Why do we write this SF stuff?

Today I bought a table. Its the final piece of furniture for my new home. Which is the first real home I have had since I was eighteen. Thats my own damn fault, for taking thirteen years to realise that a home is made, not found. The table is important, because it is where I am writing this. Over the years I have written in cafes, libraries, train stations, shopping malls, airplanes, buses, offices and many more places, anywhere other then wherever I happened to be living. But now I have a home I am comfortable writing in, and a table to write at.

(My table is in my kitchen, the best room for writing. The buzz of the fridge provides enough ambient noise to relax the mind but not occupy it. The kettle is at hand to provide a ready supply of tea. These are ideal circumstances.)

Which is maybe why the question of why I write has been frequently in my thoughts of late. Its a big question, and not one I ever expect to find a definitive answer to. I write because I’m passingly good at it. I write because I have the ambition to be a successful novelist. I write because it gives me self-esteem, or status, or money, or some, none or all of the above. I write because my mother wrote, and every bad habit starts somewhere. I write because I’m a Clarion grad, and that is what we do. I write because Neil told me to keep writing, and really who am I to say no to that? I write because I’ve walked so far down the path that turning back seems absurd. I write, most of all, because I choose to and that is reason enough.

But if there is no answer for why I write, might there be an answer for why I write what I write? Which, when I give it a name, is that tricky beast called speculative fiction that I have been known to go on about from time to time. If speculative fiction is what I write, why then do I write it and not something else? Until a few years ago I did not know I wanted to write speculative fiction. I wanted to write. Who knows what. I’d read Clarke and Asimov, William Gibson, Iain M Banks, Philip K Dick. Tolkien, Lewis and Peake. Le Guin. Many more. Mostly novels with a few short story anthologies here and there. I thought I might be interested in science fiction, but was scared of the science. I hadn’t realised fantasy could be much more than elves and magic rings. Then maybe about five years ago, I turned one of those corners in the labyrinth of life. I was working, hard, on a really tough and stressful project. It was stretching me to my limits. I was waking up in cold sweats at three or four every morning for weeks wondering what would happen. Its at times like that that revelations come. I was standing in a favourite second hand bookshop, gazing at the rows of cheap sf paperbacks. And I realised, with great clarity, that I wanted to be one of those writers. I wanted to write something that belonged tucked on the shelves of the sci-fi section, alongside all those great names of the genre. And I also realised there were a lot of those names I had not read, so I set about reading them. And I started to realise that there was more to these books than maybe I could see, and I wanted to know what it was. Why did speculative fiction mean so much to me, and why did I want to write it?

Tonight I listened to the final episode of the Science Fiction and Politics podcast, recorded by Professor Courtney Brown of Emory University in his class on the subject. I discovered the SF&P podcast when it first launched, and was very happy to see it return recently. I’ve gained some tremendous insights into specific authors and the genre as a whole from Professor Brown. Tonight the podcast covered one of the most complex and difficult works by one of the genres most complex and difficult authors, Ubik by Philip K Dick. I won’t attempt to summarise the two hours of excellent analysis of Ubik (you might instead like to listen to it for yourself here) Brown and his class provide. But I found Brown’s conclusion massively interesting. In Ubik, Philip K Dick says that we are, all of us, every human being engaged in a constant struggle to understand the reality we find ourselves in. To understand ourselves, the world, the universe, everything. And that this struggle is without end, because not only are we limited in our ability to understand, and not only is there an infinite amount to be understood, but reality itself is plastic and constantly changing even as we seek to understand it. The are no answers, there is no truth to find, its the struggle itself that is the truth. As Professor Brown tells his students, ‘The is only one truth. You must fight for the truth.’

The truth. The struggle for the truth. Sounds like what art is really all about.

Speculative fiction is, for me, the art that most consistently manifests the driving determination to struggle towards the truth. It has grown upwards from its roots in the pulp magazines to become one of the most important genres of modern literature because thousands of writers have found in it the medium that lets them struggle towards their truth as artists. The stories those writers create are read by millions of people because they find in them some part of their own truth. Those ideas born in the genre: alien civilisations, space travel, androids, magic rings, dragons, swords of power, vampires, zombies, werewolves and so many more, however ridiculous they often are, have spread across our culture because in some way we may never entirely understand they communicate some thing about our reality that billions of us recognise as the truth. I find it fittingly counter-intuitive that an art form so dedicated to exploring unreality as speculative fiction, has become such a powerful way of struggling towards the truth of reality for so many people.

I write speculative fiction because it is the best way I have of struggling towards the truth. And I write about speculative fiction for the same reason. For instance, I had to write everything that came before just to reach that last sentence.

But that is really only my answer. I am certain there are others. So tell me this, why do you write speculative fiction? Comment, blog or tell me on Twitter tag #ywrite


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

6 thoughts on “Why do we write this SF stuff?

  1. [Sorry. This got a bit long… It’s late!]

    I’m very normal. This is sad because I used to like to think of myself as being against things that are the norm. I live comfortably inside that which everyone thinks of as normal. And if I’m honest I don’t really like stepping too far outside that.

    To me speculative fiction is the real world seen through a slightly skewed lense. Whether that lens casts us far into the future or into a world one step removed from our own. What confronts us as a reader is distinct in its abnormality and for characters to live in those realities and consider them normal AND still come across as recognisably human… That attracts me.

    Taking The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester as an example… Ignoring complaints about Freudian hokum and the fact that the ideas the book deals with are commonplace in today’s fiction, reading it when it was first published must have been mind-blowing. That an author can take an idea and run with it to such a degree, while still keeping it believable (if not actually real) is amazing.

    That’s why I want to write SF, be it fantasy, horror or science fiction. Regardless of my own ability (or lack thereof) it’s the ideas that grip my brain and extrapolate. I’m comfortable in those worlds.


  2. A wonderful exposition of my own conflicts with writing. There are certainly better things to do than waste time writing speculative material (in both senses) Yet here we sit before our blank screens or empty pads of paper, wondering where that next word, that next simile, that next observation might come from, listening to the muse whispering in the background as fingers race across the keyboard or pen across the line and watching a new world emerge before us. Worse yet is the editorial slog that then shapes and changes the initial poorly written prose into a story that others might enjoy reading. Still the writing and the editing are part and parcel of the process through which we discover what we are capable of producing and, if we are good at it, selling.


  3. I agree with you that making art and specifically writing fiction is a struggle for finding and telling the truth.

    As a lifelong SFF fan, I always assumed that for me the truth would best be found and told in speculative fiction. So I read it, I analyzed it, I even wrote my MA thesis on SF from a writer’s perspective. But somewhere along the way something happened: I stopped enjoying my chosen genre.

    I’m still reading speculative fiction, though mainly at the despised fringes of the genre. But what I’m writing now is a contemporary set love story without speculative elements, because that’s apparently the truth I need and want to tell these days.



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