Friday, October 9, 2009

The Thematic Impulse

Every writer has, I think, themes which they return to again and again. For writers like Philip K. Dick it was the impermanence of reality (particularly in novels such as The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich, Ubik or Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said) for JG Ballard it was to do with the shifting nature of society (The Drought, The Drowned World, Crash and particularly in his later novels such as Cocaine Nights and Super Cannes). Even the most fantastical of fiction writers have preoccupations of their own – Robert E. Howard’s work returns again and again to the ‘barbarian’ versus ‘society’ (themes which are evident in his Conan, Kull and Solomon Kane stories) – Michael Moorcock’s fantasies often deal with the notion of the Outsider – Elric, Corum – and their attempts to find themselves within an unfamiliar society, whereas Mervyn Peake dealt with the struggle of the individual the express themselves within strictly limiting boundaries.

Sometimes – often – these thematic preoccupations are a conscious choice on behalf of the writer, but equally as often they work on a different, subconscious level. While recently reading over some of my much earlier work – stories that I wrote in what I refer to as my ‘first wave’ of writing some ten years or so ago – I was stuck by the similarity of themes in both those stories and my current output. There is within them that same sense of the city as an alien place, of human beings changed by circumstance or technology, the importance of love as a human emotion and, almost always, that firm refusal to set my stories in any other place rather than Earth.

It may be a strange admission for a writer of science fiction and fantasy to make, but I have very rarely found the notion of alien worlds all that appealing, particularly as a backdrop for my fiction. Similarly, the writer’s whose work I most enjoy rarely, if ever, go too far off-planet. Or if they do, as in the case of PKD’s versions of Mars and Luna, those worlds are very often extensions of the Earth-bound worlds that already exist in their fiction.

The vast majority of my own current output has remained with its feet very firmly on the earth – often a skewed version of the earth, it must be said, with nods towards alternate reality, but good old Terra for all that.

I suspect that it is mostly to do with my own lack of scientific training or understanding, and even in those moments when I am at my most science-fictional I lean very much towards the ‘soft’ rather than ‘hard’ side of SF, or perhaps it is to do with the books and writers who first lead me towards the speculative realm.

There are many, many writers and books who helped to form my own fictional viewpoint: Ballard and Dick, Peake, Spinrad and Ellison, Moorcock and Haldeman, Howard, Leiber, Stoker, Wells, Shelley, Stevenson, Walter Miller Jr, Aldiss, Vance, Zelazny, Wyndham… the list goes on, but one of the things they have in common is the deep core of humanity in their work.

Writers like Brian Aldiss - who even at his most flamboyant, such as his wonderful novel Hothouse – never forget that it is human beings who inhabit the heart of their novels. Similarly Mervyn Peake with his Ghormenghast novels -where the even the most baroque imagery is underscored with a deep understanding of the characters and their condition - never forgets that it is the characters who make the novels come alive.

I think that the thematic impulse is something that every writer experiences on some level. In many ways the trick is to harness those themes that emerge through your work and explore them as fully as you can, to use them to enhance the work, to personalise it in some respect.

Or, in other words, to write what interests you.

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