WRITERS DANCE INTO OUTER SPACE:
Zero-gravity fans Spider and Jeanne Robinson craft weightless prose
By Shannon Rupp
(appeared on p. 35 of the August 4-11 1995 edition
of THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, Vancouver BC)
Disillusioned romantics, bitter, divorced people, and all those generally soured on life would do well to spend time with writers Spider and Jeanne Robinson. Or, in lieu of that, read their recently released STARMIND, the last book in the Stardance trilogy.
The Robinsons' novels are a wonderful antidote to cynicism and despair, which will come as little surprise to anyone familiar with Spider's clever science-fiction works or Jeanne's inspirational choreography.
With his shoulder-length hair, wire-framed glasses, and headband, Spider--yes, that is the name on his driver's licence--looks like the leftover hippie he claims to be. And at six-foot-one and 128 pounds, he leaves no doubt as to how he got his moniker. But his frail looks are as much an antithesis to his sharp, strong writing as his wry comments are to his optimistic novels. His funny, upbeat books, particularly the clever Callahan's Bar series, could be described as Prozac-on-the-page. During the course of our interview in the Robinsons' cosy West Side house, a friend with the blues calls to get the latest instalment of Spider's book in progress, CALLAHAN'S LEGACY [OUT IN HARDCOVER OCT 1996--SR]. Jeanne says a number of people have said that the Callahan books are a good cure for depression--which goes a long way toward explaining why Spider's bookcase holds three Hugo awards (which are judged by readers worldwide), as well as a Nebula (science fiction's answer to the Oscars), and a collection of other kudos.
The Robinsons' joint efforts, STARDANCE, STARSEED, and STARMIND, tell a hopeful story of how humans, beginning as dancers working in the zero gravity of space, evolve into creatures that live permanently among the stars. Along the way, the books talk about philosophy, love, art, and the big issues of life. And they are permeated with a sense of tolerance, compassion, and joyfulness.
But dance is at the heart of these books. The writing explores Jeanne's lifelong love of the art and, in some of the books, her sorrow at retirement. She spent most of her early life as a dancer and choreographer, beginning as a child at the Boston Ballet School and later studying music and dance at the Boston Conservatory. She and her sister, American conductor Kathy Rubbicco, were a singing, dancing, piano-playing kiddie act when they were five and seven, respectively. Jeanne also trained at many of the major modern-dance schools, including those of Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham, Alwin Nikolais, Murray Louis, and the Toronto Dance Theatre. She directed her own company, Nova Dance Theatre, in Nova Scotia from 1980 to 1987. Although she retired from dancing at 37, she continued leading the company until funding dried up two years later. (But, like most dancers, she's tenacious, and she managed to immortalize her company's name in the books, making Nova the stardancers' company.)
The Robinsons never intended their dance/SF synthesis to become one of the genre's landmark works--Spider began STARDANCE because he needed to make a quick buck. Shortly after their only child, Terri, was born (she's now 20), the couple decided to make a pilgrimage home to show her off to Spider's family in New York and Jeanne's in Boston--where they ran out of money. Marooned in Massachusetts, Spider had to work quickly.
"When you're in a hurry, you should always write what you know--it saves research time. I knew a dancer, so I began a story about a dancer for Analog magazine," Spider recalls. He warned Jeanne that he might need her as a technical consultant. "But as I started writing I was aware of this presence over my right shoulder. Now I never let anyone see work that isn't finished--I'm too superstitious. But she was quiet, at first, so I didn't say anything."
And she was helpful. Like any good consultant, she pointed out that a dancer would refer to one of the moves he was describing as a jump, not a leap, and she clarified some differences between ballet and modern dance for him. And then she crossed the line.
"She pointed out that Shara Drummond [the protagonist] wouldn't do something, because she wasn't that kind of a person," he says. He argued with her, until he realized her unerring character judgements were as applicable to fictional people as to real ones, decided compromise was wise, and invited her to pull up a chair.
Even if Jeanne hadn't been formally involved in the book, her presence would have been there. Spider's inspiration for Shara, a brilliantly talented dancer whose career is limited by her statuesque body, came from Jeanne. Today, at 47, she might be described as zaftig, but as a dancer she starved herself and took "black beauties"--speed--to keep her body fashionably lean.
As far as Spider is concerned, that brand of body fascism just robs the world of talent. "Besides, she represents the human ideal of beauty for centuries; it's only in the last 50 years that has changed," he says, gazing at his wife affectionately.
Despite the obvious harmony of their relationship, it's hard to believe these two could collaborate on anything--on the surface they seem to be polar opposites. Jeanne's high energy fills the room: she's warm and animated as she jumps from topic to topic, sprinkling her anecdotes with asides. Spider's cool: he has a keen sense of irony and a cynical wit. But if you ask them, they're not opposites, they're perfect complements--a yin/yang of a team.
Spider is a night writer, one of those creative eccentrics who do their best work between midnight and 6 a.m. Jeanne keeps more conventional hours. So they compromise by working side by side from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.; then Spider continues drafting their ideas. Jeanne edits in the morning, and Spider goes over it again when he gets up in the afternoon.
"We couldn't tell you exactly who wrote what," Jeanne says, explaining how seamlessly they work together. The one exception is the prologue to STARSEED, which Jeanne wrote alone while sitting in the Commodore at a Johnny Winter concert. It tells the story of an injured dancer who feels her life is over until she gets a second chance through dancing in zero gravity, a perfect medium for prematurely aged knees, backs, and feet. "Spider just wanted to get on with the plot, but I kept saying 'No, people have to understand who she is to understand her choices,'" she says. He adds: "It's my favourite part of the book."
Their harmony might be due to luck--or, more romantically, fate--but Spider believes it has to do with them both being artists. And, more importantly, artists who create in different forms. "Artists should never marry civilians, and they should never marry anyone working in the same medium. Other than that, everything can be reached with compromise." Spoken like a man who celebrates his 20th wedding anniversary this month.
As he talks, the 47-year-old Spider chain-smokes, flicking his ashes into a smokeless ashtray that hums softly in the background--another compromise, since Jeanne is a nonsmoker.
In book form, STARDANCE sold more than a quarter of a million copies in eight languages and scooped a Nebula and a Locus award (from the trade magazine of the same name). It garnered acclaim from some unlikely sources, including Deborah Jowitt, dance critic for the Village Voice, who described it as one of the best dance novels she'd ever read.
Jeanne experimented with the idea of zero-gravity dance and produced a solo, Higher Ground, that included film simulations of dance without gravity. After performing it at the 1980 World Science Fiction Convention in Boston, she was invited by NASA to try the real thing, and she joined the shortlist of candidates for the Civilians in Space program. That dream ended with the Challenger disaster, and with it went Jeanne's hope of extending her dance career.
The final two-thirds of the trilogy didn't emerge until 1987, shortly after the Robinsons arrived in Vancouver. Without a company to run, Jeanne had become more diligent in her Zen studies, which she began informally at 22, but she was looking for a new focus. "Then Spider said, 'Maybe we should have another baby.' We were pushing 40. I suggested that maybe we should answer some of those questions we'd left unanswered in STARDANCE," Jeanne says. And so STARSEED was born.
Jeanne still dabbles in dance; she created a trio piece, Zenki-zu, for the 1992 Women in View Festival. But these days she's more likely to be found sitting zazen (meditating), and her spirituality played a large part in shaping the Stardance books. (Her dharma name, Buchi Eihei, means "Dancing Wisdom, Eternal Peace", and she's been ordained as the Soto Zen Buddhist version of a lay minister.)
Together, the Robinsons show us a world (in 2064) in which megacorporations are run by billionaires, eastern cultures have altered how westerners see the world, and the earth has been all but destroyed. So far, it sounds much like the dismal future many writers predict. But unlike his more fatalistic colleagues, Spider sees the world as a kind of womb giving birth to a new stage of life.
As he speculates on whether humans are really meant to live on earth, Spider begins assembling arguments to support his theory. "Why do we have a 26-and-a-half-hour cycle when we live in a world with a 24-hour day? In zero G people get dizzy at first, but then their ear canals fill up and their sense of balance shuts down. If our bodies weren't designed to live without gravity, why does that happen?"
A critic friend suggested this view is a touch naive--corny, even--but there's something seductive about the brand of hope the Robinsons are peddling. In their vision of the world, marriages can work, people can change, and environmental degradation isn't an end, it's a beginning. It may sound corny, but at $28.50 in hardcover, it seems like a swell alternative to antidepressants.