This is a speech I intended to give at the Station Unity Sci-Fi conference in August of 2022. The audience for the session ended up being… somewhat smaller than I expected, so I adapted the themes of this speech into a group discussion.
Welcome everyone. My name is Andrew Linke and I’m your guest author at Station Unity this year. You’ll have to forgive me if I stumble a bit, as I haven’t given a presentation outside internet streams or a couple of funerals since before the pandemic.
We are all here to talk about writing science fiction and fantasy, but before we get to the encouraging part I have to ask an important question:
Why the hell should we write science fiction?
Seriously. We live in the future. We all carry supercomputers in our pockets, companies are being sued for self driving car mishaps, megacorps dominate our lives with and around seventy percent of all wealth in the United States is controlled by ten percent of the population. And speaking of money, in the last couple years a thing called cryptocurrency has lost more value than all of the cash in circulation in the United States, but these QR coded accounts and JPEGs of ugly monkeys are still considered one of the hottest commodities in speculative trading.
What about fantasy? Science has proved the earth round, despite what some YouTubers will tell you. American evangelicals might have made a deal with the devil in the last couple election cycles, but the number who will claim to have seen an actual miracle is fewer than the number who think they can cure COVID with horse dewormer. New religious movements spring up every year, but more and more of them are selling a repackaged brand of self-actualization than making claims of the supernatural, because most magical hokum is too easy to debunk these days.
So why write science fiction or fantasy, when we essentially live in a post-magic cyberpunk dystopia?
Well, I believe it is because both genres are fundamentally tools which humans use to process complicated questions, escape from painful times, and look forward to a hopeful future.
Rebellions are Build on Hope
We write science fiction and fantasy because of hope.
Sometimes we write because we have hope. We look a the world and we see metaphorical dragons in need of slaying and robot cities waiting to be built. We tell ourselves that if we fill this world with visions of a brighter future we will summon it. If not for ourselves, then for our descendants. Other times we tell these stories because we have no hope. The future is already written and the seas will rise to cover cities left to rot by cyborgs killed in pandemics and civil wars. We tell stories of our future suffering to laugh in the face of the hangman’s noose, softening the ache of daily life by contrasting it with how bad things could become.
We envision futures that nobody living today can even imagine coming to fruition because we live among the flowers and thorns of a previous generation of storytellers. Fifty years ago women, queer, and minority authors had to use pseudonyms and metaphors to even sell a story.
We tell stories of robots and aliens casting off the bonds of prejudice, because the idea of people who don’t like like me gaining the upper hand is too terrifying for more conservative thinkers to handle. We write tales of forbidden romances between elves, humans, and shape shifters because they speak to our souls and help us process the idea of non-heteronormative relationships.
Not everyone is as circumspect in their writing, but those storytellers who are brave enough to directly address inequality are often shouted into silence, relegated to the halls of academic debate, or criticized for being too blunt in their approach. Hell, even C.S. Lewis drew criticism from Tolkien because he was too blunt and messy in his writing.
Write What You Want
Everyone says to write what you know, but I think that’s too simple. It’s a recipe for regurgitating whatever societal tripe we’ve been force-fed. The key to standing out in a crowded marketplace and a world battered by the twenty-four hour news cycle is to write the world as you want it to be.
Don’t put elves in your stories because Tolkien did. Put them there because you’re an environmentalist who wishes that every tree cut down for a McMansion subdivision could project its spirit into the fey realm, summon a body, and ride forth to lay waste to a field of bulldozers.
Don’t put an angry cyborg sex worker in your story because Gibson did 1984, forever cementing Molly Mirrorshades into Cyberpunk lore. Do it because you’ve got a transgender cousin struggling to pay for affirmation treatment in a red state and you’re filled with rage at a corporate healthcare system that refuses to help them and a government that threatens to deny their personhood if an election goes the wrong way.
Will this politicize your science fiction or fantasy novel? Frankly, yes. But no more than most great works of literature were influenced, if not by controversies in the real world, then at the very least by their responses to the world. Without drugs, paranoia, and social unrest we have no Phillip K. Dick. Without a vision of dark-skinned polyamorous pirates as the heroes, we have no NK Jemisin. Without blunt metaphors for racism, we don’t have any iteration of Star Trek, from the original series up through today.
You Are Enough
I just dropped names. Tolkien. Gibson. Dick. Jemisin. You might not know all of them, but you surely know one, or at the very least you know their works.
It can be intimidating to write when there are already so many brilliant authors. Why should I write a book about psychic dragons when Anne McCaffery already cornered that market thirty years ago? Do I have any hope of bringing anything new to vampire tales when Stoker, Rice, and Meyer already plucked the genre from folklore and evolved it into a formula?
Just about every creator who we all recognize was once as unknown as you are, and many of them started writing later than you did.
Neil Gaiman tells a story of talking with an elderly man at a convention where they were both guests. The old man said, “What the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was told to go.” Neil laughed at that and told Neil Armstrong that being the first man on the moon had to count for something.
If all you want is to see your name on a book and be able to say, “I wrote that.” Well, that’s good enough. L. Ron Hubbard could write a book a month and Stephen King can’t even remember writing multiple novels, so there is nothing wrong with wanting to stamp your name on one damn book.
Your vision is yours.
Your life experience is yours.
Sure, you might write book that is chock full of cliches, spelling errors, and tortured dialogue, but if it scratches that itch to get a tale out of your brain, then it did its job.
And if you work hard to make the story good, and find a way to get it in front of other readers, maybe you’ll inspire or touch somebody else.
Write Your Story
So get out there and write. Write about something you hope to create or destroy, if only though the act of putting your vision out into the world. Make the effort because you need to process all of the emotions and events of your life. Write what you want, and make it about what you want, rather than what you’ve been told exists. And have some confidence in yourself, because even if your story sucks, you still managed to finish it and that’s more than most people can say.