Imaginary worlds

Earlier this week, science fiction writer John Scalzi wrote about Richard Stern, who died recently. Scalzi attended a creative writing class taught by Stern, and one thing he recounts about the experience seemed very familiar.

Scalzi says:

My first problem was that on the first day of class, Stern said to us that he wouldn’t be reading any science fiction stories, as he felt, basically, that they were childish and inauthentic.

When I was in high school, I wrote a lot of short stories for English class. Whenever there was an option in one of the exams to write a story instead of an essay, I’d take the short story option. My English teacher was very encouraging of creative writing, but she had one problem – she hated science fiction.

She was one of those people who considered that if it was science fiction, it wasn’t good, and if it was good, it wasn’t science fiction. When she dismissed the entire genre, I’d bring up Brave New World and 1984 as examples of literature that used science-fictional elements, but she’d dismiss those saying “Yes, but they’re not really science fiction.”

In my typical smart-alec 17-year-old way, I retaliated by telling her that Hemingway, her favourite writer, produced books that were nothing more than well-written Commando comics. (I’ve always loved the way Hemingway writes, while at the same time despising the over-the-top macho ethos that fills every book.)

My teacher’s antipathy to science fiction didn’t stop me. I’m struggling to recall if I ever wrote anything that didn’t have an element of the fantastic in it; given the most prosaic subject on which to write, I’d turn it into a fantasy or science fiction story.

It’s not that I never read anything except science fiction or fantasy, although I certainly read a lot of both genres. It was around that time that I started to read Dickens and Hardy, but I never felt the urge to emulate them. When I read Asimov or Moorcock, though, I wanted to write like them.

I’m still writing, all these years later, and I’m still writing stories based in imaginary worlds. I’ve sometimes wondered if it’s laziness, because if I can just make stuff up I can get away without doing any research, but I’ve not lived a completely uninteresting life. For several years I lived by a lighthouse on a peninsula sticking out into the North Sea – surely that would be a perfectly good setting for a book. I’ve got a degree in Classics, and I’m sure I could write a story set in, say, 5th century BCE Athens quite easily.

But no, I still insist on making up worlds. In The Chimney Rabbit, the Great City is obviously based on Victorian London. This has some advantages – I can do research on the real London to provide background colour and the consistency that comes from reality, but I can also discard or enhance anything I feel like if it doesn’t fit the story. The sequel, The Chimney Rabbit and the Underground Mice, which I’m currently writing, is located heavily in the Great City version of the London Underground. (The recent 150 year anniversary has been a great help – just when I needed lots of pictures and information on the early days of the Underground, suddenly articles sprang up all over the internet.)

When I was younger, I started writing a novel based on the life of Giordano Bruno, but set it amongst the stars. I’ve got a stalled novel in a Word file somewhere that’s based in Edinburgh, where I lived, on and off, for about a decade – but the novel was set 20 years from now. (Actually, now I come to think of it, I started writing it so long ago that it’s probably set in about 2013 – given that we don’t have self-driving cars just yet, despite Google’s best efforts, I think I should give up the near-future prognostication business.)

So, whatever the reasons I’m drawn to making up these imaginary worlds, I don’t think I’m likely to stop setting my stories in fantastic places any time soon.


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