I quite often get this question – if not voiced directly, then via a funny look. Isn’t science fiction (SF), well, a bit narrow, teenage, speculative? people say to me. Don’t grown-up authors write thrillers or literary stuff? And haven’t I been writing literary novels and short stories? Is going into science fiction a backward step?
Those are the questions. And the answer is that it has to do with your passion, and where the key is that unlocks your passion.
As a boy, I had a passion for reading science fiction. I revelled in space opera, daydreamed of exploring the galaxy on the USS Enterprise. I also read more sophisticated tales of the unknown. I recall the special thrill of reaching the climax of a good story and realising that the narrator is a robot atom bomb, or that the aliens being welcomed to earth are the size of microbes, or that you have to keep repeating that it is a good day because some malevolent all-powerful being is reading your mind. Yet with adulthood, the appeal of such fiction palled. I moved over to reading mostly the literary classics in English and foreign literature. And from there, I tried my hand at literary writing.
Nonetheless, my boyhood enthusiasm for science fiction did not fade but rather transformed into a passion for popular science. We live in the great scientific age, with burgeoning discoveries in every field – and the fields themselves multiplying – and it is wonderful to share a little of this insight from writers of popular science.
And the key that opened the door for me to science fiction came when I read the work of Borges. Through his fantastic conceptions like the library of all possible books, the garden of endlessly forking paths, the man who could see unlimited detail, Borges conveys a sense if not of the infinite then of a trans-human vastness. And through the matter-of-fact conviction with which Borges tells the story, the reader can engage with this alternative reality and experience the paradox of infinity.
Reading Borges, then, reignited my passion for science fiction, not only as a reader but as a writer. Through Borges I found that I could write so as to allow the reader to experience the power and the paradoxes of science.
And not just of science. By extrapolating trends and characteristics of the real world I found that you can create alternative takes on the world to make the reader think or reflect – some implied social commentary. This reaches into the broader category of speculative fiction rather than purely science fiction – although it is a good discipline to try to write a ‘hard’ SF story with real rigour about what is feasible in the story’s world.
What kind of science fiction do I write? SF is a sizeable field, but it is nonetheless crowded and competitive. Unless your talent is overwhelming, you have to have a niche – something that appeals but that not everyone does or can do. Finding that niche is hard, and perhaps it is a never-ending quest.
At first I tried to write passionate serious pieces that conveyed my own sense of wonder at the universe. But the receiving editors didn’t share my wonder, or perhaps they had seen too many such stories already. So as I went on I became more myself – a British chap with a self-deprecating sense of humour and an eye for the quirks and ironies of life. And more of my stuff got accepted. The overwhelming majority of the venues are American, so a British sense of humour may have a certain scarcity value.
So that’s why I write science fiction, and that’s the sort of science fiction that I write. Later, I’ll say more about the special problems of writing SF.