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The Man Who Came to Dinner 

Science-fiction writers

Wednesday, Nov 10 1999
Get a load of this: Early last Saturday evening, while flipping back and forth between a thrilling PBS documentary on the life of the American cow and a rerun marathon of MTV's Road Rules, I picked up my phone to find myself the recipient of what at first seemed your garden variety wrong number. A little 20 Questions later, I discovered the voice on the other end of the line belonged to none other than famous Pacific Heights resident Winona Ryder, who, it seemed, was actually trying to reach a Vietnamese takeout joint in the Tenderloin.

Well, one thing leads to another thing, and a few minutes later I'm The Man Who Came to Dinner on my way to Winona's place with a front seat full of tom gai. Two honks on the horn, and Winona's steering us up 101 toward Petaluma to show me exactly where she first discovered her flair for the dramatic, while I coyly hand-feed her a full order of vegetarian rice noodles. Suddenly a giant spaceship comes out of the sky and swallows us up like a deep-fried imperial roll.

The end.

Hey, they say truth is stranger than fiction -- not science fiction.

On that note, I recently enjoyed a wonderful dinner with not one, not two, but three bona fide, award-winning science-fiction writers -- all three of them women, to boot. Pat Murphy, author of The Falling Woman and Nadya, invited me to her Bernal Heights home to dine with her and two of her fellow sci-fi friends. Together the three women are powering through the Bay Area this week in a string of appearances under the shamelessly self-promotional title "The Brazen Hussies." In addition to Pat, the Hussies include Lisa Goldstein (winner of the American Book Award for The Red Magician) and Michaela Roessner (Walkabout Woman and Vanishing Point).

While we all settled into the kitchen to start the red wine and finish the cooking, Pat's husband Dave headed out back to get some lamb going on the grill. As a classically trained chef and fellow food-related writer, Michaela had been charged with the bulk of the meal preparation (the back sections of her novels, including her newest, The Stars Compel, even give recipes for dishes mentioned in the books). Meanwhile, Pat removed a large loaf of pepper cracked wheat from the bread machine and we all took our places around the table.

To start things off, Michaela set out several trays of appetizers. "It's the traditional Italian thing of having fresh vegetables," she explained, "usually served with pure virgin olive oil, but in this case we blended it with fresh garlic from my garden and chives."

The blend tasted equally good soaked into several hunks of the still-warm bread. The women began to talk about their new releases, and my nose wandered to the stove behind them; as Pat was explaining her latest novel, a "space opera" titled There and Back Again, I had no trouble imagining myself as Bailey, the story's protagonist, who's described as "a norbit ... with a girth that suggested he was rather fond of meals."

I don't know what the hell a norbit is, but otherwise, yeah, that sounded like me.

Dave popped his head back into the kitchen to ask how we each wanted the lamb chops cooked. "Bleeding," said Michaela.

"Bleating," I said.

Each of the authors described the roads that had led her to a career in science fiction. Pat, a biology major in college, still spends some of her time working for the Exploratorium, as director of publications.

"I used to proofread signs for Safeway," announced Lisa, reciting a long list of former odd jobs. "You know, the signs in the window that say, 'Broccoli, three for a pound.' There's two C's and one L in 'broccoli.' Now I walk into Safeway and I go, 'Boy, that's wrong.'"

Dave returned with a platter of medium-rare lamb and Michaela, who also has advanced degrees in ceramics and painting, headed over to practice some of her culinary arts. On each plate of Grecian marinated lamb chops she served up a delicious helping of risotto laced with white wine, olive oil, and three kinds of mushrooms: shiitake, portobello, and chanterelle. Each of us was also treated to a whole stuffed artichoke. "But instead of using a traditional Italian bread crumb stuffing," Michaela explained, "I took half-and-half, reduced it to a nice, creamy texture, and added saffron, crushed garlic, and chopped pancetta. Then I baked it and served more sauce on the side."

Serious cooking.

We also enjoyed a fantastic salad of red mustard greens, arugula, butterleaf lettuce, "fancy-shmancy French green beans," and tomatoes -- all grown in Michaela's garden and brought with her from her home in the southern Sierras, about 2 1/2 hours outside of L.A.

As we ate, the women discussed their efforts to excel within the science-fiction field, while at the same time trying to break out of the genre. Like most commercial artists, all three authors are somewhat frustrated by the need to categorize their work in the name of publishing's marketing machines. "I once took a poll of my friends," recalled Pat, "asking, 'Which would you rather be seen reading on Muni: a book with a rocket ship exploding on the cover? Or pornography? 'Boy, that's a hard one,' they'd reply.

"I used to lecture students about 'What Is Science Fiction?' I would read excerpts from books and say, 'Raise your hand when you know it's science fiction.' So I'd read something with rocket ships and ray guns and they'd raise their hands, because something that's not possible with our technology was happening. Then I would read the first line of Kafka's Metamorphosis. 'As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a giant insect.' And they didn't know what to do. 'Well, it's not science fiction because we read it in literature. But science fiction is when something weird and inexplicable happens. So how do we deal with this?'"

"The three of us have actually been labeled as 'literary writers' within the field," explained Michaela.

"It's like you're being damned," Pat added. "Within science fiction, people will say, 'I'm not going to read you because you're too literary.' Meanwhile, outside of science fiction they're saying, 'We're not going to read you because you're science fiction.'"

"One time," remembered Lisa, "another writer, at a convention, actually said to me, 'I don't read that literary crap.'"

Lisa's description of her latest book, Dark Cities Underground, sounds particularly interesting. It's a contemporary fantasy about subway systems and their connections to children's books, Egyptian gods, and Victorian grave robbers. "I kind of got the idea for it when I was on BART," she explained. "The guy on the speaker said, 'Your final destination is Colma.' And I thought, 'Well, yeah. I know that. But I don't want to be reminded of it.'"

For dessert Michaela capped off our meal with an unbelievable homemade ricotta tart. It's a traditional northern Italian dessert, she explained. "But I California-nated it by spreading lemon curd on top."

Oh, my God.

"I know," said Michaela. "I've gained, I don't know how much weight since I started this series. I gained 15 pounds writing this book alone. I used to be a very slender woman." (She still is.) "My next book is going to have to be about an anorexic."

Ignoring that comment, I passed on the cup of tea in favor of an extra slice of the amazing ricotta tart.

All in all, our evening definitively proved that the truth ... is way better tasting than fiction.

Want to host The Man Who Came to Dinner? E-mail and tell us what's cookin'.

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Barry Levine


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