Why I Write Science Fiction

*Sorry to be so late, and hopefully the post below makes sense.  It’s one of those days when there just ISN’T enough caffeine.*
One of my friends recently told me he knew why I wrote science fiction – it was so I could write about people as they should be, instead of as they are.

It took me a while to think my way out of that one, because there’s some truth in it. Not about Science Fiction, specifically.

Writing – story telling of any kind – is a way of imposing on order on a reality that is essentially disordered.  I don’t mean that actions don’t have consequences, of course.  Of course they do.  But society, like the economy or the weather, is a chaotic system.  As such, its inputs are so many and so varied, that, in the course of living one’s life it is sometimes hard to impose a logic on it, much less a satisfactory logic.  So, part of what the writers do is impose logic and order on reality.

Of course, that’s not the reason I write as such.  It’s certainly not the WHOLE reason I write.  My writing mostly falls under the first three reasons Heinlein wrote:  I write for money because I have a household to support and in order to earn that money I must entertain the reader.

I grant you the contribution I make to the household is negligible, but it is the difference between us living so close to the bone it occasionally cuts into the bone, and our being able to take the occasional (four times a year, usually) weekend in Denver, and maybe set a little aside for when my thirteen year old car needs replacement (it’s making some very funny noises.)

But is there more to it then that?  Well, of course there is.  I could make the same money, just about, as a secretary and at this point the kids aren’t young enough to NEED me in the house 24/7.  And being a secretary would not make me travel over half the country (I hate flying) and it wouldn’t make me work weekends, either – at least not most of the time.  And heck, I could start a house-cleaning or even a furniture rehabilitation business and make more money than either writing or as a secretary.  And sleep better at night.

Given that, why do I write at all.  Is it the prestige?

Sorry.  Sorry.  Choked on laughter there for a moment.  Yeah.  Prestige…  When people are being nice, they call me a hack…

No, the reason I do it, the reason I write at all is that it feeds some need within me.  I think in stories, would be the easiest way to tell it.  When I face a trauma of some sort, I make a story around it, so I can process it.  (No, this doesn’t mean that I lie about it.  It means I take the feeling, or the events, or whatever I’m having trouble digesting, and set it elsewhere and live it again through the mind of a character.  This allows me to think about it in a rational way that’s impossible while I’m in the middle of it.

And see, I think that other humans work that way too; even if they cannot make up their own stories to process their own trauma.  (And they can’t.  At least most of them can’t; not cogently.)   We are discovering that you can derive almost the same benefit from “living through” a vicarious experience, in someone else’s “shoes” as you can by living it yourself – of course, with a lot fewer bad consequences.   So, by writing, I can help people process various issues confronting them – WHILE helping myself and getting paid, it seems like a pretty good deal.

BUT why write science fiction?  We know now that most likely the future will not be as we imagine it (In fact, I’m finishing an article about that for Otherwhere Gazette) so why write about societies and worlds that have never happened?

My friends on the left will tell you that it’s as cautionary tales, or as social criticism, or some other of those reasons they are so very fond of.  I utterly reject the second motive.  Societal criticism, qua societal criticism might serve a purpose, but mostly it seems to add up to a cult of victimhood and a hatred of any success that ultimately leads to a hatred of the human race.  Criticism as such and stripped of anything else is just the ravings of society outliers (which most sf writers are) and lead one to ask “and what qualifies you to say that?”

Do I criticize current society in my science fiction?  Of course.  But it is sort of a by-product.  Because what I do in my science fiction is a continuation of what I do in my historical fiction.  In my historical fiction, I try to take the current reader and set him in a world where his assumptions that can change all change.  How women should be treated is different, for instance.  And also how one presumes man relates to his world.  Language is used differently, too.

By writing historical fiction, I strip human nature of the incidentals, and show you where we came from, what has changed and perhaps what can change again, so hopefully the reader can look at the mores of his own world with appropriate detachment but also not think man is infinitely pliable.  (He is not.  And she is not, either.)

However, historical fiction is limited.  I can’t show you the past as it truly was.  No, seriously, go and read Dumas, as opposed to my elaboration of it.  All the servant-beating, horse-killing…  If I wrote my musketeers like that, the reader would shut his mind against it utterly.  And there would be people who disputed it and who, without reading the original (or in the case of other historic fiction without researching the past) would condemn me for painting these people as unpleasant for my own nepharious motives.

Enter science fiction, where I can adjust all of the society around so even a wife-beating, horse killing “hero” can be good in comparison.  (Not that I intend to write one of those.)  Enter science fiction where I can extrapolate some of our assumptions that we don’t think are assumptions way into the future and into their most ridiculously exaggerated, and show to myself how it would turn out.

Not social criticism, as such, but sort of a social math, where I take the factor sand project them, then can come back and see if my premisses were wrong to begin with.

But there’s more.  You see, when I was young I loved strolling by the sea.  At some level I knew the sea had always been there, would be there centuries uncounted after my death.  This made the whole span of my life, let alone the little problem confronting me at the time – whatever it might be – seem inconsequential.  You could argue my visits to the natural history museum have the same effect.  I can look at fossil trilobites and know my time and my worries are a blink – a moment in the present, barely registering in the history of Earth, let alone of the universe.

For me this feeling is a good thing.  It puts it all in perspective, and keeps me from overdramatizing.

In a way science fiction is like the sea.  It makes it real to me – and hopefully – to the readers that there will be a future long after we gone.  And it makes us okay with it.

Insofar as writing and reading fiction are ways to make sense of the world, science fiction reconciles us to the idea of our mortality – perhaps the hardest things for humans to believe in.

Is this the full reason I write science fiction?  No, of course not.  Among many others, some of which I’m probably not even aware of, there’s that moment, back in pre-history, when I stumbled upon a copy of an sf book, and my brother explained to me “it’s like an history for the future.”  It was then I realized what it REALLY was: the collective daydreams of humanity in our time and place.

Day dreams are rarely expected to be true, but they are often what keeps us going from day to day, through the hard times in our life.  I think science fiction does that too.

So the answer to my friend is: I try to write about people how they are even if I have them doing what they SHOULD.   Because one can always day-dream that in the future, they will do so.

( And for those who know of my son’s peculiar habit of writing a report about Ultra Bowl — which is Superbowl in a parallel, supernatural dimension, this year’s report is up.  If you like it, consider donating for the kid’s college books, or hiking on over to Amazon and buying one of his stories.)


Oh, yeah, also, I posted over at Classical Values today.  Please, be aware these are my “Political” posts — though this one is more social, and if you don’t want to know, don’t go there.  Heaven knows I wish a lot of writers I like as writers — particularly in mystery — would never mention politics, particularly in the books.  Also, as a caveat, because I am proud to blog at CV it doesn’t mean I agree with EVERY post.  We are a loosely bound group and Eric is truly libertarian in feeling, in that he lets each of us express ourselves, without restricting what we post.  It’s an admirable case of practicing what he preaches that often startles me.)

19 thoughts on “Why I Write Science Fiction

    1. Um. My first published short story was written while on morphine (recovering from complications of giving birth to Robert.) So, I’d say it depends on the tranquilizer.

        1. Pat
          I don’t know. You’d have to ask an external observer. I know that when I had severe pneumonia I stopped WRITING, but I was still mentally taking notes and working. I think I’m a creature designed to turn experiences into stories. WHY and by whom is a good question.

  1. Science Fiction as “day dreams”. That’s a good way of putting it and in a similar manner Fantasy can be the same thing.

    Of course, sometimes the “day dreams” can be nightmares. [Wink]

  2. Criticism as such and stripped of anything else is just the ravings of society outliers (which most sf writers are) and lead one to ask “and what qualifies you to say that?”

    If you don’t criticize society, you’re dead.

    If you criticize society too much, you’re a whiner.

    There’s a fine line between the two positions. Well, actually, it’s a wide line, because every reader has a different tolerance for criticism. If you look at it from the right (or wrong) point of view, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was a rousing criticism of racial intolerance. I’m not saying that it was, only that it could be argued that way.

    As to writing Day Dreams, all Fantasy and Science Fiction consists of day dreams. People like me, like day dreams, which is why we read it. And why a lot of us eventually write it. The day dreams want to multiply and take over the Earth… No, you can’t have that idea. It’s mine, all, mine, my Precious!


  3. I have a bunch of notes for something I’m Gonna Write Someday arguing that SF (and similar things, like the Tom Swift Jr and Tom Corbett books I’ve been re-readings as… research, that’s it, research) isn’t just daydreams, but epic in a sense CS Lewis explored in his _Preface to Paradise Lost_ : it’s a narrative intended to shape moral behavior while in the altered state of receptiveness induced by the narration itself. Basically Lewis believed epics like those of Homer were performed effectively as religious observances after feast-day meals, and that the chanting of the poem led to a mild trance; as a result as Achilles and Paris and all did their heroic deeds, people lived them out themselves, and so became more _like_ the heroes.

    1. Weird. I’ve often thought that the reason indo european civilization spread out and evolved as it did was the saga-poems. Of course, maybe we give undue importance to our kind? All those neolithic story-weaving madmen who I suspect are the ancestors of present day writers.

      1. I’d go even further and suggest that the whole construct we think of as “our self” is an extended narration. Change your story, change your self.

        I should write that as a new age book.

          1. “If I’m an hologram, why can’t I get thinner by thinking about it?”

            Because you ticked off the sysadmin.

            People forget there’s a programmer behind all that tech, and they get peevish if you seem like you’re having too much fun while they’re trapped in a control room.

      2. Agreed. It owes a great deal to the ones who decided that simply telling was not enough — they had to record the story. I have know a few gifted storytellers, the kind who can entrance and pull in passersby. Like writers they are compelled to tell stories, but their gift/curse descends entirely from the oral tradition. The writer fixes a story in place, and that allows for a far greater audience — but you loose both the evolution of the tale and the performance aspect.

  4. I wish I could find the Bradbury essay I remember from years back. I swear it might have been an introduction to a Superman collection. All I remember is that he discussed people asking this question: why did he, an acknowledged “literary” writer (i.e., better than all the genre hacks) write science fiction? And he would get animated and start gesticulating wildly and finally say (loosely paraphrased), “Because what else is worth writing about? We’re all going to live in the future. I’ll never be an engineer to build the future, but I can scout out the land!”

    I’ve always embraced that reason. As always, Bradbury took the mundane and made it poetic.

  5. Sadly, we live in an era when the only appropriate responses to that kind of question are deemed rude, arrogant and likely to cause weight gain.

    Answers that come to this mind include: Why not?; Because; I like SF; Stoopid question; Nunnayourbizness. Although I allow that one probably could get away with: Because porn doesn’t pay well.

  6. Yerk! How can a single short essay stimulate so many lines of thought — and I already suffer from a cluttered mind. I am not sure I thank you.

    From this consumers standpoint: We read Science Fiction with the daughter when she was young because it is a way of thinking about the ways of the world without taking things too close to home. Star Beast and Little Fuzzy allowed us a safe venue to ask the question: what is sentient, and then extend that to what is human? Heinlein juveniles allowed us to look at the world and various social systems. (I dare anyone to accuse him of sexism in our presence.)

    I know few writers, but those I do seem to have no choice but to write. So it is not of a question of if but what you write. As a compulsive reader (considering the above complaint simply momentary) I am glad that you and your kind are available to supply my fix.

    1. I suspect most compulsive writers started as compulsive readers. I know I did! Occasionally I have written a story simply because I wanted to read it, and no one else had written it!

      So we’re pushers. Enablers. We understand your habit deeply. And we hope we’re satisfying it.

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