Not long ago I decided to admit that I will never be able to read all the good sci-fi that’s out there. Sci-fi is a relatively new genre, having only become a body of work on the literary scene in the 1800s. Did it start before that? In a variation, yes, as many sci-fi fans consider the short-story Somnium by Joannes Kepler (early 1600s) the first true sci-fi story. Considered by many the first sci-fi novel is the everlasting story of Frankenstein, the novel by Mary Shelley (1818). But since then, and especially in modern times, sci-fi is produced in flooding gulfs year after year.
My compromise was to at least make sure I’d read all the classics that started the modern era of sci-fi (1950s) since standard futuristic sci-fi colors my own fiction writing (I don’t care for, nor write, fantasy, medieval-era things, cyberpunk). Of course I’d read the 1880s stuff and Jules Verne, and in high school, had a long streak of Ray Bradbury fandom where I read all of his major works. I started by hitting two classics I had not read, Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke and Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein.
Though I had not read it before, I could see how the theme of Childhood’s End had a theme that many writers have thought of and have treated in different ways. The film “Independence Day” is an example. My own story “Treat,” the last story in my collection, The Owl Motel, came from the same strange pondering about aliens. That is the story in the collection that might be too intense for young readers and thus is not summarized in any of the book’s promotion.
Stranger in a Strange Land is a beautiful title (and of course a great book) and makes me think about fiction writers. Fiction writers are “strangers in a strange land” because you basically spend a lot of time by yourself spinning these stories in your head, some of which get out the public. You have an immediate affinity with other writers, who have the same “stranger” status in a world where they don’t quite fit in. You get cranky if you go too long without writing. Your characters sometimes talk to you in your mind while you’re doing other things, and many of your observations are tucked away into who knows what dark corners of your brain only to come out later.
For some people, it’s a schizophrenic experience. One day you read back your writing and think, “I’m really good!” And then the next day you read your writing and think, “This is awful. Why don’t I just quit? Obviously I’m no good at this.” There was a long period where I was secretly convinced that I had a great talent that lay just to the side of what I was doing and I would go my whole life without knowing it because I thought I was a writer. What if I am a highly talented painter within but never knew it because I never tried art? What if I’m meant to be a famous pianist but never learned the piano and missed my one shot?
We think like this, we fiction writers. We have to get together. The world is getting stranger, but we are just getting stranger along with it. So we will always be strangers in a strange land.