Why, indeed? On one level, the question’s almost impossible to answer. One might as well ask Stephen King why he didn’t wind up writing Harlequin romances for a career. (The mind boggles at what a Stephen King Harlequin romance would look like. And actually, I pretty much can guess what he’d say, based on interviews I’ve read where he was asked similar questions: you write the ideas you’re given. I believe he answered the question as to why he writes horror by asking a question of his own, namely, what made the interviewer think Mr. K actually had any choice in the matter?)
I suppose you could say that we’re all attracted to different genres for different reasons. Even though it wasn’t called speculative fiction way back in the Dark Ages when I was a kid, forming the reading habits that would prove lifelong for me… I think the speculative aspect of fantasy and science fiction was a really big personal draw. Worlds way beyond my own mortal and rather drab one. Yeah, yeah, I know there’s beauty and such in our world, even when we’re doing our level best to mess it up, but… I think, as a kid, I found my world pretty prosaic. And later on, when I began to be out and about in the world and experience what Will termed the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” I could add the adjective “grittily” to prosaic. And there it has, more or less, remained. I don’t mean to sound like I’m complaining. Well, I suppose I am, to a certain extent, but not in many ways. I had a long and (mostly) fulfilling career as a secondary school teacher, a (mostly) loving family, and a standard of living that probably about 90% of the world’s population would cheerfully kill for (and some, of course, do). But there have been times in my life when I am inexorably reminded of Edwin Brock’s famously depressing poem Five Ways to Kill a Man --- especially the final lines. Brock spends most of his poem chronicling really awful ways humans have engineered to kill each other… but then at poem’s end, dismisses these techniques as ‘cumbersome,’ saying all you really have to do to kill someone is plop them down in our current world… and leave them there. Yikes.
Sorry. It’s not my intent to be on a real downer today. What I’m attempting to do is explain, in my own usual roundabout way, why fantasy and science fiction appealed to me so much that they’re the genres I write. So, I guess it was a combination of several things: in science fiction, the really cool gadgetry; the environments, so different than the one I lived in; the strangeness, the wonder of it all… even though a great deal of fantasy and science fiction deals with highly dystopian worlds in desperate need of fixing (just like us). But there, you were on these quests --- these heroic quests --- to right the dystopias, and unless you were reading George Orwell or Aldous Huxley, said dystopias usually were fixed by story’s end. Not without cost at times, certainly --- as Frodo found, to his sorrow, at the conclusion of The Lord of the Rings. And your heroes, like Frodo, could really be pretty ordinary people who didn’t fancy themselves as heroic material in the slightest.
At the top of this post, I’ve included some of the earliest works in both genres that I’d say were seminal for me. (And I was around all of 11 or 12 when I discovered them… I was kind of like Matilda in that regard… although, regrettably, never discovered psycho-kinetic ability. Drat. That would have been pretty damned handy when life’s prosaic-ness got gritty.) The White Mountains --- three boys about my age off on an adventure, fleeing before monstrous machines to find freedom and refuge --- great stuff. It was about the first science fiction I recall being exposed to (aside from numerous Tom Swift books) --- a friend’s grade 5 teacher read it aloud to his class, and he recommended it to me. Today we’d classify it as YA, but again, back in the Dark Ages, there was no such classification. YA was simply ghettoized in the “children’s” section of the libraries and bookstores. The City and the Stars didn’t labour under any such disadvantage --- it was clearly adult science fiction --- but I don’t remember being unduly distressed over the distinction. I think --- it’s rather a longer time ago than I want to admit --- I simply picked it up on spec at my local indie bookstore. And, of course, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings… well, what can I say? I was enthralled. I’d never read anything like them before. My mother picked up The Hobbit for me --- don’t quite know what possessed her to do that --- although I read LOTR before I came back to Hobbit. But This. Was. It. As far as literature was concerned, I’d found my niche. This ancient, vast world with all its diverse cultures; the titanic struggle between good and evil; the absorbing characters. It was all there.
I read Hardy Boys mysteries, too… and Lassie books… but while they were entertaining, they never quite captivated me in the same manner as fantasy and science fiction. Which may explain why I don’t write mysteries or animal stories.
It’s definitely not about writing what you know --- especially if you’re writing fantasy and science fiction. Most of us haven’t flown in starships or battled dragons. It’s about writing whatever strikes that mysterious chord deep within you. It’s about writing about the human condition.
The circumstances under which it takes place are just a little different, that’s all.