What I write and why #1: Science-fiction

A work in progress: a short dissertation on the personal appeal that science fiction and comic books have to me, and why they currently represent the best mode for my stories. Expect references to Worlds Apart: The Narratology of Science Fiction, the academic journal TEXT (in which I have been published), and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, among others.

The following thoughts have been collected by me over many years, and they have helped me to become a better reader and writer. I hope they have the same positive impact upon you … and I also hope that you choose not to view this page as the desperate self-serving defence of my own work that it clearly is.


The decision I took to write these stories in the genre of science fiction was taken before I had the critical faculties to evaluate the pros and cons of such an idea. In some ways, it seems strange that such an intuitive impulse should turn out feeling so right. Sci-fi may not be the right environment for all my work, but I’ll now try to unpack the reasons I think it works for The Lesser Evil.

Characters are people too

When I’ve tried to base fiction stories in my hometown, I’ve never been comfortable with the result; it feels heavy with my own voice, filtered by my eyes, and the characters seem as though they are wearing masks that may at any time fall off to reveal that they are, in truth, just people in my life. This writing ‘too close to home’ is accompanied by both paranoia and embarrassment, even if the characters and events have nothing to do (or so I think) with the people and events around me. When looking over what I’ve written, there’s always that thought: ‘So-and-so will think I’m writing about them,’ or ‘I know someone who will take offence at this.’ (Bowman, 2009)

Never the stereotyped society-shunning artiste, my life has always been tied to other people. The family with whom I lived as a child, the spouse with whom I am currently living, and friends and colleagues whom I secretly hoped would one day become fans. And so I found myself gripped by the same paranoia outlined by Christopher Bowman in the above quote.

Even if I don’t think that Ross’ parents are based on mine, who’s to say that it will be read that way? And who am I to say, anyway; it took me years to even realise my own place in the story. It just might be that this story is about the people to whom my life has been tied.

You get taught one thing above all others when studying writing: “Write what you know.” It’s the only way that the story will feel real.

These concerns may seem ridiculous, but they are very real when you find yourself preoccupied with altering your characters and places just to disguise them and remove any chance they might be recognized. With these preoccupations, it’s almost impossible just to write a story that takes place anywhere near me, geographically or socially. But without experience, there is not much hope of producing a story that feels real. (Bowman, 2009)

I turned to science fiction, anticipating that its distance from contemporary reality would offer enough of a buffer between my life and those of my characters that fewer comparisons would be made.

As a teenager who wanted to write, I was keenly aware that anyone who read my work would be making comparisons between the characters in my stories, and those in my life. Equally aware that in all the truly memorable books I had ever read, not too many of the supporting characters ever come off completely favourably, I was reluctant to write anything that ran the risk of hurting someone I knew.

So I started writing derivative stories, tales that effectively cloned the science-fiction adventure stories I loved. They were the only things I knew that weren’t part of my interpersonal experiences. Just a few problems, one legal, two personal: I’m sure that they breached several copyright laws; I didn’t feel connected to them the way I wanted to; and they were crap.

When I began putting this brief explanation together, I came across Christopher Bowman’s article in the April 2009 imprint of Text, who outlines similar concerns. His solution was to develop a new narrative voice, an ideolect that is not his own. He finds this to be a “vehicle of enablement” and finds that it acts as a reflection that allows him to “turn around and see […] in a new light.”

What Bowman finds in a new narrative voice, I have found, to some extent, in a science-fiction setting. This largely came from over a decade of practice, but I now feel I am somewhat comfortable with the genre.

I have come to accept that there’s no way out. Although I find that science fiction does offer some relief from comparisons between my life and that of the characters in The Lesser Evil, I have realised that the story began to truly shine (in my own heart, at least) once I embraced it as my story (Though I will add the following disclaimer for the sake of posterity: it was not my intention for any one of my characters to represent any real people in my life, except for myself).

The point is that sci-fi is (for now, at least) my vehicle of enablement, the combination of exotic and familiar (as Stephen Donaldson puts it in his intro to The Real Story) that makes for a compelling story.

The exotic and the familiar

It might seem that the exotic element is the science-fiction universe in which The Lesser Evil is set, and the familiar is the inner turmoil of the characters with whom I identify so closely.

But if you look a little closer, you’ll see that in a lot of ways, you already know this story, and this world. It’s Star Wars. It’s Dune. It’s The Gap. In short, it’s nothing new under the sun(s).

To emphasise this point, I chose to utilise a technique I first noticed in one of John Grant’s Legends of Lone Wolf books: to name the chapters using part of a familiar phrase or cliche.

The logic is simple: if a story must contain the familiar and the exotic, then if you see the world as exotic, the characters are always going to be secondary reactants, often cardboard cutouts (think Star Trek or Stargate – NB: As much as I enjoy these franchises, they thrive on social ideas rather than compelling character interaction).

What I’m getting at is that in science fiction, there is often an automatic assumption that the setting is the exotic element of the story. This is not only an insufficient reading of The Lesser Evil; it is also for most science fiction. So by creating a familiar – even derivative – social setting, I am attempting to encourage the reader to see the familiar in the worlds of The Lesser Evil.

Of course, this is too simplistic to be workable. There are elements of familar and exotic in everything we see and do. We are familiar with the way a pen marks a page, but perhaps not so much with the mechanisms that operate the spring, or that push the ink to the tip, or the millions of chemical and physical interactions of the countless electrons in the pen that occur every moment, regardless of whether it is being used or not.

This is my ultimate hope for readers of The Lesser Evil: to recognise elements of the familiar and the exotic everywhere. So even if the minds of my characters are exotic, I do want them to feel familiar as well. Even if my settings are familiar (and/or derivative), I want there to be some unique unusual touch to them.

A Mirror to the World

Following on from the previous ideas, this quote from Worlds Apart: The Narratology of Science Fiction explains the benefits of the familiar/exotic mix I’ve been attempting to describe:

… standards of comparison between the two worlds can therefore be established. But at the same time that world is structured by its novum, a distancing element which forces the reader to look at the basic narrative world from the estranged perspective of a new optic. Ernst Bloch has said that the “real function of estrangement is – and must be – the provision of a shocking and distancing mirror above the all too familiar reality.” (Malmgren, p11)

Ballard, too, claims that his explorations of “outer space” are really investigations into “inner space” (cited by Malmgren, p134). And of course, anyone familiar with the genre recognises its potential to make us see everyday objects or interactions in a brand new light.

This is, of course, the purpose of “encounter” science fiction, generally involving alien life forms, but which has also been successfully done with man-made automatons.

We think of ourselves as the Knights of Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. (Solaris, cited by Malmgren, p48)

Science fiction is clearly not a reflection of reality. Faster-than-light travel, time travel, alien civilisations, slow-moving-laser beam weapons, etc etc, do not exist in contemporary reality, and the current belief is that many of these might actually be impossible. However, science fiction does provide a mirror of sorts – a kind of distorted looking-glass, if you will – a reflection on reality. The Lesser Evil is, in true science fiction style, a reflection on my life experiences and values, rather than a reflection of them.

Writers who write about their writing

Here are some thoughts that suggest that writers are not, as people tend to believe, the best people to talk about their work.

In fact, after reading this, you might come to believe that they are the worst possible choice.

1. I’m not qualified to talk about my book

In How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Pierre Bayard notes that:

[Paul]Valery posited that despite appearances, an author is in no position to explain his own work. The work is the product of a creative process that occurs in the writer but transcends him, and it is unfair to reduce it to that act of creation. To understand a text, therefore, there is little point in gathering information about the author, since in the final analysis he serves it only as a temporary shelter. (Bayard, p 16)

I have discovered that this is, to at least some extent true, as the conscious effort of creation is tremendously supplemented by a myriad of subconscious influences that I cannot even identify, let alone qualify or quantify. While, for example, The Lesser Evil is not by any means a deeply subtle text, I can but presume that similar principles are at work here.

2. My book becomes your book

Bayard goes on to describe

an experience familiar to all writers, in which they realise that what is said about their books does not correspond to what they believe they have written. Every writer who has conversed at any length with an attentive reader, or read an article of any length about himself, has had the uncanny experience of discovering the absence of any connection between what he meant to accomplish and what has been grasped of it. There is nothing astonishing in this disjuncture; since their inner books differ by definition, the one the reader has superimposed on the book is unlikely to seem familiar to the writer. (Bayard, p97-8)

There’s a lot to say on this.

The first and most obvious conclusion that one can grasp from this statement is that by talking about their work, an author is pre-loading their text with extra meaning, colouring the reader’s experience in a certain way, coming closer to ensuring that the reader has the experience the author intended.

Even for the author, I don’t believe that this situation is ideal. Having never actually had an audience for my work, I can’t say from experience how it feels to have someone read something into your work that you didn’t realise was there … but it sounds very exciting, not something to be feared or avoided.

Of course, I can imagine circumstances where a universal reading experience would be the ideal, especially in the realm of non-fiction, and also in fictional texts where the author is championing a cause or point of view.

The second conclusion I draw from this has to do with the author’s level of control. Anyone who writes a book is a control freak … on the page, if not in the real world as well. It seems to me that letting go of that book, sending it out into the world to make something of itself would not be too different from releasing a carefully-moulded child in the same way.

Parting thoughts:

The reluctance of an author to relinquish the right of reading to the reader can, in my opinion, damage his/her book’s impact upon its audience. Take everything I say about my work with a grain of salt.

This post is a necessary disclaimer for all future writing about my writing. You’ve been warned.