What is this strange stuff called Sci-fi?

I read my first science fiction story when I was thirteen.

It was seventh grade. Middle school. Middle school meant I now had access to the big kid’s library. I remember standing in the middle of this huge room (well it seemed huge, but then I had nothing to compare it to at the time) looking at the walls lined with bookshelves and thinking I had my work cut out for me if I was to read them all by the time I graduated from high school.

Stranger in a Strange Land, I was a blank canvas. An empty slate. I meant to fill that void with great things.

It was 1966. Star Trek, the TV series, was to air in September and change my life forever, but that was later. I grabbed the first book off the shelf and read it in one night. I came back the next morning before school, turned it in and checked out another book. Somewhere in the middle of this mindless orgy of reading I checked out a book, didn’t bother reading the cover and just began to read. 

It was a story about a man who turned into a chrysalis. Then he hatched in the middle of the night, escaped, and then simply leaped off into space and flew away. The end.

The next chapter was another story. Wait, I thought. What happens next? I wondered if my book was broken.

I remember turning the pages back and forth trying to figure out what kind of strange thing I had stumbled onto. Short stories. I had by accident begun reading a book of sci-fi short stories. I finished the book and started searching the library for more of this strange and heady stuff. Sci-fi. 

I actually managed to read most of the books in that library by 1972 but the sci-fi was my favorite. I went off to college to study science stuff. Freshman year, I went to see a movie called Slaughterhouse Five and discovered Kurt Vonnegut. Read all his books. Discovered Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury, Herbert, Ellison, and managed to read my way through most of their collected works. One year I set my sights on reading every book that had ever won a Hugo. Discovered Philip K. Dick.

Got married, had kids, got a career, and decided to focus my reading on just the female authors. McCaffery, Le Guin, Cherryh, Mcintyre. 

But like any junkie, it was getting harder and harder to get high. So little satisfied. So much had flaws that jarred. I began to realize my ennui sprang from the fact that these were not MY stories. Not something I could relate to. Not written from a truth that was my own Truth. I began to write. Short stuff. Things that could be written in an hour or two between jobs and kids and husband. It all got jotted down in spiral bound notebooks, most of which were lost in one calamity or another. That was OK. I was learning my craft.

I learned word programs and filled hard drives. This too was lost to one crash or another. I learned to back up. I have floppies in a box somewhere. Do you remember floppies?

So. Fifty years later, after a lifetime of study, I can tell you what this sci-fi stuff is. Sci-fi is the great “what if”.

What if.

Do you have a question about the nature of the world? Do you wish there was a better way to solve our problems as a species? Have you ever asked yourself what would have happened if evolution took a different path? What if we met another sentient species and managed not to wipe them off the face of creation? What is this dark matter and why should we care? What if humans evolved into something new and if we did, would we still be human? (I mark it as a sign of a singular lack of imagination that our future, in most modern sci-fi is bleakly dystopian.)

Sci-fi is meant to explore a concept. It is a science geek’s way of working out a puzzle. Do we need to be original in our world building? God, I hope not. We stand upon the shoulders of giants. You take all the tools, the tropes, the standards of sci-fi, and you build on them. FTL? Stargates? Portals? Wormholes? Pick one. Hive mind? Psychic links? It has been done a thousand times. The reader doesn’t need it explained. Don’t bore us. It is already a part of a sci-fi geeks mental landscape.

Ultimately, sci-fi it is about the story. It is not any more complicated than that. Like a mother sitting down at your bedside and reading you a bedtime story, I write things I had wished had been read to me. That anyone else likes them and wants to read them is sheer serendipity.

 

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