Robert A. Heinlein

Why I Don’t Write Science Fiction

My first major in college was astronomy, believe it or not. If you’re happy that I’m a writer, you can thank calculus. My poor relationship with higher math wasn’t the only reason for the change of majors, though. The truth is, I’ve always loved science and found it beautiful, but I really never wanted to be an actual scientist.

In truth, I just wanted to look at heavenly bodies.

Most of the books I read as a teen and through my twenties were science fiction, and the more a story relied on actual science, the more I seemed to like it. So, one would imagine that, when I started writing, that’s what I’d do.

My only science fiction efforts were in high school, in the form of short stories that were published in our school’s monthly “newspaper.” And wow, were they terrible. Seriously. Just awful. And not even “real” science fiction, as the science involved was pretty vague, to put it mildly.

Okay, calling it “real” science fiction is a poor choice of words. Sci-Fi can be broken down into lots of categories, of course, but the two biggies are “hard” and “soft.” (Kinda like porn… but not.) The difference between the two is that “hard” science fiction is that very sort I mentioned, where the science is accurate and a crucial facet of the story. “Soft” science fiction would be where the science is basically just given a nod, whether accurate or not, and often just incidental to the story.

At any rate, when I finally found my voice and started writing novel-length stories, I didn’t go for science fiction. I’ve done fantasy. I’ve done “social science fiction,” in the form of a dystopian future story, but that’s not the same. And I’m currently in the middle of a superhero memoir trilogy.

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Now, the Dynamistress books actually do say “science fiction” on the covers. It’s not accurate, of course. Stories about super-powered individuals technically qualify as fantasy. But because I indulged myself and really got detailed with the science behind Dyna’s abilities, I labeled it science fiction. (Besides, most people think of fantasy as being along the lines of Tolkein and such.)

The question remains, though, if I love hard science fiction so much, not to mention science itself, why don’t I write it? And I have to admit that the answer is that I feel intimidated by the very idea. And there’s the fact that I don’t even have any solid ideas for such a story. I have a notes file with a few concepts I’d want to include in a Sci-Fi tale – some of which did make their way into the Dynamistress books – but nothing more than that.

Truth is, I’ve always had a particular gripe about hard science fiction. In my experience, the more focus there is on the science, the less memorable the characters are. Arthur C. Clarke was good at incorporating hard science. But the most memorable character he ever came up with was made of silicon, wires, and plastic.

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One of the most brilliant series of books I’ve read, science-wise, was Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy, Red MarsGreen MarsBlue Mars. I can’t think of anything else I’ve read that incorporated so many fields of science so thoroughly or so well. But again… his characters don’t stand out in memory. Robert A. Heinlein, on the other hand, created plenty of memorable characters, but the science content of his stories was never close to being equal to Clarke or Robinson.

Heinlein, though, has certainly been the writer whose work most affected my own story-telling. So if I ever write a “real” science fiction novel, I think it’s safe to say that it’ll have memorable characters. Whether that happens or not… just wait and see.

Posted by vmwales in Genre, Other Writers, 0 comments

My Friend, Parke Godwin

I’m often asked who my favorite writers are. This has always been a difficult question for me to answer because I tend to think in terms of favorite works, rather than favorite writers. For most of my life, I was an avid science fiction reader. Unquestionably, my favorite sci-fi book was Frank Herbert’s Dune. In fact, the first three books of that series were my favorites. But outside of the universe of Dune, I didn’t really care for any other of Herbert’s work. There were some, though, whose works were almost all enjoyable to me. Robert A. Heinlein was one such author. As an actual writer, it’s easy to point out flaws common to most of his works, but he always entertained and his books were all page-turners. Outside of that genre, Tom Robbins is another favorite, though if I’m honest, I really have to limit that to his first five novels.

I don’t think it ever occurred to me that I’d meet any of my writing “heroes” in my life. Herbert and Heinlein were both long dead before I was ever published. I suppose I might one day meet Robbins, though it would be easier if I lived in Seattle. Then again, he’s not exactly a young man, anymore, so it’s increasingly unlikely that our paths will cross. And let’s face it, writers in general aren’t exactly gregarious creatures. They’re not the easiest people to meet.

But sometimes, life tosses you some coincidence. In 2005, I was attending the annual awards banquet of Northern California Publishers and Authors. The speaker at the banquet was Persia Woolley. I knew her name, though I’d never read her work. But I almost had.

Persia Wooley… a truly lovely person.

In my early twenties, I went through a period of being very into Arthurian legend. And one day, at a bookstore, I was deciding between Persia’s Guinevere trilogy and two books by Parke Godwin. In the end, I chose the latter, Firelord and Beloved Exile.

I knew Persia and Parke were friends, as Parke thanked Persia in the acknowledgments of one of his books. And as luck would have it, after giving her talk at the banquet, she sat next to me at my table. We struck up a conversation (she’s a warm and lovely lady) and I happened to mention my fondness for Godwin’s books. (Firelord, by the way, would be my favorite non-science fiction novel.) My novel, One Nation Under God, won several awards in that year’s contest and I gave Persia a copy of it before the event ended.

To my shock, a few months later, I received an email saying, “I’m about a quarter of the way into One Nation. This is one hell of a book.” The email was from Parke Godwin. Persia had given him the book.

Obviously, I was stunned that the author of so many books I loved, including one of my all-time favorites, was really enjoying my work. Naturally, I replied almost immediately.

We exchanged a number of emails and, eventually, met in person. Turns out he lived only about 40 miles from me. Over the next couple years, I drove up to visit several times, Persia joining us on a couple occasions. And throughout, we emailed frequently.

As you’d expect, we talked about his work a lot. I told him that Firelord was one of my favorite books of all time, and was stunned to learn that it wasn’t even a book he wanted to write. His publisher told him they wanted a King Arthur book, as they were currently “hot.” He told them he didn’t want to write a King Arthur book. But he did it, anyway. So the book I held so dear was, amazingly, not something that came from his heart.

Parke – or, Pete, as he preferred to be called – was a courteous and entertaining fellow, with a streak of wild Irishman, and I greatly enjoyed our talks. Persia told me once that Pete really enjoyed my visits, too, which pleased me, of course.

Neither of us were truly at our best during the time we were acquainted. I was in a creative rut and dealing with moderately severe depression. Pete helped me with encouragement and compliments on my work. I wish I could have helped him, but his problems were beyond my influence.

I do have Pete to thank for one pretty major thing. In 2009, frustrated with my day job and lack of financial success in writing, I enrolled in graduate school to become a mental health counselor. For a year and a half, I worked full time and went to school full time. But halfway through the degree, I was going a bit nuts. Because all my time was devoted to those two things. I had zero time for writing.

I emailed Pete and vented about this. He replied, “What do you REALLY want to do with your life? If it’s writing, go for it; if mental health, go for that.”

Days later, I withdrew from school and immediately slammed out a serious amount of writing on Reckoning. I wrote and thanked him for the advice… and for reminding me of who I really am.

What’s your excuse?

Pete wasn’t in great health, though. And as it continued to decline, my visits became less frequent. The last time I saw him, which was the first time in a few years, was in October of 2011, when Pete was one of the guests of honor at the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego. It was a heartbreaking meeting, in fact. His health had deteriorated badly, as had his memory. He didn’t recognize me, at first.

In 2012, largely due to his cognitive decline, he was moved to an attended care facility. And on June 19, 2013, he breathed his last.

I do wish I’d visited him more frequently. But I’m grateful to have known him at all. RIP, my friend.

Parke Godwin – An Irishman who loved Scotch.

And to all my readers, please do check out his works. The man was truly talented.

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