In Dreams Awake

Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.

(Henry David Thoreau)

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Utterly Alien

  I've been thinking recently (for some reason) about the writing tips that we bump into every few days. You know the sort of thing: Show, Don't Tell is a common one, and Avoid Adverbs pops up all the time. It seems as though half the authors and most of the critics in the world just can't wait to share their wisdom in yet another Top 10 Hints.

  The one I've been thinking about is Write What You Know.

  There's truth in it, of course. Every author draws on his or her own experiences, the things we've done and felt and seen. Otherwise our work would be no more involving than a shopping list. But there are limits. This is Fantasy, after all. Robert Jordan never travelled with Loial in Andor, and I'm very nearly certain that JRR Tolkien didn't stop by Bag End for a crumpet and tea with Bilbo Baggins. Part of Fantasy is writing about things we don't know.

  It's also about things we've invented, preferably ourselves, rather than borrowed wholesale from someone else's work (see my blog Ditching the Light Sabres for a rant about that, if you like). Our job is to create and invent a new world, people it with strange and wonderful beings, and then take the reader by the hand and lead him to explore. None of that can possibly come from writing what we know.

  I suspect this is why so many aliens aren't alien at all, but humans in different skin. Star Trek is especially guilty on this - again, see an earlier blog - because it takes humans and gives them pointy ears, or ridged brows, and calls them alien. It's very hard to conceive of a non-human species which thinks in a different way to us. It's then even harder to convey that to the reader in an interesting and engaging way. How can we empathise with a species that doesn't have the concept of love? Or a race that has no children, no young, but like Celtic elves builds bodies out of forest matter and quickens them with life?

  That's utterly alien, a people with which we struggle to find a common frame of reference. In writing I think it's very nearly impossible to do. The closest I can think of would be the Martians in Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land", or perhaps the Fithp in Niven and Pournelle's "Footfall". Both are SF books, not Fantasy, but the principle is the same. I'm sure there are others, and if so I'd like to take a look at them, so suggestions are more than welcome.

  I might be thinking about all this because I'm writing Starfire, which depends heavily on several different patterns of thought. Mostly that's indirect, but it's still tricky. I feel as though I'm wrestling with an oiled snake in a mudbath. But it's working, slowly - at least I think it is - I hope it is. And perhaps I'll be a little slower to criticise in future, when someone chooses to go for funny-looking humans again, because trying the other way is really hard.

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