What I Read vs. What I Write

This week I picked up a collection of short fiction by my favorite author, Poul Anderson. Anderson’s writing (he passed on in 2001) caused me to reflect on the difference between the types of fiction I read and the types of stuff that I actually write. Anderson, along with Robert A. Heinlein, Jerry Pournelle, and Ernest Hemingway, are all of a type, in that they all tend to write about bold, adventurous men happy in the outdoors and capable of wresting from the world what they want with their bare hands. It’s fun, energetic storytelling, and their works have given me much enjoyment over the years. Yet their works diverge greatly from what I write when given time to myself. Why?

To a great extent, the stories we write are reflections of ourselves–how we perceive the world, how we perceive and relate to others, and (often, but not always) what sorts of people we aspire to be. Anderson, Heinlein, and Hemingway were very much outdoorsmen. Pournelle, in his youth, was an artillery officer in the Korean War, so all of them are acquainted with lives of challenge, danger, and adventure.

Me? Not so much.

I am a creature of my upbringing, experiences, and personal tastes. I’m a suburbanite, an “indoorsy” type of fellow. I don’t mind the outdoors, wildernesses, or strange climates, though I usually look at them as something to appreciate out the window or from a safe distance as I travel between built places. I am not a frontiersman; instead, I’m more prone to hiking on trails someone else laid out before me. “Adventure” for me is tourism, which is to say, visiting places that other, bolder people already settled and made safe and civilized. I am a creature of civilization–the sort of weak-chinned, dependable bureaucrat that people like Heinlein or Anderson might treat with contempt or, at best, tolerant amusement in their fiction.

I suppose, if I were to be honest with myself and wanted to describe fiction written in a “Bartish” mode, I write about characters who are very much coping with the challenges and conflicts that arise from the center of a society rather than its frontiers. I am just grumpy enough with the strictures imposed by society that I seek escape in adventurous science fiction and work in a field dedicated to pushing technological and physical frontiers.

But can we be honest here? I’m not a happy camper unless I can take the conveniences and systems of civilization with me. I’m not likely to get into space until I can do so on a spaceliner not much different from commercial aviation and can anticipate a hotel with soft towels and a decent saloon in the lobby when I arrive at my destination. Even Larry Niven, who has created a lot of “tourist” characters in his science fiction, has his people going new places and encountering the utterly alien. Again, they’re going somewhere new.

Mind you, these authors haven’t left Earth any more than I have, but they have (or did) experience with and interest in outdoor, vigorous activities. Even the comfortable homebody Bilbo Baggins was created by a World War I veteran. Okay, so I’m unlikely to take up hiking the Andes or cruising the Amazon anytime soon. Still, I have some curiosity about and appreciation for the unfamiliar, the beautiful, and the challenging. I’m just not in a rush to get my feet wet or my hands dirty.

The trick for my writing, I suppose, would be to find a way to put a suburban homebody like me into the midst of a space opera without getting him killed and allowing him to make some sort of positive contribution by the end. The challenge is that in reality, soldiers, explorers, and other outdoorsy types would not take along a tenderfoot like me in the first place, as I’d just slow them down as deadweight. I guess what I’m thinking of is a space version of The Hobbit that isn’t quite as silly as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Or, as a short-fiction exercise, I could at least try to write one of those “big adventure” stories Anderson or Heinlein writes, but as seen from the perspective of a side character.

Things to think about as I continue probing honestly into myself and what I’m capable of doing with my life and my writing.

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