Letters from a Better World: A Defense of Speculative Fiction

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Vision 7


Letters from a Better World:

A Defense of Speculative Fiction


Robert Billing

Copyright © 2002, Robert Billing, All Rights Reserved

It is said that a journalist once asked J.R.R. Tolkien how he would defend his books against a charge of escapism. The great man replied by asking what class of people were most preoccupied by and opposed to the idea of escape. Then he supplied the answer - jailers.

In the last analysis this is why I write speculative fiction, mainly hard SF (though I occasionally dabble in fantasy). I want to set the human spirit free; I want my readers to discover a world beyond the mundane. I want to reach the reader who has been told a thousand times "that's the way it is" and say, "Take my hand and we'll fly off to a world where everything is different, where the problem you've been told can't be solved is ancient history, and buried with the dinosaurs."

That's why, after years of writing as a fairly pleasurable hobby, I'm trying to turn professional. I think I've got something worth saying, and I believe I can entertain people while saying it.

I want to send readers some letters from a better world - even though that world isn't (in the mundane sense) real. I want to tell them stories that are made up, stories that in a deeper sense are truer than the news on TV.

We live in a world that has gone slightly mad, a world in which someone can grab the controls of an airliner with a full complement of passengers on board, deliberately drive it into a building full of people, and never question the sanity of what he's doing.

The world will be a poorer place forever because of this. British Airways, for example, have announced that they are banning passenger visits to the cockpit.

Some years ago, in a saner age, the captain of a flight from London to Hong Kong allowed me to shoot some video from the cockpit. I have a minute or so of tape of the Himalayas, including the top of Mount Everest, to show for it. But after September 11th nobody will ever be allowed to do that again. That's what I mean by the world becoming, in little ways, a poorer place. Slowly the human race is sliding down into a darkness from which there can be no return. There's nothing I (or anyone else) can do about it.

Or is there?

What if I can dream up a world in which such things don't happen, can't happen? What if I can tell a story set in a time and place so different that even the word "terrorist" is obsolete? There are stranger things in real history. Once the inhabitants of the Spanish Main must have thought that the pirates who regularly came to prey on them were a permanent fixture. It's very well to dream - but the next step must be to turn the dream into something useful as a story, something that someone else will want to read. This is where the hard work begins, this is the difference between amateur and professional.

I'm trying to turn pro. And to me this means doing two things.

Firstly, I've got to learn to be hungry for information. I've got to read every article on writing I can find, listen to every published author who is willing to talk, bury myself in handbooks and submission guidelines. In short, I've got to know what I'm doing so that I can do it well.

The second thing I've got to do is to examine myself and ruthlessly stamp out every trace of literary vanity. The work is what matters, the quality of what I write as perceived by the reader. Anything that doesn't directly contribute to the reader's experience has to go. Sorry about that, but passages that appeal to me and don't contribute to the story have to be filed in the waste paper basket.

I've tried. Some people think I've more or less got there, that what I write is technically good enough for publication. This is the beginning. Now I have to go through all the effort and heartache of submission, rejection, picking myself up and trying again. The only consoling thought is that it can't be any worse than doing real-world engineering against impossible deadlines.

If I can manage these things I can begin to entertain and communicate. I can grab the readers and drag them on an emotional roller-coaster through the story where they laugh, cry, fall in love, and scream with terror (not all at once, of course). I can make the imagined world come to life for them. And in that imagined world I can offer hope. I can suggest that things don't always have to be this dark, that there is a possible future in which the mad and bad don't have things all their own way.

In short, I'm not trying to light one small candle in the darkness. I'm putting up a whacking great neon sign saying EXIT, flashing with lots of colours. Escapism if you like - but escape with a purpose. We may have to live in this world, but we don't have to like it or give up asking questions. We may not be able to make the world a better place, but we can dream of better worlds.

And dreams sometimes come true.