’t really human: he’s been adopted by
the planet, he’s got a foot in both cultures, and physically he’s been altered so that he is a
Quaker Hross. He is accused of this, and finally accepts that he is. This has disturbed a
number of people, because they want Danny to be fully human and, I guess, easier for
them to sympathize with.
FM. Now that’s an issue you deal with in the short story “Surviving,” because the main
character, Janet, clearly has an agenda for the other main character, Sally, but what is
clear at the end is that Sally may choose a different agenda altogether. I got caught up
with the story: Sally is a human child who has been brought up by chimpanzees, and
Janet is hoping to make Sally fully human; at the end you switch it right around, and we
are almost cheering Sally’s decision to opt out, and at the same time still seeing it through
JM. Janet has moved closer to Sally, ultimately, and managed to go on with her life.
FM. Yet still she talks at the end about how she could have [made Sally human]: it’s
almost as if she doesn’t see that Sally is probably still alive. She is determined that Sally
is dead, and that she didn’t have enough time to succeed.
JM. I’m not sure whether I think Sally is dead or alive. I just don’t know. In my first
draft I wrote that she was dead. This was all from Janet’s point of view, so it doesn’t
prove anything one way or the other, but in my mind I was thinking of Sally as not being
a presence in the world any longer. “Surviving” was my first piece of science fiction, and
I wrote it in a kind of trance, in a three-week period, without knowing where it was
going. So whatever I thought at the outset was irrelevant really. What’s relevant is, where
did the story go? My agent [Virginia Kidd] said, please don’t say certainly dead, say
pretty certainly dead, don’t make it absolute, leave it ambiguous. And I saw instantly that
she was right.
FM. How far do you think that ambiguity is actually at the heart of your science fiction? I
feel the same ambiguity at the end of TimeStream as at the end of “Surviving,” maybe
slightly less in Pennterra, although there is still ambiguity about whether the Sixers
would ever regain their fertility.
JM. Yes, a lot of threads are left loose at the end of that book. I wonder if I was setting
myself up to write a sequel.
FM. It would be nice...
JM. I don’t rule it out. I didn’t mean to do that, I meant that book to be self-contained
completely, but I found myself at the end unwilling to tie off certain knots. For instance,
as you say, would the Sixers regain their fertility? What about Danny and Katy’s baby?
What a strange situation for that child to find himself in when he gets born! What about
the other children as they go through puberty? What choices will they make, what
choices will they discover? The very last thing that George says is something like “I think
things are set up now so that they can go on working well, except that I know human
nature, and people will always be trying to have the upper hand of nature.”
FM. Which takes us back again to The Ragged World, where people are very much
trying to have the upper hand over nature. Where does the inspiration for that novel come
JM. I don’t know if I can tell you where the “inspiration,” quote unquote, derives from.
FM. May I ask you a very simple question? Is the name of the alien race “Hefn” a pun
JM. I’ll tell you where “Hefn” comes from. The name was originally “Dafn.” When it
first came to mind it came in the form of a picture, and the line “Tim came in with the
Dafn.” The boy’s name was originally Tim, after a little boy I once knew, who is the
model for Liam in the novel. Tim said that he would prefer to keep it our secret that he
was the model, and would I change the name—I’d written to him to ask.
FM. Would you like me to cut this out?
JM. Oh, no no. It’s all right, I haven’t given his last name!... But then I discovered that
there were two races of aliens, symbiotic, and that the other race was called the Gafr, and
I thought Dafn and Gafr sounded too much alike, so I changed the consonant and vowel.
And it turned out that the step away from the same-sound relationship took us closer to
“Heaven.” An absolutely horrible pun—I hope no one thought I was trying to be clever!
FM. Where do you see your career going now? What do you want to write next?
JM. Volume 3! It’s to be called Holy Ground, and it’s the third volume, after The Ragged
World and TimeStream, of what turns out to be a trilogy. [In the event, Vol. III was called
The Bird Shaman; “Holy Ground” refers to the trilogy as a whole.] I hope desperately
that I can wrap the story up in the third book, because I would really like not to spend the
rest of my life with these very same characters in the same world construct.
FM. Where do you see Pam going? She’s the one who intrigues me. I feel that she has
her partner character in someone in “Tiny Tango.”
JM. Nancy Sandford, right.
FM. I felt that there were a lot of parallels between the two of them, in the ambiguities in
their sexuality, but I am curious as to what you see for Pam.
JM. I don’t know. I think I’m probably going to be as surprised as anyone, as I work my
way through the third volume. I didn’t plan the fates of any of these characters. They
evolved out of the stories as they unfolded.
FM. As you continue writing, which we all hope you will, do you think you will stay
with ecology as a major theme, or are there other themes you want to explore?
JM. Well, certainly I will stay with ecology as a major theme for one more book. It’s the
consequences of the Hefn invasion, the sterilization of humanity, that’s got to be
reversed, if the species isn’t going to die. But beyond that, who knows?
FM. Do you believe that your readers learn from what you write?
JM. I devoutly hope they do. I very much mean to be mounting a soapbox when I write
these books. I hope to sugarcoat the pill through narrative, to make people keep turning
the pages because they want to know how the story comes out, and I am hoping that a
whole set of values is getting through whatever defenses readers may have.
FM. Science fiction is often accused of being escapist, but do you feel that science fiction
maybe makes a better medium for dealing with the big issues than so-called realistic
JM. Realistic fiction these days doesn’t even attempt to deal with the big issues. Realistic
fiction, mainstream fiction that you buy from the Book of the Month Club, is almost
always a story of an unhappily married couple living in an apartment in New York City,
in therapy, with a child who is having difficulty with school, a private school. One of
them has an affair and they struggle with marriage counseling, and that’s what it’s about.
These are “big issues” for the people involved, but if you really want to address a major
global problem and affect people’s opinions, break through their prejudices and defenses
and make them identify with people who are in tough situations unlike their own—if you
want to do all that, as I said earlier, you can’t do it in mainstream fiction now. It’s not
tolerated; sophisticated people won’t read it. They don’t want to be preached at. Science
fiction readers are more tolerant if you’ll entertain them at the same time as preaching to
FM. And I think that is a good note on which to stop. Thank you very much!
JM. Thank you.