Archive for May 2014

The Process, Part One: The Stuff of Which Daydreams Are Made   3 comments

I once heard an author declare that the most bothersome question you could ask a writer of fiction was “Where do you get your ideas?” This happened at a science fiction convention sometime in the middle 1980s, during a panel discussion. The other authors present wore knowing smiles as they nodded in agreement. A long conversation followed, and an interesting one, that provided the audience with plenty to think about, but no real answers. In the time since I’ve resumed writing fiction, I think I finally understand why they failed to provide a definitive answer.

There really isn’t one.

Imagination is a thing poorly understood by science. The same is true of creativity in general. All human beings are capable of dreaming, and by that I don’t mean visions in your sleep, but dreams in the waking world, in which we ponder how things might be different, perhaps better, in our lives. Such dreams lead people to set goals and test limits, to see whether or not, or to what degree, their dreams can be made real. They have practical dreams, firmly set within a real-world frame of reference that entices them with the possibility of something potentially attainable. It seems doable, and so they get to work.

Artists, musicians, and writers go further. Their daydreams may have, upon realization within their respective media, practical consequences. After all, I’ve always dreamed of being a successful author. I still do. But that isn’t really the motivation. Rendering imagination, the daydream itself if you will, into a tangible form, drives the process. If you are of that inclination, you can’t avoid pursuing the vision, whatever it is. As a good friend was fond of saying about writing, some years ago, you can’t not do it. I learned the truth of this the hard way. I stopped writing fiction. I told the daydreams to leave me the hell alone. They refused to comply. It was an awkward and deeply unsettling episode in my life. Artists, musicians, and writers take it further, because the real ones have no choice.

So here I am, a writer with a head full of ideas and no clear way to tell you how they come into being. I daydream, and the daydreams become stories. Sounds pretty simple, but how does it work? And why? Why do I dream the dreams I do, about civilizations in the future, ships and swordsmen, hostile aliens, and worlds like our own – only different? Why does my imagination generate such things and not, for example, innovative business plans or experimental protocols? For that matter, why words and not music, or pictures? Why do I even have such a fertile imagination in the first place?

I can provide no solid answers to any of these questions, only the sort of speculation that comes from looking back across the years. I’ve always been this way. For the record, it really is a blessing, not a burden – which is not to say it’s always easy. As a youngster, before the idea of writing fiction ever occurred to me, I had a penchant for spinning yarns and windy stories. I’ve always related to the kid in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip because I lived in a similar imaginary world, and all too often the line between reality and imagination faded away. The consequences of that fade were sometimes awkward. It might be honest and accurate to say I was born with that style of imagination, that the root of it all is in some quirk of gene expression, but by itself that doesn’t explain the way the phenomenon manifests itself. The way my imagination works may be a consequence of the times in which I spent my childhood, the Sixties and early Seventies, when the race to the Moon was on and Cold War nuclear paranoia was palpable – even if you were too young to really understand the rhetoric. “What if,” was the big question on those days. The “what if” scenarios were not always pleasant.

I was also a skinny kid, and not terribly sociable. Being a bit of a misfit, the urge to escape was natural, and having a lurid imagination being fed by equally lurid speculations regarding space travel and nuclear war, you can easily guess the direction in which I escaped. I read mostly science fiction, adding fantasy somewhere in high school when I discovered Tolkien. The addiction to print was an early development, and the inclination to write in a similar vein just seemed to co-evolve. And maybe that really does explain it all.

Or not. As explanations go, it still feels incomplete. And even if it’s adequate for those reading these words, it says nothing about the creativity and imagination of others. It’s all surely variations on a theme, but others are writing those themes. This is just me.

These musings merely touch at the roots of a process that becomes, for me, a novel or a short story. Roots grow into places dark and fertile and strange. Maybe this is as deep as I should dig, for now.

Stranger from a Strange Time: Reflections on “The Most Famous Science Fiction Novel Ever Written”   3 comments

After my recent experience rereading Robert Heinlein’s Hugo Award winning novel Starship Troopers, I approached his third Hugo winner, Stranger in a Strange Land* with a certain amount of trepidation. As was the case with the former, the latter was one of those novels that made a profound impression on me as a young reader of science fiction. I was disappointed by Starship Troopers as an older and more experienced reader. The contrast between my impressions of the book, then and now, was stark. I was in my late teens – a little older and a bit more experienced, though not perhaps as much as I believed at the time – when a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land fell into my hands. I remember being strongly affected by the book back then. With this rereading of another old favorite, was I about to be disillusioned yet again?

The answer, I’m pleased to report, is no. While I certainly responded to the novel in a very different way after forty years of life experiences, I came away from this reread with a favorable impression. The novel is a strong enough character-driven story that it held my attention to the very end, even though these days I don’t read a novel and take its contents at face value. (That was very true of me in younger days.) To my relief, Heinlein resisted the urge to simply use Stranger in a Strange Land as another glorified soap box for his political views. I was able to read it and be entertained, even though his beliefs and attitudes do come through, at times loud and clear. Some of what comes across strikes me now, as a more mature reader, as an oversimplified take on human nature, but Heinlein’s views on such matters never derailed the storytelling process, as I saw happen in Starship Troopers. They were part of the tapestry he wove into the story, and for the most part the story worked.

Stranger in a Strange Land is the tale of Valentine Michael Smith, a young man raised by a very alien culture on Mars, who is then returned to Earth where everything humans consider normal is completely new to him. He discovers himself as a human being while observing all aspects of the human experience through that thoroughly alien frame of reference – one that, by the way, gives him superhuman abilities. Smith has no reason to simply accept his humanity as a given, or to accept blindly the rationalizations of those around him regarding the human condition. And thereby hangs a tale. Through the experiences of Valentine Michael Smith, and the people who become involved with his life, Heinlein examines who and what we are as human beings. This is a common theme in science fiction, and grows none the worse for the wear through constant reuse. Heinlein puts it to very good use in this book. To my mind, this is one of the best novels Heinlein wrote. Some would go further than that. The cover of the old paperback I read proclaims the book to be “THE MOST FAMOUS SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL EVER WRITTEN.” (And yes, it’s all capitalized on the book cover.) I’m not sure this is literally true, but it surely is one of the most best known novels in the genre, in part because of the way it seemed to anticipate the “counterculture” of the 1960s. Oh, and for its famous prediction of the waterbed. (Can’t leave that out!)

Stranger in a Strange Land is sometimes dismissed by modern-day readers as – among other things – sexist. By today’s standards, the book could indeed be seen that way, though I doubt it would have seemed sexist in quite the same way more than fifty years ago, when it was published. The female characters of this novel certainly are comfortable with their own sexual appetites, and show a level of assertiveness not usually seen as completely acceptable in popular fiction of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. And yet these same characters also seem to carry plenty of 1950s happy homemaker baggage, which really doesn’t (and probably shouldn’t) play well these days. To those who read old novels without considering the times in which they were written, this seems a mixed message. When this book was written, however, our society was stepping none too steadily out of one societal norm and into the next. Sometimes, while rereading the book, I got the impression Heinlein was a man standing with one foot in each epoch, not at all sure which way to go.

The strongest complaints regarding sexism seem to center around the character Jubal Harshaw. Jubal’s treatment of and interactions with the women he employs toucha nerve with many modern reviewers. Harshaw’s openly and bluntly sexist behavior toward these women would be cringeworthy in modern society, heard without a proper understanding of the context. But there is a context, and even a casual read of this book should reveal the understanding that exists between Harshaw and these women, and his obvious respect and affection for each of them. This is apparently missed by some modern reviewers, who interpret the material as being a typically sexist portrayal of women as brain-washed objects. (The character Anne, by herself, should dispel such a notion.) That seems too harsh to me, especially after reading Harshaw’s lecture to Ben Caxton regarding the sculptures La Belle Heaulmiere and Caryatid Who Has Fallen Under Her Stone. Not exactly the attitudes of your average insensitive male sexist pig.

For all that I believe some modern readers judge the book too harshly, I can understand, up to a point, why they react as they do. However, as I read the book I didn’t get the feeling that the author intended to belittle or diminish the value of female human beings. Quite the contrary, he seems more inclined to glorify them, although in a somewhat awkward, adolescent way. This explains why I could enjoy the novel, even though I often found myself shaking my head and thinking, “Really?” Heinlein’s portrayal of women obviously remains rooted in a time when some things we now consider sexist were seen as normal and acceptable. We no longer see things that way – well, some of us, anyway – and so whatever he intended is sometimes lost on modern readers. Perhaps because of this, I’ve seen reviews of the book that go much too far in their response to the apparent sexism, suggesting that the book should be shunned or heavily edited, because it does not match modern sensibilities. Such an idea makes me almost as uncomfortable as the degree of gender-based inequality that stubbornly persists in our modern times. The works of the past should not be dismissed, or worse, altered, because they do not reflect the beliefs of the present day. We need these books – and films, and whatever else from the past might draw such a response. We need these things in order to provide a perspective that can help us to judge how far we’ve come, a perspective that provides the only realistic measure of how much further we have yet to go.

*I read the “uncut” edition of the novel, released in 1991, but realized afterward that I really should read the one people actually voted on thirty years before. The original is the book discussed here. I didn’t see that the uncut edition added anything of substance to the story.

 

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