Saturday, July 30, 2011

What Motivates Me to Write Speculative Fiction

At the recent San Diego Comic-Con, I attended a panel on Speculative Fiction.  You can read my write-up in my entry, "Comic-Con Day Four & After Action Report."  
A couple of the questions put the the writers on the panel got me thinking about what my own answer would be.  This blog is my answer to one of those questions: "What motivates you to write Speculative Fiction?"  
For me, the answer goes back to when I was thirteen years old.  
I was a studious boy growing up.  I did well in school.  I loved to read.  My dad used to work for a company that pulped paper and turned into cardboard that was used to make tubes to roll things on (think toilet paper or paper towels).  Dad's company would often get crates of old books sent to them to use as scrap paper.  My dad thought there was something wrong with shredding books like this and would often bring boxes of books home.  We kept them in a spare room in our house, which we started calling our library.  We had four or five different kinds of encyclopedias, including ones on astronomy and geography, and a really neat medical encyclopedia which had these really cool transparent peel-away drawings showing the different layers of the human body.  There were a number of text books, thrown away by students that no longer were taking the class, probably.  
Eventually I moved my bedroom into the library.  Whenever we moved into a new house after that, the books moved with me into my new room.  It became my practice to pull a volume from one of the shelves surrounding my bed and read for a bit before going to sleep.  Most of the books my dad brought home were non-fiction.  When asked by my older relatives what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer usually came from whatever book I was reading at the time.  "A doctor," I would say.  Or, "a scientist."  Fiction to me at the time was the stuff they sometimes made us read in school, about adults doing stuff.  
One day, sometime after Christmas break was over, I ran into a friend of mine in the halls at school  I guess you could call it "that fateful day."  He was sitting in the hall waiting for the next class.  He was reading a paperback book with a strange illustration on its cover.  I asked him what it was about.  He replied, "it's science fiction."  
Science...  What?  It was the first time I could recall hearing the term, 'science fiction.'  My friend tried to explain to me what it was about, "the future and spaceship and stuff."  Finally he suggested I try reading some myself.  He gave me the name of the author of the books he was reading, someone named, "Heinlein."  He told me he was probably going to return the book that day.  
After classes were over, I went to the library before starting home.  I found the science fiction section on the inside wall.  Thinking back, our librarian must have been a science fiction fan, because that section ran all the way down one wall, turned a corner, and down another wall until it ran into the rear door to the library.  I went to the "H's" but couldn't see the title my friend was reading, something about traveling with a spacesuit.  I found another one by the same author.  I checked it out, tucked it under my arm with the rest of my books and walked home.  
After my usual routine, chores, dinner, homework, I crawled into bed and picked up the science fiction book I had checked out that day.  I figured I'd read a chapter or two before going to sleep.  Just as I usually did.  
I finished "Tunnels in the Sky" around 5 AM.  I closed the book and lay back, staring at the ceiling.  In my mind I kept seeing myself with Rod Walker, "Jack" Daudet and the other students who had made the Ramsbotham Jump to that strange world.  They were kids my age, or close to it, which was what made it seem so attractive and so real.  I wondered if travel like that was possible.  I wanted to know what happened to Rod when he went off to found a new colony.  I wanted to go with him.  
When my alarm rang two hours later, I got up, changed, ate breakfast and hurried off to school.  I went straight to the library.  I returned the book I had read and went back to the science fiction section.  What could I read next?  How was I to decide?  Would my friend have any other recommendations for me?  
I decided to do it systematically.  I went to the "A's" and grabbed the first book that caught my eye.  "Nightfall and Other Stories" by Isaac Asimov.  I think that one took me two days to read.
It went like that for the rest of the year.  Anderson, Bradbury, Clark, De Camp, more Heinlein, including "Have Spacesuit, Will Travel," which my friend had shown me, Howard, Lieber, Norton, Piper.  I marched my way down the one wall and across the other.  On the last week of school I tried to check out "Damnation Alley," by Roger Zelazny, but the librarian told me they didn't check out books the last week of school.  I still haven't read it, now that I think about it.  To this day, I will see some 'classic' science fiction book and think, "I really ought to read that," pick it  and within a few pages realize I had already read it that year in Junior High School.  
I did get my fix that week though.  I remembered a set of books a cousin had given me for Christmas which I hadn't read yet.  At the time I received them, I didn't have much interest in them.  What was a "Hobbit," anyway?  I couldn't find it in the encyclopedias in my room.  I took it with me, along with the other three books in the box set, on Christmas vacation.  That was the first of about a dozen times I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  
By the end of that summer, my answer to the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" had changed.  Now, when asked, I would shrug my shoulders and say, "I dunno."  I couldn't think of how to tell them that I wanted to go to other planets.  That I wanted to learn to speak Elvish.  That I wanted to see if I was really a prince switched at birth by spectral creatures and that the time of my ascension was at hand.  When another friend of mine and I found a game called, "Dungeon & Dragons," it our local game store, I became obsessed.  Playing D&D, along with "Traveller," which came after it, was as close to what I wanted to do with my life as I could imagine at that time.  I became my group's perpetual game-master.  Partly because I bought all the latest supplements and add-ons as soon as they came out.  But mostly it was because I was the one spending all my free time writing adventures for them to go on.  Creating characters for them to meet.  Writing histories of the areas they would explore.  I once created a map of an entire continent on hex-map paper, where each hex equaled 100 miles.  When folded out completely, it covered the entire living room floor.  I still regret that my friends only explored a fraction of that territory.  So many unfound secrets remained.  Tombs and temples, dangerous beings, mad kings, desperate villagers and lost treasures they never found.  
I remember hearing a writer on a panel at a convention I went to say, "beware of people that write books with maps in the front of them.  They are inviting you to become lost in their world and you might never get back."  I think my motivation for writing speculative fiction is a bit different.  As a person that writes such stories, I'm including the map because...  Well, I am already lost there and I'll hoping you'll use the map to come find me.  Not to rescue me, though.  But because I think together we might have a really fun time.  


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