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[GUEST POST] James K. Decker’s Love Letter to Science Fiction

James K. Decker developed his love of reading and writing early in life, participating in young author competitions as early as grade school, but the later discovery of works by Frank Herbert and Issac Asimov turned that love to an obsession. He wrote continuously through high school, college and beyond, eventually breaking into the field under the name James Knapp, with the publication of the Revivors trilogy (State of Decay, The Silent Army, and Element Zero). State of Decay was a Philip K. Dick award nominee, and won the 2010 Compton Crook Award. The Burn Zone is his latest novel and his debut novel under the name James K. Decker.

A Love Letter to Science Fiction, or, How I Became a Writer

I have loved Science Fiction for a long time. You might even say, it was my first love. My hair has turned a far dirtier blond over the years and is now streaked with gray, but it wasn’t always so. Once upon a time, I looked like this:

As you can see in the photo, I developed a love of Science Fiction at an early age. The shirt I’m rocking sports an iron-on, old-school Battlestar Galactica logo in case you can’t make it out, and yes, that is a Micronaut on the table in front of me – even at eight I was a huge dork. I think my mother eventually had to pry that shirt away from me when it was no longer fit for anything but the rag bag. The photo was taken in 1978 – when the original Battlestar Galactica aired. The year prior to that I, like many other seven year olds at the time, had sat in a movie theater and watched, wide-eyed, as Star Wars sparked a love of the genre inside of me which has lasted my entire life.

It began with movies and television, as they were the easiest to consume – every morning before school I’d watch an animated series called Star Blazers, which followed a group of humans as they made a last ditch effort to stop an alien threat, traveling across space to obtain a game-changing weapon. I got hooked on that show, never knowing it had come from Japan and been given a ‘kid-friendly’ dubbing where the drunk doctor’s sake bottle he always carried had been changed to ‘sparkling mineral water’. I watched that, and pretty much every other Japanese import that made it onto the air, soaking up everything from giant robots to warp travel, filling my head with dreams of space adventures and high drama.

My true love of Science Fiction didn’t come, though, until I began to read it.

As a youngster, I used to get dragged to the library and plopped in the section set aside for kids while my mother looked through a bunch of boring books I didn’t care about. It wasn’t all bad since, though I didn’t know who he was at the time, I ended up getting exposed to the works of Edward Gorey, but mostly it felt like a chore. I used to hate the library, until that fateful day I wandered out of the kid’s section, and realized that up on the second floor, all the way to the left, there was a shelf of nothing but Science Fiction. Whole books about spaceships, aliens, robots, and all of the things I loved.

I checked out a hardcover book by an author I had never heard of named Isaac Asimov. The book’s title was The Rest of the Robots, first published in 1964. It included eight short stories, all about robots. It also included two full-length novels called The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. I began reading the short stories, and with each one I read I got pulled in deeper. When I’d read them all, I found myself left with nothing but the two novels, which seemed gigantic to me at the time. I re-read my favorites of the shorts, then, finally, after a couple false starts, The Caves of Steel became the first ‘adult’ book I read as a child. It turned out to be basically a detective story, where a murder gets solved by a man named Elijah Baley, and his robot partner R. Daneel Olivaw, and while I’m sure the finer points went over my young head it didn’t matter – I was hooked.

I stopped hating the library, and got my own library card. I’d ride my bike there, and browse through covers depicting aliens and spaceships, not knowing who the authors were and completely without bias. As I got older I eventually made my way to Frank Herbert, read Hellstrom’s Hive, and had my mind blown. A few years later I decided to tackle Dune, and while I made it through I got a lot more out of it when I read it again in high school, then got even more out of it when I read it again after college.

My dorkiness, for better or worse, only grew as I did. I never hung with the popular crowd, was always picked last in gym class for pretty much every sport (the only sport I excelled at was badminton, which did nothing to elevate my street cred), and I wore shirts with robots and spaceships on them. At some point I realized I just wasn’t going to fit in on that level, and instead I lost myself in worlds of fiction. Over the years, I devoured everything Asimov had to offer, along with Herbert, Heinlein, and Pohl. Eventually I branched out from the Golden Age, and realized that a lot of exciting stuff was going on in modern Science Fiction too. I got into Octavia Butler, Sherri S. Tepper, Nancy Kress, Greg Egan, and William Gibson (among many others).

I loved all forms of the genre, but reading Science Fiction did something for me that none of the other mediums did – it made me want to write it. I started doing this at an early age, as evidenced by this old tome of ‘Great’ SF tales (apparently book 1 of a larger series of works, though I don’t think they ever came to pass).

Eventually I entered a local ‘Young Author’s Competition’ with a story called ‘The Day of the Titans’ which my mother typed for me on that kind of gray, recycled paper, which was then hand sewn into a cardboard binding (I kid you not). It didn’t win, but it exposed me to what was essentially my first con, where young authors from all over the area assembled for the award ceremony. I entered other stories other years, and did manage to win once but win or lose I was never happier than when I was writing. These early scribblings started off small, nothing ever even reaching novella length, but the more I wrote and the more I read, the more I knew that I’d found something I really, truly wanted to do. Eventually the stories got longer, and as I grew up, so did they. I had several misfires…novels which never quite got off the ground (including an epic 200K+ word alien invasion story I worked on in and after college which I figured to be sixty percent finished when I abandoned it). I wrote a screenplay which I actually pitched to Harvey Weinstein when I waited on him in a restaurant (he was patient, all things considered, but ultimately passed). There was a lot more trying, and a lot more failing, and a lot more writing.

I turned forty the year my debut novel State of Decay was published, and I’ve had three more published since (The Silent Army and Element Zero, also written as Knapp, and The Burn Zone, written as Decker). It was a long road, and success is still by no means assured, but now, as then, no matter what else happens I always love the writing, and I will always love Science Fiction.

Science Fiction opened up a whole world for me, and as a dorky kid growing up it provided a much needed escape. It let me play with my imagination in a way nothing else ever could. I had someone ask me no less than a month ago if I thought I’d ever have an interest in writing something ‘real’. I knew what he meant, and so I ignored the phrasing and told him that honestly I wasn’t sure. Maybe someday, but not in the near term. Science Fiction lets me tell stories in a way that nothing else can, and the playground is just too big.

I have too many tales to tell, and for now, they’re all born of my first love.

2 Comments on [GUEST POST] James K. Decker’s Love Letter to Science Fiction

  1. What a great story! It’s fun to hear more about how you got started, and the passion for science fiction that drives your writing. One of the things that I love the most about science fiction is the lack of constraints on characters, dates, settings, and even other life-forms. The only limit is one’s own imagination. I look forward to reading what you create next!

  2. Sounds a lot like my own life and sci-fi and fantasy will always be my first love as well, but I’m just a reader not an author.

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