MIND MELD: How SFF Influences Your Life
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
Books have been one of the greatest influences on my life. I say this not to downplay the lessons and values taught to be my family and friends, but instead to emphasize the importance of reading in my formative years. A lot of what I believe and how I act is driven by the characters I have encountered and the fictional worlds I have explored. Frequently I remind myself that “Fear is the mind-killer,” a message picked up from Frank Herbert’s Dune years ago – a lesson that has carried me through hard times. There are many more personal examples I could state but I’d rather hear from some of the very writers that inspire me.
We asked this week’s panelists…
Here’s what they said…
The greatest impact it had on me was instilling in me a love of science, questing for information, and a deep love of creative and wild imagination. My life-long walk on the path toward passing those gifts on to others now means I make a living continuing to live all that. So I would say it had quite an impact on my life.
As to if it makes me a better person, I would have no idea. I would hope that my family loved and learned from me whether or not I had SF in my life. In fact, I find a sort of cultish devotion to any mantras learned from just SF to be problematic. I flinch from ideological insistence, and just because I adored a book at an impressionable age… well, I’d hate for that define the rest of my life as a thinking creature.
The lessons involve various snippets of things I’ve picked up over a lifetime that I’ve found useful. I’d hate to highlight a particular phrase out of the stew that makes me a human, as I’ve always loved Bruce Lee’s admonition to “Take what is useful, leave what is not, add something uniquely your own.” I didn’t learn that in SF, but it’s how I’ve approached all text.
But I can’t be the only SF fan who has found himself repeating the Bene Gesserit litany against fear after smacking his hand with a hammer… right?
My lifelong love of fantasy and science fiction have influenced me in countless ways. It’s expanded my concept of what’s possible. (A polymorph of water that can teach other water molecules to crystallize at room temp? A hyperintelligent shade of the color blue?) It’s provided a lens through which dust-dry real-world scenarios not only come alive, but thrill. (Dune’s nuanced portrayal of the Great Houses’ exploitation of Arrakis’ sole natural resource at the expense of the indigenous people who live there — and of the vast CHOAM corporation that lurks behind the curtain, manipulating events to keep melange spice flowing and profits high — taught me more about resource management and the politics of greed that still wrack the Middle East than any textbook ever could.)
But most of all, I think what science fiction and fantasy have taught me is plurality and compassion. I’m a straight, middle-class white kid from the country. Most everyone I knew growing up was similarly straight, white, and middle-class. Had I grown up solely locked into that mind-set, I might’ve been forgiven for thinking the whole world was wired that way. But I didn’t. I grew up in books. Books that put me in the heads of countless other races, other sexes, other species — some inhabiting worlds I intuitively understood, and some whose cultures and environments were so alien as to be at first inscrutable — and made me identify with them as surely as if I were reading about someone just like me. That experience, and the stealth lessons it imparted, have served me well the farther I’ve ventured from the narrow slice of world into which I was born.
And oh yeah, thanks to SFF, I also know if you’re ever playing chess with a Wookiee, do yourself a favor and let him win.
I’m not certain that there’s an aspect of my life that SFF has not influenced. I’ve been reading it so long that I don’t recall a time when I didn’t so it’s hard to imagine who I would be without it. The influence ranges from early lessons from Wrinkle in Time about determination, family, and managing one’s temper through the idea of grokking from Stranger in a Strange Land. I hit that book in high school at exactly the point when I needed to read about having an inner circle of friends who loved you because of your flaws. A recent re-read of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed made me rethink a lot of my concepts about material possessions.
The thing I love most about SF and Fantasy, in fact, is the way it takes the natural world and turns it slightly to the side to allow us to think through questions from another angle. It endlessly fascinates and challenges me.
Sci-fi has had more of affect in creating who I am today that any other one (or maybe multiple) factor. At a very young age science interested me, but sci-fi ruined me for science. Scientists are slow, methodical, and seldom take chances. In sci-fi, horizons are explored, and the exploration itself is the central theme, risk is acceptable. Even in the darker themed works, mankind has taken the risks and gotten the payoffs. Our modern space program was allowed to flounder and effectively die, but not before taking 14 brave souls. But in my books and others works, we moved into space and are exploring the vast expanses of the universe with the fearlessness of human explorers in days gone bye.
Sci-fi and fantasy makes me a better person through the stories it tells, and I tell. Many find more in themselves through self exploration than they ever do in chatrooms and at parties. As a typical introverted novelist, I am no different. Everything I needed to know about women I learned from Robert A. Heinlein. Then I realized it wasn’t the 1950s and learned a little more.
The lessons I carry and those of an optimistic future where mankind does great things and goes to great places. Where there are ancient monsters living just behind the veil. Where you carry a gun and a sword, and need both on a daily And where we’ve touched the stars at long last. It colors my every day.
To be honest, many of the lessons I learned from SFF were pernicious: That intelligence is a kind of virtue. That ugliness was evidence of vice. That certain cultures were “ascientific.” That people who were unkind to me in some specific thing were villains in every aspect of their lives.
If there was a positive lesson, I suppose it would have to be a lesson in courage. For someone who grew up with a backpack full of anxieties, reading about courage helped me face up to my own challenges.
Three distinct approaches have been attempted and shelved.
First, I wrote a long piece about my little brother, Brennan, which didn’t work because I, great writer that I am, couldn’t find a way to link my two though-streams together into anything cohesive. It was too general, also, being an argument for reading as a means to increase one’s compassion but hardly an illustration of how science fiction and fantasy in particular has assisted me in the course of my life. Reading—and eventually writing—in the genre has definitely had a positive effect on me, and I wanted to communicate that. (Plus, it would have looked dumb if I didn’t address even one of the questions Nick’s given me.)
Second, I wrote a brief introduction (twice, actually) on the subject of just why I’m finding this issue so difficult to write about. I suppose it’s not surprising that this method of attack proved unfruitful.
Third, I labored over a longwinded and indeed horrifyingly sentimental account of being accepted, after years of being a SFF enthusiast by my lonesome, into the Community of Geeks. (Of course, if I actually haven’t been accepted into the community and the joke’s on me, please don’t tell me. I’d cry for days and probably gain ten pounds of sadness fat.) It was, in all honesty and with no trace of false modesty, a craptacular piece of writing that reflected more of my communalistic idealism than any practical truth. I’m glad it’s dead.
In fact, I’m pleased that all three of these approaches didn’t work out, because it gives me another series of words to write and ultimately scrap… I mean, make my glorious point!
To put it nakedly for all to see and therefore judge, I think about issues related to sff literature more than anything else in my life, including sex and food and sleep and sitcoms. (Although, to be honest I don’t often remember dreams, so I can’t account for the thinking that occurs during each six- to eight-hour sleep-cycle. I’d be willing to bet, however, that I’m dreaming of electric sheep—haha what a cute joke but not really.) Since the sale of my first novel, it’s only become more of an obsession.
All that cogitation—if an obsessive round of the same thoughts can be labeled so charitably—can’t help but influence a person. It certainly added to my heap of general depression as a young adult, as I foundered on a sea of jealousy and spite directed at all those writers who actually wrote and published things. And then, as I got older and that jealousy and spite turned incredibly sour and gut-rotting and finally flopped over and became self-disgust enough to motivate me, I got around to the act of writing.
I wrote sff, of course; there was never any question of that being that being the case. And, in writing within the genre, I genuinely believe myself to have become a better human being. Beyond the fact that a Zack with a sense of accomplishment is probably more suited to making a contribution to society and, y’know, being a nice person, I discovered just how greatly I’d been influenced away from fear and prejudice by sff authors—and one sff author in particular.
Since the first days of my writing career—that is, since my first serious attempts to write complete stories; let’s say 2008—I’ve tried, with varying levels of success (which I, less than anyone, am fit to judge), to incorporate the anger and compassion of one Alice Sheldon—or, as she is most widely recognized, James Tiptree, Jr.
I list her alone because, of all the sff authors that have ever existed, I feel she most clearly exemplifies courage. She, a gender-conflicted woman writing under a male pseudonym in a largely male-dominated industry, used the tools available to her (and what tools they were!) to systematically destroy the sentimental, the comfortable, the over-burdensomely masculine in sff. She didn’t write to make you feel good. Her stories force you to examine yourself. In the cold alien light of her wor(l)ds, you’re not innocent of anything. You’re a human reading a story constructed for the express purpose of laying its subject—and you, by extension—bare to the bone.
The fact that she wrote SFF is hardly incidental. She created a lexicon of metaphors for issues that, at that point, had not been broached in the SFF community but desperately needed to be. The act of her speculating was the act of her critiquing society.
Now, I don’t write at all like Sheldon. I haven’t the talent, the courage, or the decades of pain. But at my best moments this fact is almost immaterial, because I have her as the high-water mark I’ll never, ever reach. I believe it’s good for people to know—or at least have a very strong suspicion—that they will never be the equal of their heroes, to understand their limitations and still rail against them.
To continue trying to be better than you suspect you can be is the mark of a courageous individual. To never be content with your assumptions about yourself and others is the mark of compassionate human being.
Of course, in my world of relative-to-nearly-everyone-who’s-ever-existed ease, it will be a continual challenge not to become content with my current level of courage and compassion. It will be easy, in other words, to become someone who doesn’t change, who offers no innovations to the generations that come after him.
I am, as I hope I’ve made clear, no Alice Sheldon, who I doubt ever felt comfortable enough as a human being to rest on her laurels. In her own words: “Certainly my inner world will never be a peaceful place of bloom; it will have some peace, and occasional riots of bloom, but always a little fight going on too. There is no way I can be peacefully happy in this society and in this skin. I am committed to Uneasy Street. I like it; it is my idea that this street leads to the future, and that I am being true to a way of life which is not here yet, but is more real than what is here.” (The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, Julie Phillips, 208)
A commitment to Uneasy Street: This is the lesson for me. The best sff literature inspires me to live a life of discontent (but not necessarily unhappiness). It demands that I look forward for solutions. It urges me to recognize the varied injustices of the world as it exists now, to look at myself as an inextricable and largely failing fixture of that imperfect world, and as a result begin to act to make a change for the better.
This does not, I must clarify as my last point, mean that because I speak of the future I am referring to fiction explicitly about the future. I am not proposing, as many have, that sff (the sf more than the f, anyway) need offer more practical solutions to real world problems, or that fantasy is inherently less forward-looking than science fiction. Hinging a story on real science is great, obviously, but I think the act of speculating—again, at its best, discounting works that exist to glorify a tradition and little else—is an act of looking forward.
Positing what does not now exist—or indeed, may never exist—is imagining what the world might be like if this or that factor were changed. It is an intensely purposeful effort, building a world in your mind.
I believe this, wholeheartedly:
The most serious readers and writers of sff are practicing, always, for the moment they are given the opportunity to change the world.
Outside of choosing to write largely in the SF/F genre, I don’t see it as having an overwhelming influence on my life, or providing a guiding set of principles in any way. I love to read it, certainly, but I have an equal love for other forms of literature: mysteries, hidden histories, biographies, comic books, etc. I enjoy writing it, but I also write across several other genres and forms. It’s a love, but not an exclusive love by any means. I don’t credit it with any sort of higher moral ground than any other form of writing. I don’t draw any sort of personal Three Laws from it. SF/F is a form of entertainment, no better or worse than many others. Where it has influenced my thinking is in learning to look for the non-immediate answer, the line of logic that is not immediately apparent. But I could say that equally of The Goon Show, or abstract art, or the beat poets, all of whom I love as well. I’d hate to see myself drawn solely to any one form of artistic expression, or appreciation. As to what makes me a better person, I’m not sure I even *am* one. But if I have any behavioural influences they come from the people around me, with whom I have to interact every day, and caring about the results of those interactions.
Writing has influenced my life beyond repair, you might say. My entire brain is deeply etched by the storytelling habit. I want to say that this is a good thing, even a marvelous thing, but like any addict, can you trust my protestations about the tincture upon which I depend? I’m pretty sure SFF doesn’t make me better, per se. But on second thought, maybe so. More imaginative, surely? Always a good thing. Most days I think the writing life is a fabulous privilege, beyond anything I hoped for when I set out. As for SFF specifically, the community enriches me uniquely. I may be wrong, but I think our clan is more supportive and close knit than in other fields. The friends I’ve made in the SFF are the strongest I have. I do wonder if other genres are so comfortably tribal. Perhaps the romance genre, since there is another field that don’t get no respect. And as for lessons from SFF, how about: The future will be stranger than we can imagine. Fifteen years ago I wrote about what I thought of then as the distant future: 2014. I wince when I think about that book. Another: The human imagination is the most powerful force on the planet. I am beyond astonished by the stories of my peer–and once in awhile, by my own.
If I’ve gotten anything specific from SFF, I like to think it’s a value for the long view that seems to deepen steadily as my years go by. I think we’ve done immense damage to ourselves and our world by essentially ratcheting everything down to an endless series of quarterly returns, monthly returns, weekly returns… we’ve driven so much steadiness and responsible stewardship out of our political and economic lives. It’s become so damn difficult for us to maintain effective plans that stretch beyond a single administration or a single session of congress. We rob our future to live large in the present, and we’re merrily doing things to our children and grandchildren that we would rightly curse our ancestors for having done to us. In comparison to that, the notion of something like Frank Herbert’s Bene Gesserit, a human organization that makes plans on ten-thousand-year scales, and builds things to remain in use for centuries or millenia, seems magical. And unattainable in this age of “Screw you, I got mine!” as a ruling philosophy.
I’m also a great appreciator of a notion that David Brin likes to advance, an acronym that goes “IAAMOAC.” It stands for “I am a member of a civilization.” It’s a mantra you repeat to yourself when the frictions and frustrations of modern life are wearing at you; a reminder that modern life in general can be full of wonders and advantages our forebears could never have dreamed of. It’s a reminder that we need each other, we need to network and cooperate, we need to reason and behave responsibly. The highest destiny of human beings shouldn’t be to barricade ourselves away as heavily-armed paranoids in ignorant little feifdoms. IAAMOAC, and so are you.
SFF (to me) deals a lot with what happens when what happens isn’t what everyone expected to happen. Inventors of something new, explorers of new worlds, people encountering aliens, humans dealing with magic and creatures of myth. In story after story, people made decisions and took actions, only to have the results be far from what was expected. Sometimes the ones surprised were the aliens or the monsters, who thought they knew what would happen when they dealt with humans. Two of the most vivid memories I carry of such things are the ending of The Planet of Apes (which is a cliché now but in 1968 on first viewing was a punch in the gut) and the climactic confrontation between Eowyn and the Lord of the Nazgul (“I am no man.”). Didn’t see that coming.
All of which has helped me through life by emphasizing the importance of thinking about alternatives, about questioning the supposed outcomes that others take for granted, about questioning the assumptions behind my own decisions. I have been amazed how often such questions are not asked. Time and again while working in the Pentagon and with other agencies, someone would propose in a meeting I was at what they thought was a brilliant idea, but when asked “then what?” they floundered helplessly. What do you mean “then what?” What happens after we do this? What if the other guys don’t react the way you expect? What if the results are not what you expect? Then what?
Too often the eventual replies took the form of (as Westworld put it) “nothing can go wrong…go wrong…go wrong…”
SFF taught me not to be so sure that everything would happen as I expected, and to think about what would happen afterwards even if everything did work out initially. Maybe that’s best described as humility, the recognition that you have to think about all the possible consequences of your actions and weigh them in deciding what to do, rather than assuming it will work as expected, or yet worse not even thinking about “what then?”
Sort of like the Krell. And we know what happened to them.
I’m about to get all New Age on you, but reading SFF has helped shape me into and keep me an optimist. That’s hard to do in a lawyer. Despite the fact that humankind manages to produce a surprising number of jackholes and evil fucks, it also produces a surprising number of geniuses and kind-hearted people, and I’m generally of the mind that humankind can overcome just about any damned thing, given enough time. And that attitude goes back (in part) to my SFF reading, which on the whole tends to focus on the way one person (or a small group of people) can change the world. If a goddamned furry-footed hobbit can save Middle Earth, then sure as hell human beings can do some wonderfully world-shaking things, too.
Actually, I think they’re separate questions. I’m not sure fantasy has influenced my life at all; or if it has, it’s in some way that I’m incapable of consciously understanding. But I’m pretty sure science fiction has.
I’m a writer of fantasy, as well as a reader, so I’m confident that it does something to us, and that whatever it does is important. But whatever it is, it happens below the waterline, as it were. In the unconscious, for lack of a better word.
But my experience of science fiction is a bit different. I’m sure it explores deep, unconscious structures too, but I find that it also has a practical, critical, explanatory power that’s useful in navigating the world around me, particularly when it comes to technology. Books like, oh, for example, Neuromancer and Snow Crash and Schismatrix and Consider Phlebas have made me more aware of and skeptical of the devices with which we’re living in increasingly constant and intimate contact, and the ways in which the vagaries of information flow alter our lives and our history. I pay better attention to the ways in which the tools I use are using me.
That’s useful stuff, and I think about it on a daily if not hourly basis. I don’t know that science fiction has made me a better person. But it’s made me a warier one.
Tagged with: chris holm • Harry Connolly • Jack Campbell • John G. Hemry • Kay Kenyon • Lee Battersby • Mark Wandrey • Mary Robinette Kowal • Paul S. Kemp • Scott Lynch • Tobias Buckell • Zachary Jernigan
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