I’ve got a bunch of browser tabs open on my various computers that have been there for weeks, one of which is Alastair Reynolds on writing science fiction. This is mostly a response to a not-terribly-interesting complaint that the science fiction genre has been “exhausted,” but there was a bit in there that resonated with me, where Reynolds talks about how he started writing one of his books:

That reaction, for me, encapsulates something fairly central to my subsequent relationship with SF. I don’t care for a lot of it. Never have done, never will. But at the same time, I doubt that I’d feel much inclination to write it if it were not for that generative friction, that grit in the oyster. There are two impulses at work when I produce SF – a sense that no one else is doing it exactly the way it should be done, and an acute desire to write it as well as it is written by the writers I most admire, whoever they might be at the moment. Ask me now: David Mitchell, perhaps. If I was truly happy with the state of SF, in other words, I suspect I’d feel very little incentive to write it. When I wrote Revelation Space, for instance, I perceived a massive, book-shaped hole where one ought to be – a book that was true to Einstein, true to our view of the limits of life and intelligence in the universe, true to our understanding of our own evolution, and yet which was also faintly Medieval, and rather ornately gothic, a sort of dark mash-up of the Name of the Rose and Ringworld. I failed, obviously, but that was the impulse – and in the end it produced something quite different from the objective. I’d be delighted if Revelation Space proved sufficiently irritating and wrong to another writer that it served as their generative grit. Pushing Ice, a more recent novel of mine, was written out of a sense of annoyance with the way so much SF cooked the books when it came to speculation about alien intelligence and galactic evolutionary timescales. House of Suns, more recently still, was written out of a conviction that it was possible to create a novel that felt galactic in scope, and yet which was still strongly constrained by the real physics of causality. My most recent novel, Blue Remembered Earth, was written to full another book-shaped hole – a perception (rightly or wrongly) that nobody was doing a mid-term, spacefaring future in quite the way I wanted it to be done. I am very happy to be told that I failed at all of these things, but these were the impulses.

What I am trying – and perhaps failing – to articulate here is that for me, I do not think I could write SF if I were not disenchanted with large areas of the field. Those areas of disenchantment are precisely the interesting interfaces where I can begin to feel my imagination doing useful work.

I think this is dead on, not just about SF, but about all kinds of writing. Including non-fiction– the reason this resonated with me is that I’ve been pitching a new book (and have a verbal agreement but not yet an official contract for it) that was driven in large part by a feeling that other people working a particular vein were Doing It Wrong. One recent highly regarded book in particular I was simply unable to finish because it annoyed me so much– I still have it on the iPad, and look at it every now and then, but I have yet to pick it up where I left off and not immediately close it again.

For that matter, a lot of How to Teach Physics to Your Dog was written the way it is because I didn’t like other pop-physics treatments of quantum physics. This made a great deal more work for me in places– the sections about decoherence in Chapter 4 were a miserable slog to write because I swore I wasn’t going to resort to the typical hand-waving people use to get past that– but it’s a better book as a result. I probably wasn’t entirely successful, but I think it was useful to make the attempt.

Anyway, that’s the useful take-away, for me, from Reynolds’s post: it can, in fact, be a positive thing to have people in your field Doing It Wrong. It’s not necessarily a good thing to call them out on that in public, or anything like that, but having a little grit in the oyster, to copy Reynolds’s metaphor, often leads to better things than reading only congenial treatments of a given subject.

And now, I need to get back to working on the work-in-progress. More details about which will be made public once I have a signed contract. I will say, though, that it doesn’t involve the dog, much to her annoyance.


  1. #1 Wilson
    November 20, 2012

    Best wishes for success on the new work.

    (Words can barely express how much I want to know what the book is that ‘inspired’ it, but since I’ll probably read your better version when it comes out, I guess I’ll live.)

  2. #2 Sue VanHattum
    November 20, 2012

    Loved this: “I perceived a massive, book-shaped hole where one ought to be.”

    Sometimes it’s not that anything’s being done wrong, just that there’s no book about … That’s why I put together Playing With Math: Stories from Math Circles, Homeschoolers, and Passionate Teachers (coming out soon). It fills a hole I kept staring at.