“Science fiction stories often leave strange vapour trails in the skies of our minds.” —Brian Aldiss
Two questions readers invariably ask me are “What kind of science fiction do you write?” and “How do you come up with these strange worlds?” They’re surprisingly tough questions to answer, because interesting science fiction can be hard to categorize—and have unexpected origins.
Hard science fiction. Fantasy. Science fantasy. People want to know, which flavor of fantastic fiction do I write? And I’m left wondering: what do these terms really mean?
Over the last dozen years, I have written novels containing elements of all of those flavors. Dragons in the Stars.(Fantasy? No, science fiction—but inspired by fantasy, and with real dragons.) The Chaos Chronicles. (Hard science fiction, inspired by chaos theory—but with a sharp focus on the inner life of the main character—and on the alien who becomes a part of him.)
So here’s a question: Do spaceship consoles and dragons’ claws really have anything in common? Can a book with spaceships and dragons truly be science fiction, much less hard SF? I’ll tell you a bit about how I came to write these stories and let you decide for yourself.
The Star Rigger Universe is where it all began for me. I first fell down this particular rabbit hole more than twenty years ago, and I’m still writing about it today. It began with a short story, “Alien Persuasion”—my second professional sale, to Galaxy magazine. To my surprise, it became my entry into a new world, the universe of star rigging.
Starship rigging takes ships and people across the gulfs of interstellar space by traveling through a continuum known as the “Flux.” In the Flux, space itself moves in currents and streams, and the rigger ship rides these streams like a sailing ship of old—all the while bypassing the staggering distances of normal-space. The pilot or rigger must use visual imagery, in a process more art than science, to navigate the currents of the Flux—across oceans, through atmospheres and cyber-matrices, and even through mountains and vales—all as a way of riding the streams of space.”Alien Persuasion” became the basis of a novel, Star Rigger’s Way. In the novel, I gave far greater breadth to the art of starship rigging, and to the life of one Gev Carlyle, a bright but painfully innocent young man.
I don’t remember for sure where the idea of rigging came from, but I may have been influenced by some early works of Samuel R. Delany. A friend, author Jane Yolen, once told me that she loved the idea of star rigging because it was such a clear metaphor for the creative, artist process. I stared at her open mouthed. She was absolutely right—and I’d been completely oblivious to it.
I also, in the novel, wrote a scene set in a spaceport bar – a typical SF scene, I suppose. A nameless rigger is drinking and bragging about “dueling with the dragons” along a certain route of the Flux. Why did I write that scene? I don’t know; it was just a bit of local color to add realism. The assumption (at least by the characters in the story) was that these dragons were mere figments of the rigger’s imagination.
Once again, memory is hazy. But I believe that the spark for this idea was the Cordwainer Smith short story, “The Game of Rat and Dragon,” about the life of pinlighters, who kept starships safe from dragons during the planoforming period of star travel. If you haven’t read Cordwainer Smith, you owe it to yourself to find his stories.
As it turned out, that assumption was wrong. A couple of years later, I sat down to write a story about dragons for an anthology. The bar scene came back to me—and before I knew it, I had the essence of a story in my head: the fateful encounter of a real dragon and a young woman starpilot, rigging along a forbidden route where dragons were said to lurk. That story, “Though All the Mountains Lie Between,” so caught my own imagination that I later wrote the novel Dragons in the Star, delving deeper into the realm of these dragons who lived in the Flux.
The sequel, Dragon Rigger, took me into the viewpoint of the dragons themselves, and also led me into a writing territory that melded science fiction with certain elements that felt like fantasy, even if they weren’t. The books were science fiction—no question. But they were also mythical and fantastic, and interwoven with a great struggle of good versus evil.
And now? As I write this, I’ve recently completed a new star rigger book, Eternity’s End, that is much more like hard science fiction—bringing me full circle back to more familiar SF ground, with interstellar pirates, deep-cyber romance, galactic conspiracies, quantum physics, and . . . oh yes, a “Flying Dutchman” spaceship, lost in a strange limbo among the stars.
And yet this is not my hardest SF. To look at that, we need to move into a different universe, a realm of . . .
Chaos and Confusion
I began The Chaos Chronicles while casting about for a change of pace—a shift to shorter novels. (The marathon of writing Dragon Rigger and several other very long novels had been exhilarating but exhausting.) What to do? Well, it seems I am both blessed and cursed by a storytelling mind that spins complex tales, and doesn’t want to take “Keep it simple!” for an answer. And yet, “Keep it simple!” was exactly what I intended to do.
While browsing through some magazines, I came across an article in The Planetary Report about the chaotic movement of asteroids and comets under the gravitational influences of the planets. Aha! The seed of an idea was planted, and from there it was only a matter of fertilizing, weeding, and plenty of exposure to warm sunlight. (Well, okay, it was a lot of dogged hard work and plenty of false starts, but you get the idea.) In the end, I had a story outline so complex it would take no fewer than four or five novels to tell it.
But wait! I was angling for simplicity, wasn’t I? What if I found a way to tell the story in a number of shorter, more linear novels? I could have alien worlds galore, and still keep my vow to write short, write simple. I could have my complexity and eat it, too!
At least, that was the theory.
Maybe it was no coincidence that this storyline was inspired by another theory, the one called chaos. Chaos seemed to be at work in my own mind as I caromed through the possibilities, as I wrote the first novel of the series, Neptune Crossing. Chaotic movement of asteroids . . . deadly peril to the home planet if one of them should be flung Earthward . . . aliens of mysterious origin drawing an unwilling hero into sacrificial rescue of Earth. And some hero. The inside of John Bandicut’s mind was practically a working definition of chaos. Partially disabled by a neurolink accident, the poor man was prone to hallucinatory interludes of “silence fugue”—and that was before the alien got into his head.
Simplicity . . . chaos!
A tug-of-war had begun that took us in the second novel to a bizarre alien structure outside our galaxy. That novel was titled Strange Attractors,drawing upon one of the most evocative images yet to come out of twentieth century chaos theory.
In the third book, we landed deep in an alien ocean, in The Infinite Sea. And the tug of war continues today, as I work on Volume Four (now it’s Volume Five I’m working on) of a series that now weighs in at six novels. (Keep it simple, Stupid.) Six novels!
That’ll be the day.
I’ve got enough material here to keep me working well into the new millennium, and that’s just what I intend to do.
This essay was originally written in 1997 and updated in 2000.
It also appears in The Spirit of Writing, edited by Mark Waldman.