Standing On The Shoulders of Giants

I’m not sure what caused it: Maybe watching the news coming out of NASA about the Mars Rover. Maybe downloading too many Star Trek alert tones for my phone. Maybe the deep and somewhat excessive excitement I felt when I discovered some Stargate episodes that I missed.

I know something triggered it in combination with some historical fiction I’m planning. The key to historical fiction is to always make certain that your character is of her time. Maybe she doesn’t speak Chaucerian English, even though she lived in Chaucer’s time, but she has the right attitudes—attitudes she wouldn’t hold at any other time.

I know I am a child of my time. I tell my husband almost weekly that I was born into the 20thcentury for a reason . . . and that reason is really a handful of reasons, all intertwined—penicillin, indoor plumbing, and electricity. All those time travel romances in which the heroine happily decides to remain in 17thcentury Scotland?  Well, either those heroines are crazy, the authors don’t know history, or (most likely) the books don’t speak to me.

What speaks to me—what has always spoken to me—is science fiction.

And the realization I had this past fall is that the reason I’m a science fiction writer is because I was born in the latter half of the 20th century.

I love mystery. I love romance. I love fantasy. Heck, I love good old complex family dramas without an ounce of adventure in them. I love great writing, great characters, great settings.

But I get truly passionate about science fiction, and that’s almost all science fiction.

Before I was old enough to separate reality from fiction (and yes, there is a difference,even to fiction writers), I saw science mixed with science fiction. My parents’ black-and-white television set brought me The Jetsons, Lost in Space,  and good old Walter Cronkite interrupting this broadcast to let me know that mankind had orbited the Earth, had left Earth’s orbit, had died on the launch pad, had orbited the Moon.

Every kid in my school wanted to be an astronaut—at least until we heard about the amount of exercise those poor people went through—and all the girls had crushes on either Kirk or Spock. We almost came to blows at times, trying to decide which one we wanted to spend the rest of our lives with: the brainy one or the brawny one.Me, I rather prefer brains and passion to brains and bloodless, so I’ve always preferred Kirk.

Or maybe I just imprinted on all of those astronauts. It takes one super-sized pair to climb into an Apollo capsule on top of a gigantic Roman candle, and let an explosion propel you out of Earth’s orbit.

How, after that, could anything I imagine even compare?

The first “book” I ever wrote was a typical girl-girl thing, featuring a pony. The second one had a car, I think, and the third—well, in the third, Captain Kirk goes back in time, lands in Superior, Wisconsin, and saves me from the drudgery that was my life. Romance novel meet Star Trek novel, twelve-year-old girl style. (We won’t discuss the Partridge Family gothic novel that followed.)

My friend Toni Rich and I spent most of our English class in our eighth grade year writing one of those back-and-forth novels—she’d write two pages, then I’d write two pages—and from what I remember about it (which isn’t much besides the colored paper), it was some space adventure thing with lots of hunky astronauts and big hairy monsters Threatening The Entire Universe! Yes, there were lots of exclamation points as well, and cliffhangers meant to stump the co-writer, not added for any logical reasons of their own.

But what if I had been born fifty years earlier? Would I have written so much science fiction? Or would I have written cozy mysteries after losing myself in the work of Agatha Christie? Would I write Gold Rush adventures because I loved Jack London? (I still do, by the way.) Would everything have snow and that horrible quest to build a fire?

Or would I have imprinted on the works of Herbert George Wells? Would I look to Mars and see possible invaders? Or would I rip off Jules Verne and writing diving stories set in the deep blue sea?

H.G. Wells makes me wonder if science fiction was just in the air. After all, he was born roughly 100 years before I was, and he became the prototypical science fiction writer. If a modern sf writer wants to do anything, she’ll have to climb on the shoulders of Wells to do it. His work examines both the possibilities of science and the failures of it, the politicization of science and how deeply personal it can be.

But he wasn’t the first with those ideas either. One of the firsts was a woman, Mary Shelley, whose Frankenstein is a tale of science gone horribly, horribly wrong.(Metaphorically, it’s a fear-of-childbirth story, or maybe (more accurately) a fear-of-your-own-child story, but we’ll ignore that for the moment.) She influenced entire generations as well, but in a different way. Perhaps her influence was more on the horror side of the equation because her monster is so memorable or perhaps because science wasn’t in the air in the decades after her novel like it was in the late 19th century and all of the 20th.

Everything was about science when I grew up. Everything. From scientifically designed food(the astronauts drink Tang! You should too!) to scientifically enhanced clothing, we couldn’t escape science if we tried.

And, since I’m dyslexic and absolutely unable to write down the correct answer to any equation (even if I know it), I am not very good at practicing science. I would-have been a dismal failure as an astronaut. I couldn’t have even started the training, let alone get to that scary exercise program.

But I’m fantastic at making things up. I can imagine strange new worlds and new lives and new civilizations. My imagination can boldly go where Kris herself has never gone before—and will not go ever.

Sometimes I think it a small consolation that I can write science fiction instead of live an adventurous lifestyle. Then I watch documentaries on what the astronauts went through or even watch someone else’s imagined journey (Howard’s trip to the space station on The Big Bang Theory comes to mind), and I realize that I am hopelessly bookish, not all that adventurous outside of my office, and scared to death of Roman candles.

So would I have written science fiction if I’d been born in a different century? Who knows? If I’d been born much earlier, I’d have spent a lot of energy just trying to convince someone I was a person, not the property of the men in my life, that I had a brain and a purpose other than child-bearing. So I’ve had that luxury as well.

The luxury of respect, of education, of science, and of damn good entertainment.

Yes, I stand on the shoulders of giants. And those giants are living breathing people, with real lives and real fears. Sometimes those living breathing people wrote science fiction.

But many of them lived it—and shared the adventure with the rest of us.

And for that, I’m profoundly grateful.

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