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LeGuin, Murphy blaze interdisciplinary science-fiction trail

STANFORD -- The two award-winning authors were on their best behavior, looking guilelessly into the photographer's lens and striking a dignified pose.

But then their hands, which had been gracefully joined, parted company and began to creep slyly upward. At about the same moment, two- fingered bunny ears appeared over both heads, and the renowned science-fiction authors dissolved in earthly giggles.

Ursula LeGuin and Pat Murphy clearly are long-time accomplices, though neither can remember precisely when they first met. They've taught together at the Clarion science-fiction writers' workshop in Seattle, and they even teamed up for a memorable performance of "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" at a recent professional convention. But both authors say that teaching together at Stanford this spring quarter has been their most enjoyable collaboration to date.

"If we do the course again, the only change we'd make would be to call it 'Speculative Fiction Writing' instead of 'Science Fiction Writing,"' says LeGuin. "That way students won't be tempted to think, 'Oh, oh, I don't know anything about spaceships.' "

A few spaceships did turn up in the stories that the 16 engineering, economics, mathematics, computer science, history and English majors wrote for the class, but LeGuin says there also were "completely realistic stories about campus life" and one tale about "a wonderful fairy lady who seduced an Iowa farmer."

That range of topics clearly had great appeal to the writer whom literary critics have found difficult to categorize. A multiple recipient of all the big prizes in science fiction writing -- the Nebula, Hugo and Jupiter awards -- LeGuin also has received a Newbery Silver Medal and two National Book Awards for Children's Literature. Her fiction has been characterized as realism, magical realism and fantasy, and her best known works, including the Earthsea trilogy and the novels The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, can be found on reading lists for sociology, political science and philosophy courses at Stanford.

Murphy, who says she was "smitten" with LeGuin's stories long before her own work was published in the early 1970s, has stood on her share of award podiums, as well. A double Nebula Award winner for the novels The Falling Woman and Rachel in Love, Murphy teaches science-fiction writing at the University of California-Santa Cruz and also is director of publications at the Exploratorium in San Francisco.

The two writers were brought to campus by James Gibbons, dean of engineering, who was looking for a way to encourage students in his school to express themselves more creatively.

"When engineering and science students think about writing, it's usually report writing," says Gibbons. "By getting them to write about topics that might engage their knowledge of engineering and science, I hoped that they would be released from that constraint and that they would learn to write with more fluidity and more understanding of creative style.

"And who knows -- eventually they might even end up writing better reports."

Murphy says the suggested course clicked with both writers.

"There have always been 'physics for poets' courses at colleges, designed for non-science majors who need to get their science requirement, but there aren't many classes that go the other way," she says. "Ursula and I both really liked the idea of teaching a mix of students who didn't come from the same disciplines.

"So often, when you're teaching English majors, they've all read the same things and know what they ought to think," she adds. "But the mix we got made the class much livelier."

Sixteen students were selected from the 40 who submitted writing samples, and guidelines for the course were laid down at the first class session: Students would write 350 words daily and turn in two short stories by the end of the quarter. They also would be expected to read and critique each other's work.

"The one important rule was that the students whose stories were being criticized each week could not say a word," LeGuin notes. "They tended to get a little dazed and bruised in the process, but having them sit there silently and take notes was the only way to ensure that they were really listening. It can be difficult, but it works."

Another class rule was, "You critique the story, not the author," says Murphy.

"If someone writes a 'sword and sorcery' story, and you hate 'sword and sorcery' stories, you can still critique the piece in terms of the structure and the narrative," she adds. "But a fair critique is not, 'I hate space operas.' "

LeGuin, who began her writing career as a poet, says she was drawn to science fiction for the imaginative possibilities and the powerful emotional undercurrents she found in the genre. She teaches college courses and weekend workshops as often as she can to share those possibilities with today's aspiring young writers.

"It's the easiest thing in the world to make students into snobs, and very hard to stop being a snob," she says of her own undergraduate days at Radcliffe. "But the students we had here at Stanford came into the course fairly open-minded.

"They were very well educated, of course, but a lot of them hadn't read a whole lot of fiction because they're in the sciences and haven't had time to. But this is something they need."

In contrast to the students' receptivity, LeGuin says she finds many professors "appallingly ignorant" of her field.

"It's a general misapprehension of most English departments that there is only one form of narrative fiction, and that it is realistic," she says. "This is historically nonsense and it is presently nonsense because post-modern fiction is going every direction in the world.

"But I also realize, coming from an academic family like I do, that there are vested interests at work. To teach science fiction you would have to retrain yourself and learn a kind of fiction you've probably never read."

One engineering major who signed up for the course partly because she had read LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy in middle school says the class gave her a welcome escape from the tunnel vision that can result from studies in a single discipline.

"It really gave me an impetus to go to my computer and write on the weekends instead of dreaming the time away," says Lowrey Brown, a co-term major in civil engineering and general engineering.

In the kind of writing she does for her engineering classes, Brown says she has to convey ideas about specific functions, whereas creative writing gives her a chance to develop ideas and characters.

"The class taught me how to use the lingo better," Brown says. "When you think about it, 'Star Trek' really is about people and how they interact, and that's basically what we were learning -- to tell stories."

Dean Gibbons says that he is "very pleased" with the results of the "experimental" course, and he looks forward to integrating it into the curriculum on a permanent basis.

"We'd really like to build a good connection between the school of engineering and the English department," he added.


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