Vision: A Resource for Writers
Why I Hunt Flying Saucers
(with apologies to Hugh A.D. Spencer*,
What is it about science fiction and fantasy that has captured my interest to write in those genres; more so, say, than in CanLit or mystery or romance?
The earliest story I wrote was one "borrowed" (I think) from The Wind in the Willows, in which there is a scene of a fox walking through a forest with a coffeepot. (I have to take my stepmother's word for it, since I don't recall the story at all.) I do remember writing a series of short stories involving a dog named Sherlock Bones, his sidekick Fats Bassett, and his nemesis, Sheba the white cat, when I was in the eighth grade. Those, alas, have long been lost. But I know where I got the idea: it was a drawing in an advertisement for dog food in an issue of Reader's Digest (circa 1970).
Other early stories were also drawn from odd sources. A story about a girl being sacrificed to bloodthirsty Aztec gods was influenced by watching far too many Saturday morning airings of Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies. A story about children who are the only ones aware of the end of the world was inspired by seeing a black jet flying overhead during an air show. I wrote a time travel story involving Robin Hood after seeing Walt Disney's cartoon version, and I was, of course, writing Star Trek fanfic (original series) even before I knew such a thing was being done by others.
So, why didn't I write a straight pastiche of Robin Hood, absent the time travel aspect? Why did I choose to write animal fantasy instead of a more mundane tale of a girl and her dog?
The main reason, I think, was pure escapism. The "real world", for me, was an awful place, full of terrible things that happened over which I had no control. My mother died when I was only seven years old, and her successor proved to be less than satisfactory. In my house, I had to deal with alcoholism and adults who constantly failed to fulfill their responsibilities. The "real world," therefore, was a terrifying and uncertain place, and the only safe haven from the insanity was in my room, with my pen and paper, writing stories.
But why science fiction? Why fantasy?
Well, I knew how things worked in the real world. I knew I had no control over anything -- that it was the way it was because it was the real world. Nothing I did could affect it. There was no mystery about what happened there, and there was certainly no romance. It just was.
In science fiction and fantasy, though, things worked differently. I could make a world in which I had the power to control the elements that made it function. I could make animals talk. I could go to Mars and visit with furry aliens that looked suspiciously like tribbles with flamingo legs and come back, safe and sound (or not). I could zap the bad guy with an Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator, and that would be okay, because I could always reconstitute the bad guy with a drop of water, if I felt like it, which, mostly, I didn't.
Okay, so I got a lot of my ideas from what I saw on TV and at the movies. I still do, although I don't plagiarize quite as blatantly as I did in my less informed youth.
The point is, when I created these worlds, I was in control. I set the parameters. I decided how my characters functioned within these settings. I couldn't do that in stories set in the "real" world. I knew my characters couldn't do what they needed to do if I set the story, say, in Toronto in the 70s on an ordinary street in an ordinary neighbourhood (except, maybe, a horror story, and I have a few of those lurking about still). I had to write about weird places no one had been before, because such places were not contaminated by what was happening around me and to me. I was in charge.
I should have grown out of it, and I almost did, until one day, in 1977, I went to the theatre and saw a movie called Star Wars.
Cue groaning. But hear me out.
The first five minutes of the film completely blew me away. The visuals in the film, the whole grand epic-ness of the story, captured my interest in a way that previous science fiction films and books had not. This movie had a neatness factor that surpassed anything I had read or even written myself.
It also tied together what I had been interested in learning while in school. I liked ancient history, took courses in Latin and ancient Greek that were still on offer at that time, and the last year of high school I took an English course that covered literature from Beowulf to Dylan Thomas, with stops in all eras in between. I learned to read Homer and the myths in the original language, read Caesar's Gallic Wars in Latin, had more Shakespeare and Donne and Milton stuffed into my hungry mind than a foie-gras goose has food stuffed down its throat.
All of which, as my father was endlessly dedicated to telling me, was completely useless knowledge and a waste of time.
I related to the Star Wars universe because I'd been there, subconsciously, all along. I knew this place, and I knew this was what I wanted to write -- grand epics in grand settings, space, alternate or secondary worlds; it didn't matter. The otherness was the important thing. But I could now take everything that I'd learned, both in school and at home, and put it to use. All that so-called useless knowledge was really just the prep work for the kinds of stories I really wanted to write.
After Star Wars, I found I was no longer writing to get away, I was writing to get to.
Writing is still an escape for me, but now it's more of a glorious adventure, rather than an act of self-preservation. I still get ideas from odd sources, mostly the movies and TV, sometimes from things as ordinary as seeing bicycles chained to signposts. There are plenty of writers who can take the harshness of real life and make it into entertainment for general consumption as litfic, mysteries or romance. For me, the strange worlds I create and the characters who populate them are much more interesting and are far better places to visit than those people and places in real life that I've had all too much ado with.
So, why do I hunt flying saucers? And dragons and sorcerers and monsters of every description? Because, in one sense, they are metaphors for the all the horrors I endured as a child.
But mostly, I hunt them because it's fun.
Theresa Wojtasiewicz is the former editor of SOL Rising (the newsletter of the Friends of the Merril Collection) and presently reviews F&SF for Tangent Online.