You’re watching a football game on TV, possibly the Super Bowl or the Rose Bowl, it really doesn’t matter. There’s an enormous structure filled with people, lights flashing, a Jumbotron showing every excruciating detail of the game, people yelling and screaming in the stands, and suddenly, silence. In a split second, 50,000 people just die. The players drop in the middle of a play, the football bounces down the sward and the lenses of the television cameras come to rest on the most appalling sight imaginable. 50,000 people, men, women and children plus an occasional service animal freeze solid and death cuts through the stadium like a scythe.
Nightmare or inspiration? It depends upon who would have the thought. The mind is an interesting template when it comes to dealing with the world. We process the world through our senses, but we are constantly going this way and that with what is presented to us. We perceive the world around us, but sometimes we add layers to the world that don’t exist. We might do it because we’re bored, or dissatisfied with what we see. The end result, the imaginative result, is viewing what’s before us in a way that we’d never thought of before. Most of the time, these imaginative breaths that blow through the mind are caught, savored and then forgotten, but sometimes these thoughts occur in the mind of a person who does more than just savor them. He or she writes them down and a science-fiction story is born.
True, it doesn’t necessarily have to be science-fiction, but if a person wonders what it might be like if every person in a Super Bowl were to die in a split second, cause unknown, it is doubtful that such a story would wind up in ‘The New Yorker’ or a romance magazine. (Do they even Have romance magazines, anymore?) Usually, such ideas are a little Beyond the Pale. They are weird or horrible enough that most people would just eject them with a shudder. Some people savor them like a fine wine, eject them with a shudder, and Then write a story.
Most science-fiction writers probably hate being asked: ‘Where Does Your Inspiration Come From?’ There are probably as many muses as there are stars in the Galaxy… Scratch that. That’s 200 million muses. There aren’t that many science-fiction writers in the world. It would be nice if each one was connected to a hundred thousand different muses. I could definitely use the help. Still, the inspiration for their stories can come from many different sources. H.G. Wells must not have liked his neighbors very much. He wrote to a friend saying that he’d figured out a new way of picking them off, at least from a literary standpoint when he started writing The War of the Worlds. Sometimes the inspiration can be pretty obvious. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the movie) is a Cold War warning of the dangers of infiltration by enemies from the outside, subsuming us and taking over our way of life. It’s a brilliant depiction of how paranoid we ought to be.
But is that truly inspiration? I’ve never actually gone out of my way to investigate strange lights in a neighboring cornfield, even though the Brown Mountain Lights are supposed to be pretty close. There’s hardly anything strange about the small town that I live in, unless you want to count our white squirrel population which is actually white and not just a collection of albino gray squirrels. There might be a story in that, but would you want to read it? I’ve never even found anything in a thrift shop that made me wonder about its extraterrestrial origins. Inspiration, if you could call it that, is more like a faint suggestion of something that Might make sense, a stray thought or occurrence that vibrates a writer’s antenna like a wireless signal. Robert Heinlein wrote the novel The Door Into Summer after his cat refused to go outside. Apparently, it must have vibrated his inspiration antenna because he wrote the novel in less than two weeks. Our cat, Leslie, is just the opposite, wanting to go out all the time. Maybe that’s the reason I’ve gotten nothing from the Inspiration Meter, at least when it comes to cats going through doors. Still, different inspirations for different writers.
This still doesn’t really answer the question of why do people write this stuff? It’s definitely not for the purpose of making money. You’d be better off being a dentist. It can’t be for the purpose of fame. Unless you have the multiple talents of being both a writer and filmmaker (such as George Lucas), your readership is going to be pretty small. True, there are exceptions, but for the most part, people aren’t going to stop you on the street and ask for your autograph. They might stop you, but maybe just to tell that you should have nuked the villains, instead of the more ironic punishment you had cooked up for them. You’re not even going to be able to impress your mother. Unless your mother is a science-fiction maven (and I have a sneaking suspicion that most aren’t), you’re going to get a lot of blank looks with questions like: ‘What exactly is a mental engram?’
People write science-fiction because they have the entire Universe in which to play and the word ‘Play’ should be emphasized. There’s a great deal of fun to be had. When whole galaxies are in your sandbox, is it any wonder that such writing can achieve a sense of grandeur that can be found nowhere else? Sometimes, it’s nothing but an adolescent power fantasy, but if these impulses are controlled and directed towards something higher, the results can be astounding. The depiction in 2001: a Space Odyssey of the Star Child hovering over ‘the Earth with all its peoples’ is a powerful image, possibly because it seemed to bear a close resemblance to the Second Coming of Christ. Clarke would probably have disagreed with this, but that’s the sensation that I got from the book and the film. Even the darker visions of science-fiction literature have a kind of majesty to them, grim and foreboding as they may be. The exorcism of the planet Lithia by the Jesuit priest Father Ruiz-Sanchez at the climax of A Case of Conscience is astounding. There is a question as to whether the destruction of the planet was the result of technology, men’s pride or God’s judgment upon a race of beings who seemed to have no knowledge of sin, and therefore threatened Mankind and the Universe at large. One way or the other, the setting is one of the most memorable scenes in the literature.
Knowing a lot about science doesn’t necessarily impart a sense of grandeur regarding the scheme of things. It doesn’t automatically make you a poet. Supposedly, when the Hubble Space Telescope came online, there was a struggle among astrophysicists and astronomers regarding the viewing of ‘their’ galaxy-nebula-star, you name it. Apparently, one can have a sense of possessiveness concerning stellar phenomena, at least from the standpoint of collecting data. The sense of hubris is amazing to behold. Pettiness about the Andromeda Galaxy sounds rather silly, at least until one considers the prestige one can obtain regarding Cepheid variable stars as a means of determining stellar distances. C.S. Lewis thought that one of the values of science, at least the hard sciences such as chemistry and physics, was to impart a sense of humility about the created order because of its inherent complexity and functionality. When faced with the sheer scope of the Universe, pride has a tendency to shrivel up and Lewis thought that this was a good thing. It might not necessarily turn a scientist into a poet, but in the right hands, it could definitely produce a worthwhile science-fiction story.
It’s interesting that for a literature supposedly so grounded in science, science-fiction writers seem to spend a lot of time talking about God and religion. When the Universe is your oyster, you’re going to run into Him sooner or later. It’s possible that the really important questions of existence get bandied around, especially if the characters of a science-fiction story are wrestling with powers that are god-like or nearly so. (In fact, there’s a lot of evidence that science-fiction borrows extensively from religion in terms of character and plot, but that’s for another essay.) Aficionados of both disciplines usually ask the same kind of questions: where did we come from, is there Anyone out there, is there some existence after death, is the Force actually going to start talking during Episode 7? Whatever the case, the quest for God and meaning is just one of the reasons that people put pen to paper or finger to key to write this most interesting kind of literature. The chief reason is to enjoy oneself, crafting a gripping tale and making sense of the mental engrams that flow through the mind.
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