MIND MELD: How Science Fiction Changed Our Lives
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This week, we asked our panelists the following:
Here’s what they said…
I’ve been reading science fiction and to a lesser extent fantasy for so long that it’s hard to say how it’s changed my life. I don’t recall a moment of waking up to a sense of wonder or to radical possibilities, because I’ve been reading this stuff since I was a kid. I think it’s more that SFF has shaped my life and my outlook.
Good science fiction tells a gripping story but it’s also a thought experiment that lets us imagine other worlds, or this world, changed. So it offers answers to the question of “How would things be if…?” Ideally, that’s an exercise that should lead to a more flexible, less dogmatic outlook. I don’t know who I would have been otherwise, but I do think I’ve benefitted from being immersed in fictional worlds that are so very different from the real world. I think it’s made me more open minded, more adaptable, and less averse to change—and that’s what I’ve come to think of as the science fictional mindset.
It’s not an exaggeration for me to say that SF/F raised me. I talked about this at Bookworm Blues, but suffice to say that my parents were struggling with some setbacks of their own, and didn’t really have the rearing of me, not in the early, formative years. I especially lacked a strong male role-model early on. It was Dungeons & Dragons that first allowed me to imagine myself as an adult. In fighters and paladins, I saw strong men who advanced in the face of fear, who covered themselves in glory, who made the world better by employing their strength in defense of others. Later, superheroes reinforced this example. I watched Batman and Captain America develop extraordinary capabilities and then harness them in the service of ordinary folk.
I think kids who grow up in solid homes explore the world, forming their identities from positions of safety. I had to construct mine, piece by piece. SF/F gave me the tools and the building blocks both. It taught me to imagine myself as something more than I was. It taught me to persevere in the face of adversity. It taught me that the best life is the one that isn’t about you.
Some folks might think I got a raw deal, but I think I’m rather lucky. Most people only have one set of parents. I got two. My mother is Science Fiction and my father is Fantasy. They taught me how to be grownup. They taught me how to be a man. They taught me how to be a decent human being.
And I will love them into my grave.
It wasn’t my first fantasy. I loved Alice in Wonderland, the Narnia books, and I adored everything by Roald Dahl. But there was a remoteness to those worlds that made them feel safe. No one was going to send me to an old house in the country, no matter how hard I wished. My parents were in no danger of being gobbled up by an angry rhinoceros escaped from the London zoo. I wasn’t going to encounter a mysterious figure in the forest who would reveal my special destiny because, a) I wasn’t a boy, and b) the closest thing we had to a forest in my suburban town was a park where the teenagers went to make out and drink beer.
Then came Meg Murry. Meg did everything wrong. She had braces and wore glasses. She was awkward, insecure, and unattractive. She was sullen. For the first time, I found myself reading about a character I could deeply relate to, and then something even more incredible happened: Meg succeeded not because she had any special supernatural abilities, but because she was so flawed and so very human. For the first time, I saw courage and heroism not as special things one has to be born with, but as potential we all have, simply waiting to be revealed. And still, even after giving me such believable characters, the story pulled me into a wildly imaginative world. It proved to me that reality and fantasy were not two separate and distinct realms; that it was possible to live in both of them at the same time.
A Wrinkle in Time burst me open. It changed the way I thought about heroes, and made them more accessible rather than less. It gave me permission to allow my imagination to flow wherever it wanted; the freedom not to be constrained by convention, or acceptable behaviors or thoughts, or someone else’s view of what constitutes reality. I’m not sure what direction my life might have taken if I had not read that book at that particular time, but I do think that the window it opened gave me a place for my imagination to go, and without it, that same imagination might easily have eaten me alive.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read science fiction or fantasy. My father was an avid reader of science fiction, with a tendency to acquire back volumes of magazines. There were copies of sixties pulp magazines on our bookshelves and no rules saying “Don’t read this.” We were encouraged to talk about what we read, and to work our way through any library we could talk our way into.
My parents argued that if we were old enough to understand something, we were old enough to read it, and if we weren’t old enough to understand it, then it really didn’t matter. This meant I read Heinlein for children as a child and Heinlein for adults starting from late primary school. I have an abiding love of ‘Doc’Smith and Sylvia Engdahl and Andre Norton and a host of other writers, due to reading them as a child.
The other side of the reading policy is that I also read classics. One holiday I read about ten science fiction and fantasy novels from the local library, then stayed with my grandmother for a week and read Dostoievsky and Dickens. The reason for the switch was because I only had to carry two books in my luggage if I chose ones that were slower reading and had more pages. It wasn’t because I favoured classics over science fiction.
In many ways I still don’t play favourites. That’s the biggest affect science fiction has had on my life. I read the book that fits my needs rather than the book that fits the expectations of others.
When I’m miserable I raid my collection of McCaffrey, Lackey, Sayers and Heyer, de Lint and Smith (Sherwood, not E.E.). When I want to be challenged I’ll read Joanna Russ, George Gissing, or Geoff Ryman. When I want people and thought, I read Henry James. When I need a break from almost everything, I’ll read Richmal Crompton. I’m an avid reader of modern Young Adult science fiction and fantasy, and read every Australian and New Zealand writer I can lay my hands on. There are books that are never far from me, however, and these books are by authors such as Kari Sperring and Kate Elliott and Peter Dickinson and Hope Mirrlees and Ellen Kushner and Chaz Brenchley and Helen Lowe and Margo Lanagan and Cordwainer Smith. I have many, many books in my life, but science fiction and fantasy novels are ever-present.
This experience shaped my writing. Of course it shaped my writing .My fiction is as respectful of genre boundaries as my reading is.
My heart is with speculative fiction, however, and many of my friends love reading it, so my writing is packaged as science fiction, or fantasy, or horror. It’s all of those things, I suppose, and maybe a bit literary sometimes, which is what happens when you give an enthusiastic child permission to read and talk about as much science fiction as she likes, whenever she likes, and put the books on accessible shelves and don’t tell her that they’re supposed to be different from the Dickens.
Certainly the most obvious change is that reading science fiction has led me to a career as a writer of science fiction. I like to think that I was destined to become a writer of some sort, but it seems clear, in retrospect, that the truckloads of science fiction that I read as an impressionable youth shaped – or warped – my imagination. Even if science fiction had collapsed as a commercial genre when I finally arrived on the literary scene in my early twenties, I’m pretty sure that I would have been trying to peddle some very odd sort of literary fiction. So how did growing up as a science fiction reader (as distinct from being a science fiction fan – I didn’t discover fandom until I was already published) affect the way I look at the world?
With the wisdom of hindsight, I’d say that it made me doubt the stability of the status quo. When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, there was considerable evidence that we were on the cusp of two widely divergent futures. Either we would blow ourselves to radioactive dust in a nuclear holocaust or we would slip “the surly bonds of Earth” and launch to a glorious trek to the stars. Even the most mundane of Middle Americans would have agreed that these options were definite possibilities. But sf helped me see these in all their implications, the most important of which was that nothing would be the same when I grew up. Either way the future turned, I’d damn well better prepare. So I became at once a crackerjack Boy Scout, honing my survival skills, and a bookish straight “A” nerd, in the hopes that Starfleet Academy might open for business by the time I got to college. Sports? Not so much. Hobbies? No time. Of course, neither of the futures I was preparing for came to pass, which was another lesson. Not only is the status quo a mirage, since all we see is a snapshot of a culture in continual transition, but also the common wisdom about what things are going to look like the day after tomorrow is usually wrong. And here again, science fiction provided a valuable lesson. Because when twelve-year-old Jim read Robert Heinlein’s Future History stories, it became clear that RAH, the Greatest Writer in History, got it wrong. How to process this? In the late ‘70s the culture provided an answer. Many reading this will not remember a bumper sticker/lapel button/slogan that became a commonplace of youth culture back in the day.
And I do. This injunction has informed almost all of my interactions with the world, ever since I reached (my alleged) maturity. And for that, I credit science fiction.
At the age of 4 the original Star Trek was my gateway drug to adventure. It “accidentally” taught me about standing up for your fellow being, doing the right thing even if it put you in danger, the ugliness and stupidity of prejudice… and something about mini-skirts. I was 4, and I didn’t get that part yet.
There weren’t Star Trek novels in the early ‘70s, but there were James Blish adaptions of the series. Back then those books were the only way to experience favorite episodes that weren’t on the screen (no videotape). Unfortunately, a lot of the adaptions were based on early drafts of the scripts, which meant that Blish’s stories varied markedly from the filmed episodes. In other words, the books didn’t give me what I was after.
Fortunately, my mom had a wide selection of fantasy and science fiction on her bookshelf, and while in search of Star Trek-like stuff I discovered Ray Bradbury. He thrilled me with lyrical prose, and provided me with some alternatingly somber/ poignant/ joyous depictions of life threaded through weirdness and twist endings.
At that early age what I thought I most wanted were stories of brave spaceship crews, and I don’t think it was until my old friend, Sean Connelly, taught me Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, that I got interested in fantasy. AD&D blew my mind. So much fun. So much adventure! I was obsessed the way kids today are obsessed with favorite video games. It was all I could think about. Pretty soon I was leafing through the famed Appendix N at the back of the Dungeon Master’s Guide and decided to search out recommended books… only to discover my library had precious few of them.
I was a kid in the 70s from the lower middle class, so I didn’t have a whole lot of cash. If a book wasn’t in the used book section of the Goodwill or at the library, I had to save up for a long time. My local library had virtually nothing from Appendix N (not even the Burroughs Mars books), except, praise Crom, the first Chronicles of Amber. And Goodwill had the first true sword-and-sorcery collection I ever laid hands on, luckily the best of the Fritz Leiber Lankhmar collections, Swords Against Death. My sister introduced me to two of the three Eric John Stark novels by Leigh Brackett, which I loved – but nothing else by Brackett was in print at the time (at least that I could find).
I don’t think anything could have impacted me as much as my first experience with the original Star Trek, or my first exposure to AD&D. But reading Amber and Lankhmar and anything by the Queen of Space Opera came pretty darned close. I’d dabbled with writing short stories, inspired in part by Bradbury’s twisty endings, but Amber and Lankhmar and Brackett’s Mars fired up the imagination in such a way that I wanted to do something like that, but different. Zelazny and Leiber and Brackett showed me whole new imaginary worlds, sly characters, astonishing landscapes, double-crosses, foolhardy ventures, and brave heroes united in cause against overwhelming odds.
From there I turned away from science fiction for many years, in part because fantasy was proving so cool and in part because all I could find sci-fi wise was hard science fiction, and I wanted stories about people. Thenceforth I primarily read fantasy and historical fiction, and I’ve never been the same. Oddly enough, I didn’t discover my other very favorite writers (Harold Lamb, Robert E. Howard, C.L. Moore, Jack Vance, Ben Haas) until much later.
For all that reading, I have to admit that any portion of my moral center not shaped by my parents is rooted in my early exposure to the original Star Trek. In every episode those heroic characters worked together in concert, strove to overcome terrible problems, and struggled not to judge by appearances. They fought always to rise to their potential and never gave up in the face of adversity. That vision, muddied as it was by weaker episodes and occasional mixed messages, left an indelible imprint upon me.
I can’t help but think Star Trek‘s the reason I’m drawn to stories where the characters are primarily good, or working as a team. I love a tale of adventure, but I’m mightily thrilled when there’s a little more going on underneath the hood, as long as it’s subtle (something Star Trek didn’t always manage). I believe in the fundamental capability of good in humanity, and feel that while the dark and gritty exists, it’s never something to celebrate.
I believe in heroes. My readings in history have shown me that such men and women are not mere fables, and I believe that heroic characters can serve as inspiration for what we ourselves can strive to become. I do my best to remember that every day, both in my fiction, and in the way I approach my interaction with others.
Science fiction and fantasy has been a part of my life since almost as far back as I can remember. I was five when Star Wars came out in theaters, and I remember freaking out that Darth Vader was going to kill Ben Kenobi – and then he did. But he didn’t, not really. Pretty crazy stuff for a young me to digest. But I was hooked.
Shortly after that came 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. (Yes, apparently I was precocious. It seems to have worn off as I got older.) It was because of AD&D that I ended up having my first piece of writing published. A local library had forbidden kids to play the game there, and my 10-year-old self was indignant. I pulled out my grandfather’s ancient typewriter (seriously, it’s a 1903 Oliver; I still have it) and typed out a letter to the editor of the paper that had printed such horrible news. They actually ran the letter.
That, I think, helped fuel a love of writing that took me through the high-school newspaper, to college internship, to tiny local newspaper, and finally to places like ABCNEWS.com and The Associated Press. SF/F engenders a lot of passion – enough for a 10-year-old to write a letter to the newspaper about it. The ability to channel that passion, and see some solid results, was addictive.
Since then, I’ve written thousands of newspaper, magazine and Web articles, very few of which were in any way related to SF/F, but most of which were dedicated to informing and educating people. A few even put a dent in things that needed denting.
My writing eventually came back to the genre with this summer’s release of The Daedalus Incident. Because of my love of SF/F, I can now call myself a published novelist. Knowing how many people struggle to lay claim to the same title, that’s a very special thing, and I have my love of the genre to thank for that as well.
I also look at my nascent fiction-writing career as a great lesson for my daughter. It’s great to hold up something really tangible and say, “See? Look what you can do when you work hard and stick with it, no matter how crazy it is.” She also took my official author headshot, which got her a photo credit not only in every copy of the book, but also in Writer’s Digest.
She’s already beaten my first publication credit by a year. Who knows what she’ll accomplish next? Even if she doesn’t have the same passion for SF/F as I do, it’s given us both a lot. And for that, I’ll be ever grateful.
Exponentially. Though it was reading in general, I think. Beyond just the normal benefits like increasing my vocabulary, exposing me to ideas and tickling my imagination to life, reading provided me a kind of foster home away from the rather unfortunate childhood I grew up in. But the richest, most breath-taking foster homes I spent time in were the ones in the SF/F genre. I’ll never forget being carried away by Del Rey’s Runaway Robot, Cooper’s Dark is Rising, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.
When I was in the Writers of the Future workshop in 2005, our teacher, Tim Powers, told us (I paraphrase) “None of you are comfortable in this world. If you were, you wouldn’t need to create these other worlds to be in.”
So I think the biggest change to my life from reading SF/F is that it opened the door for me to become a writer myself and provide those foster homes for others.
Speculative fiction is the thing I’ve always come back to. One of my greatest influences as a writer was reading Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, and I always reference this book because I have such a strong memory of falling into Lyra’s world and being completely, utterly immersed; the feeling of wonder, the sense of possibility and of strangeness: of being on the brink of something unknown. As a teenager I read fantasy but hadn’t discovered science fiction, and as a student the fiction I studied was mostly literary. Whilst I found a host of writers whose work I still love and admire, I was always particularly drawn to those who did something a bit different. Books like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad. These books were a gateway for me into a much broader spectrum of speculative fiction (which I still feel I’ve barely begun to tap) – and to the realization that these were the kinds of worlds, the kinds of fictions, I wanted to write myself.
My writing has gone through a similarly cyclic route, from secondary world fantasy to contemporary fiction to something closer to magical realism and eventually, with The Osiris Project trilogy, to dystopian science fiction. When I start writing, I don’t always know what I’m trying to achieve until it’s done, but I know the kind of atmosphere I want to try and create: something that both acknowledges the strangeness of the world as it is, and at the same time transports you into an entirely different space. I want to achieve that same effortless immersion I felt reading about Lyra Belaqua and Pantalaimon for the first time. Working out the kind of writer you want to be is an ongoing journey, but reading speculative fiction has put me on the pathway, and in that sense it has had a huge impact on my life.
If there is any one thing that science fiction and fantasy has done for me, its that I’ve been given the chance to be a dreamer. I can get lost in a book really easy, lost in that I get completely immersed in a story. I can be right alongside the characters, following them on their adventures as they slay dragons, stop an interstellar war, or what have you. This is the reason why I love epic fantasy and space opera so much, because these two genres give me all the thrill and adventure that I need or want. They are a perfect fit for me, as a reader and as a writer as well.
Science Fiction and Fantasy have allowed me to develop my creative side, the one which makes me come up with some wild scenarios of my own and commit them down to paper, and later flesh them out as proper stories, of whatever genre, whatever ideas. If not for all the reading I did as a kid (anything by Enid Blyton, The Animorphs, The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Sherlock) and then later the works of all the SFF greats such as Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Dragonlance, Raymond E. Feist, J. R. R. Tolkien and others, I would not be the same guy as I am right now.
I started writing fan fiction while still in 7th grade because I really loved the characters of The Animorphs and wanted to write my own adventures with them. I identified on a very personal level with Tobias and the novel (yes, a novel!) I was working on featured him very prominently. And then I moved on to writing some original fiction, a grand space opera tale that could match Star Wars and Star Trek in scope, and had a feudal feel to it that I first saw in Frank Herbert’s Dune. I wanted to emulate all these great things and create something unique out of all of it.
I was dreaming of interstellar empires and galactic wars and alien species and the like. I wanted to get these things down on paper. I experimented with alien species designs, starfighter designs, weapons technologies, starship design specifications, alien cultures and so on.
What I am trying to get at is that being a fan of SFF allowed me to even consider that I just might become a half-decent writer. Its been a really long road on that goal. About 3 years ago I started to get back into writing fan fiction. That led to working on actual submissions for Black Library, set in the Warhammer 40,000 setting and featuring Space Marines. I’ve had little success on that front, but I’ve nonetheless been able to broaden my horizons. My first published short story, “Dharmasankat: Crisis of Faith”, is an urban fantasy featuring an immortal warrior for whom that immortality is a curse. And it is set in India to boot. I already have a novella ready that I’m looking for a publisher for. All in all, 2013 is proving to be really exciting and I’m looking forward to where it all takes me next.
But the core thing remains. Growing up, I wanted to be an Air Force pilot, not a writer. It wasn’t until I really started to get into books, science fiction in particular, that I wanted to be a writer. After all these years, here I am. A reviewer with interests in books, comics, movies, TV shows and anime. There are people out there who value my opinion and are willing to take some small measure of their time and read my opinions. And respond.
It’s a hell of a feeling to come this far, and realize that the only way to go is up.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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