The American Book of the Dead: Science Fiction

Wednesday, July 21

Science Fiction

I’d always had thoughts about writing a science fiction novel. I had grown up on "Star Wars." My father was a novelist who wrote the occasional science fiction novel. His father was a lover of science fiction with an encyclopedic memory of everything he’d read. So it seemed inevitable that I should try my hand. My idea was to write a sci-fi novel with the scope of The Brothers Karamazov or Magic Mountain with the energy and lyricism of Kerouac or Henry Miller, the self-obsessed literalness of Thomas Wolfe. Remember, I started the novel when I was thirty and I still wanted to be a giant. I wanted to write science fiction novel that read like literature. Lofty goals better suited to a freshman in college but I still felt it was important to believe in certain kinds of elevation--beauty, truth, art, God. At this stage in my life, writing was my only religion.

My feeling was that the giants of science fiction were generally bad writers. Asimov, Clarke, even, I’m sorry, Philip K. Dick. You can’t write complete thoughts on speed. I thought it would be interesting for a traditional novelist to try his hand at the genre.

I was trying to infiltrate an entire genre. I was never a science geek. I had never read all the science fiction I could. I hoped this gave me a better perspective. First, though, the plot of the novel I was proposing. A writer, teaching at a university, through his research and imagination uncovers the secrets of the UFO conspiracy, secret societies,and life after death, all of which lead to World War III spearheaded by a fundamentalist Christian President. In short, everything that actually happened. Except I got the President’s name wrong.

I enjoyed writing the book more than any I had written in the past. It was coming easily which was always the best sign. A case of Platonic anamnesis: remembering something that had never been known but had always existed, plucking it out of the air.

There was some difficulty. As I’ve mentioned, a writer has to believe that what he is writing is true or else what would be the point. If so, what did it mean if I was writing about aliens and nuclear war? Everywhere I saw both the potential for God and the potential for apocalypse. I was believing UFOs were everywhere. I was believing in the imminence of war. I was believing that humanity was primitive, ignorant, past saving. It was a profoundly alienating experience. All in all I was not such a good man to be around.

They say the best time to write about something is when you have some distance from the subject. I was assigning myself the immortal task of being objective about something that was enveloping me. I kept going though. I felt like I might be on to something, an archetype maybe. At the very least, a good story. Little did I know that I was channeling these ideas. In the hierarchy of inspiration, channeling was somewhere below divine inspiration and somewhere above blind luck.

Next up: Meet President Charles Winchell…


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