Unlike the song, “Winds of Change,” I will not begin this article by whistling at you for a very long time.
What I’m talking about today started when I was eleven years old. I remember it very distinctly, it’s been something I’ve thought about over the years.
One day, when I was in my room, I looked down at my action figures for whatever reason and I realized that I had gone days, perhaps weeks, without playing with them. Moreover, I realized this didn’t particularly bother me any.
Prior to this, I played with them constantly. They were my first storytelling medium, before and during my discovery of things like pens and papers, and typewriters, and eventually computers. They were all individual characters with histories and personalities. The adventures and stories were long-running and as episodic and detailed as anything I’ve done so far with God in the Machine. I never really played with anyone else — at least, not in this manner — for probably the same reason I don’t collaborate with other writers easily today: Because it’s easier just to do it myself, since I already know how it all goes.
But anyway: When I looked at them and realized that I was going lengthy periods of time without being interested in them, I thought very clearly, I have grown out of this and into new things.
Two things came with that: First, the feeling of sadness, the idea that something once loved was now just a memory and a shell. Secondly, the confusion and fascination at actually being aware of this moment.
The first was transitory and passed easily. I remember after this thought occurred, that I sat down on the floor and I played with them…but there was no joy in it. There was no creation. I was just going through the motions of games and stories told years prior, and I knew it. My interests were in new things. I had new books, I was writing steadily (steadily, hell, I was writing prolifically; I wish I could still write as fast and easily as I did when I was eleven). My games were more outdoors. There had been places I’d lived prior where it wasn’t really safe to travel around the town, but this wasn’t one of those places. This was a pretty good place, despite having the built-in fault of being located in Nevada. I had begun to discover music, as well as television. I was still a few years away from discovering the internet and the delight of multiplayer gaming. I had discovered girls, of course, because boys discover girls thirty seconds after they are born, but girls were still a different planet than me. It would be another three years before I would meet a pretty, funny girl who would eventually become my wife.
The second feeling, the confusion and fascination, is the bit which sticks with me over the years. In hindsight, what has always struck me about it is the awareness of the moment, of realizing “Here, at this moment, I have outgrown this” and knowing deep down that it really was true (and it was. I never played with them again).
Something I talked about at length in a previous article on this blog, Bags, Bones & Heartstrings, was the gifty-curse of self-awareness that writers have: that is to say that you could be crying your heart out and, somewhere in the back of your head, be thinking coldly so this is what it’s like…
I think of my moment realization as being part of that same thing. It’s the same cold piece saying “And this is where your interests shifted away entirely. You know this.”
What got me thinking about this moment actively — and discussing it here, in turn — was the movie The Weather Man, with Nicholas Cage.
Bear with me here.
It was a terrific movie, I walked away from it feeling happy and thinking I would have liked to have written that. That was something of a new feeling toward that kind of movie.
This was in tandem with someone recommending that I check out a historical fiction sub-forum, over at AbsoluteWrite. I’ve been there for years and years and didn’t even know it was there, so I happily went over. And while I was browsing, I realized that my current novel — my Roman novel — is not exactly historical fiction, but it’s closer to that than anything else. And my next novel is set in the ’20s and ’30s and is very definitely a historical novel. In neither novel is there anything science-fictional, nothing fantasy, nothing really horror (except the mundane, grisly horrors that pop up in life out of certain situations; I mean there’s nothing supernatural).
And I thought, very clearly, as if I were eleven again: I am not a science fiction writer.
I’ve been stewing on that for a couple of days now, and that meant I really thought about it. I’ve been getting enormous pleasure out of reading Fallen Dragon by Peter F. Hamilton, which is a space-opera sort of science fiction novel. Part of the enormous pleasure comes from the fact that I haven’t read something like this with any enjoyment in a lot of years. So much of science fiction which I buy, perhaps out of habit, goes unread. Likewise, I don’t particularly enjoy huge whallops of fantasy. Harry Potter was the last proper fantasy work I read.
There are still authors of the fantastic I read. Gene Wolfe is perhaps classified as science fiction, but I don’t know that he really is entirely. Neil Gaiman writes fantasy, sure, I guess. I have no idea what genre you would put Stephen King into anymore (and don’t care, I delight in him wherever he is).
The books I’ve taken bigger delight in reading, recently, have been things like Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem, a novel I began reading because it was about Roman soldiers and a novel which I finished reading because I just couldn’t stop, it was too powerful. Or Pompeii, by Robert Harris, which was more or less the same situation. Beyond that, I read non-fiction, or I read much older science fiction and fantasy (where modern sci-fi is so frequently impenetrable to me, Isaac Asimov is still like an easy old friend).
And as I think further about this, I consider my television habits. Very abruptly, at the beginning of the summer which is now abandoning us, I lost all interest in the movie channels we had, in most of the re-runs, in most of the story-shows. I spent the summer devouring the Discovery Channel, the Science Channel, the History Channel. I re-discovered a delight and enthusiasm in deep sea marine biology and watched all manner of programs on the topic, then wandered off to read and study. Science became more interesting to me than science fiction. The science of the future delighted me more than the science of the fantastic.
The disjointing part of all of this — and the part where you perhaps begin to think I’ve gone utterly mad — is the strange feeling in my brain, a sort of off-kilter feeling, as if I can feel the gears of my brain shifting over. It’s like a factory that’s shutting down so workers can program the equipment for new materials and molds. Is that a cheesy metaphor? Probably. But it’s what I’ve got. I go back and forth on all of this as I think about it, but there’s no denying the fact that my short stories — as those who read them can attest — grow more and more quietly fantastic and more about people. If there is a fantastic element, a science fiction element, it’s deep in the background. And as I look at the novel ideas which I am excited about working on, they really aren’t fantastic, except in the sense of people. There’s no smash-bang Star Wars novel in my future, for example.
This is so much fun. What fun would writing be if nothing ever changed? I love the big shifts and the weird days of feeling off-kilter. Couldn’t be more happy about it.
And now, I’ve gone on at great length about it too.