As a starry-eyed young man, I dreamed of creating great literature. Or becoming a naturopath, but that’s another story entirely. I’ve done neither, but at least there’s still a chance on the literature front. Unfortunately, my great love is (and always has been) the genres of science fiction and fantasy. Luckily for me, these can also be considered high art. Don’t believe me? Read on. You’re welcome to read on if you agree as well.
Like many young men with a solitary bent, I gravitated to science fiction and fantasy early on. I started reading Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels in sixth grade, and I felt very sophisticated for it. I moved on to some of Terry Brooks’ Shannara novels, some of the Tor fantasy series, especially Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. Goodkind was my favorite author for some time. The reason why he’s not anymore, and why I essentially broke up with my favorite novelist, is the subject of another post. I read The Hobbit at one point, but it wasn’t that influential. I skipped right over Lord of the Rings. I can’t remember much actual science fiction during my younger reading; anything that wasn’t assigned by school was sword-and-sorcery fantasy or the occasional bit of YA sci-fi. It was the fluffy, entertaining, non-literary stuff. If I’m being honest, it was 95% crap. Commercially successful, oversimplified crap.
It wasn’t until university that I found out there was more on offer. Heres the quick version: I started as a biology major (that naturopath thing), then discovered that my love of literature was actually a thing. I simultaneously took another degree in English literature. Ironically, and contrary to conventional wisdom, the English degree has taken much farther than the science degree. Go figure.
One of the many courses I took was a class in science fiction. I practically danced with joy when . It was my jam. I signed up, and wished I could every semester after that. It was thrilling. It was validating. Science fiction, fantasy, and its ilk wasn’t just something pimply teenagers read between Dungeons and Dragons sessions (like I did). It was Literature.
My professor’s name is now lost to my youth. I’ve always been crap at names, in real life and in fiction. But I remember HER. She was a stereotypical academic: middle aged and frumpy. Her hair was long, dishwater brown, and aggressively unkept. She wore thick-rimmed glasses that further hid her face amid the tangled locks. But she had a truly amazing voice, rich and hypnotic. And she knew her shit.
She taught the entire arc of science fiction starting with Verne and Wells as a foundation. Then we looked at the pulps, and the genesis of modern science fiction. I clearly remember William Gibson’s short, “The Gernsback Continuum” used to illustrate this period, and all the difference between where they thought we were going where we ended up. The Golden Age was where I started to get interested, a little classic Aasimov or such, and I’ve since picked up more. New Wave really blew my hair back, getting into more familiar territory with the themes and writing styles.
But the science fiction that really turned me on, tuned me in, and convinced me that it’s an art form: cyberpunk. It was gritty, dystopian, and didn’t pull any punches. It was more recent, with themes that seemed relevant in transition of one millennium to another. More than that, there was a thick vein of cool running through cyberpunk like mithril under a dwarven mine. And though cyberpunk in general is awesome, I attribute my desire to write the stuff to one writer: William Gibson.
There were two textbooks (in addition to innumerable photocopied handouts): Tesseracts, a Canadian anthology of speculative fiction, and Burning Chrome by William Gibson. I won’t take a huge dump on Canadian literature here, but I’ve never really gotten into my countrypeople’s body of work. Gibson, however, blew me away. Burning Chrome is essentially a cross-section of all cyberpunk (at least up to that point). Moreover, the man can WRITE.
Gibson had a richness of language I hadn’t seen in the genre up to that point, except in a few of the excerpts I’d studied in that class. It was visceral, action-packed, drug-fueled awesomeness. I’ve never been much into recreational drugs myself; I’m a lightweight and the don’t agree with me, so maybe it was a vicarious experience as well. But comparing Gibson’s work to the masters of literature I’d encountered elsewhere in my English degree, I was hard pressed to say that he had any less mastery of the elements of story or style than the Pulitzer prize winners I’d studied.
Suddenly, I realized the value of science fiction, fantasy, and anything else that I had previously dismissed as “geeky” or “nerdy” and relegated to my guilty pleasures (like Dungeons and Dragons, Disney cartoons or porn). It was like the heavens opened up and showed me a whole new world, one that may or may not have evil wizards, heroes with flashing swords, rocketships, aliens, or cyberspace. (Please note that I often lump together “fantasy” and “science fiction” into the term “speculative fiction,” another term I picked up in university.)
Since then, I’ve read countless more books, short stories, and papers by grandmasters and hacks alike. I’ve loved some, hated others, and discovered some truly amazing fiction. And I can always trace it back to that one year of university where I discovered William Gibson, cyberpunk, and the power of science fiction to enlighten as well as entertain. It’s kind of awesome, actually.
Now it’s time for the shameless plug (for me but mostly some really talented writers). Check out the collection Voices of Imagination on Amazon as soon as you can. Thanks!