HILLARY ORBITS VENUS!
Imagine this. In a parallel universe, Donald Trump never declared his candidacy for president. Nor did Hillary Clinton. Instead, she became an astronaut. That’s the alternate reality of Pamela Sargent’s short story “Hillary Orbits Venus,” which appeared in the science fiction magazine Amazing Stories back when HRC was running for Senator. Yes, that’s the lady herself soaring through outer space in an astronaut suit and bubble helmet.
At 15, Hillary Rodham sent a letter to NASA asking how to prepare for a career as an astronaut. NASA told her not to bother because the profession was not open to women. The real life Hillary Rodham moved on, but Sargent’s Hillary takes this rejection as an invitation to smash her first glass ceiling. After giving a blazing graduation address at Wellesley, she goes to Caltech, studies biochemistry, and eventually becomes part of the first generation of NASA women in space, making history as a member of the first crew — all kick-ass female scientists — to orbit the fiery planet Venus.
While the scientists drift in deep space, monitoring probes of Venusian volcanoes and noting the planet’s PMSy rotation, Hillary thinks about her now-dead husband, the charismatic, womanizing . . . Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. Hillary always put Feynman’s brilliance ahead of her own, gave his career precedence, tolerated his dalliances, and did the heavy lifting when it came to “practical matters” like raising their daughter Chelsea. The reason? She loved and admired him. Go figure. Yet Hillary does achieve her dream of a career in space, and she remains as focused on humanitarian efforts as she was as a teenager inspired by the civil rights movement. She swoons at the idea that Venus might be “terraformed” by “engineering algae to seed the sulfuric clouds, finding a way to shield Venus from the sun so that it could cool” and become “a future home for humankind.”
Now, with 40 days to the American presidential election — and with Elon Musk touting his plans for “making humans an interplanetary species” — the mission to Venus seems less astounding than the rise of Trump, an unqualified, unsuitable, and dangerous candidate. What’s more, “Hillary Orbits Venus,” for all its wackiness, now seems like a more subtle, fair, and realistic treatment of HRC than many outlandish versions of her that appear in the American press and online.
The speculative fiction reminds us that HRC has long been subject to speculation, projection, and fantasy: far more so than her male colleagues. She is sui generis, which leaves many people in a quandary about who — or what — she is, so we fall back stereotypes: superwoman, dominatrix, Lady Macbeth, Amazon, cyborg. Her ambition seems astonishing at best and malevolent at worst. Some claim that she is driven more by political calculation than conviction, more by personal greed and lust for power than the high ideals she espouses. Those who can’t wrap their heads around HRC weave paranoid and conspiratorial theories around her.
One inane but telling hypothesis about HRC is that she is awkward and aloof, not “a natural” like her husband, and that she’s “robotic” or “inhuman.” HRC addressed these objections, dipping into science fiction when she joked to buzzfeed that she was “constructed in a garage in Palo Alto.” The quip came a little too close to a barely-under-the-surface anxiety about HRC: the fear of a fembot programmed to destroy American values (and the Second Amendment) with the shrill cry of “I didn’t stay home and bake cookies.”
Science fiction has long been the domain of fantastic female creatures, whether alien, human, machine, or some hybrid. At their most sophisticated, these speculative fictions can unsettle norms of gender and sex, making us reflect upon what we take for granted. In “Hillary Orbits Venus,” the astronautrix has seemingly superhuman drive; at the same time, she grapples with the real paradoxes and trade-offs facing any woman who aspires to power in America today. Rather than seeing such a combination of experiences and resourcefulness as an advantage, however, some Americans seem to view it as another reason to be suspicious of HRC, as if all her knowledge and proficiency amounts to what Trump terms “bad experience.”
The idea that HRC lacks humanity, despite her long track record as an advocate of human rights, while Trump is embraced as “a character” — because he played one on reality tv game show? — is preposterous. So are the complaints that HRC is “inauthentic” while Trump is thought to be “telling it like it is,” with his Tourette-like outbursts whenever he strays from the teleprompter. There are legitimate questions about HRC’s policies, history, and conduct. Let’s ask them. But know that years from now, the election of 2016 is going to be remembered as a time when reality itself was under siege and America looked, to the rest of the world, like a fantastic fiction.