First off, let me say I’m sticking with the general term science fiction even though some of the things I write fall more accurately under the heading speculative fiction. Whatever. SF is generally the better known term, so I’ll stick with that for now.
Let me also say that I didn’t always write science fiction. Yes, the earliest story I remember writing (6th grade, I think) was a time travel adventure, and the novel I drafted (and abandoned) in high school was a Heinleinian space cadet story. But I got away from SF when I started getting more “serious” about writing in college. For several years, I had more mainstream literary aspirations. My first mature attempt at a novel was a John-Irvingesque story about a struggling playwright and his kooky family. The next one, and the first novel I ever completed, was more of a Burroughsian exploration of addiction and madness, grief and death. The first stories I published were heavily influenced by my reading of Vonnegut, Brautigan, Irving, and Thoreau.
But then science fiction came back into my life. I was in the middle of spending six weeks at the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell in 1998 in an effort to bulk up on literary criticism while starting my dissertation on Hollywood novelists. It was like theory boot camp with a very intense reading schedule. One Saturday, to take a break from studying, I went into downtown Ithaca and found a used bookstore. Wandering around, I came upon an old copy of Philip K. Dick’s Eye in the Sky, one of those little Ace paperbacks from the 60s.
It was love at first sight, taking me back to the reading I’d done as a teenager. I bought it, went back to my apartment, and devoured it. After all that literary theory, I was desperate for narrative, and Dick’s book did the job. After that, it was hard to stay focused on my studies. I hit other bookstores, found other old PKD paperbacks, began looking up books about him in Cornell’s library. And when I got back home, I began squeezing in as much science fiction as possible. I did finish the dissertation, but if I had to do it all over again, I probably would have written on science fiction instead.
The return to writing fiction came a little later, and now it was science fiction all the way. With my first novel, Take Back Tomorrow, I combined my love of old Hollywood novels with my interest in SF by writing a time travel story set in 1940 Los Angeles. The rest have been in similar veins.
No one has said anything disparaging about my choice to write SF, but I’d guess there are some people who still think of this as “kid’s stuff.” Science fiction has worked its way into a level of respectability these days, but it still suffers from the stigma of the pulp era when it was marketed as kids’ stuff with lurid covers and fantastic plots, Westerns set in space. But there’s always been a core of brilliance to science fiction as well, big ideas hidden behind the brass bras and bug-eyed aliens.
My theory is that there are at least two types of science fiction–the kind about laser guns and bug-eyed monsters, and the kind about “big ideas.” There’s A Princess of Mars and there’s 1984. Others have categorized these as “genre” science fiction and “literary” science fiction. I prefer to think of them as SF that makes you say “Wow!” and SF that makes you say “Hmmm.”
And there have always been some writers who could sneak the “Hmmm” into the “Wow!” In many cases, Dick was one of those, Eye in the Sky being one good example. Of course, PKD was also a closet mainstream writer with a handful of non-SF works that he couldn’t get published during his short lifetime. So maybe that accounts for his ability to weave the big ideas together with the fantastic plots.
But that’s what I love about SF–its ability to capture both the childlike wonder at the possibilities of science, the future, the unknown; and to blend that wonder with deeper, more mature ideas about the nature of humanity and the universe.
And that’s partly why I’ve chosen to focus on science fiction in my writing. I won’t say that I’ve accomplished such a blending in my own writing. But I’ve tried to throw a few “Hmmm”s into my plots. I’m toying with the idea of doing a more mainstream book before long, but it’s also going to have its science fiction elements, so the “Hmmm” and the “Wow!” should still be there.
The other reason I write science fiction is that it’s simply where the muse takes me. That’s where my ideas come from. And it’s not just because science fiction is all that I read. It’s not. But the ideas that come from other things I read and experience and think about…they all get run through the science fiction filter, the what if filter, and they come out as the stories and novels I’ve written. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
So, what attracts you to science fiction? As a reader? As a writer? Both? I’d love to hear.