Worlds Apart/Worlds Together
I am writing this from Thailand, my second home – it’s winter in Alaska, you know – and lately have been thinking about verisimilitude and about smurfs.
A long time before the little blue Smurfs hit television, Theodore Sturgeon – one of the greatest science fiction short story writers the field ever produced – defined a smurf this way (I am paraphrasing here, but I’m pretty sure it’s close to verbatim: “If you create an alien, but it looks like a rabbit, smells like a rabbit, and acts like a rabbit, then calling it a smurf won’t make it an alien.”
When I read romance paranormals and romance science fiction I come to those subgenres with the eye of someone who has been publishing science fiction since 1976 and horror since 1980. And while I often admire the romance portion of the writing, I find that the science fiction and paranormal elements sometimes are lacking in verisimilitude or otherwise haven’t been thought out carefully.
A secondary problem is that for the hero to be appealing in, say, a vampire or werewolf story, then there is a conundrum: to be sympathetic he often is set up to forgo human blood or human flesh. He sticks to supping on animals. Hmmm. But that creates a fundamental problem: he isn’t a vampire or werewolf anymore. He’s what we call . . . well, human.
The situation is exacerbated when science fiction is involved. If an alien looks like a human, smells like a human, and acts like a human, then calling him a Whaptiliz from Planet X isn’t going to make him alien. And yet to make him alien isn’t going to make him very appealing as a hero you’d want to kiss. (Of course, all of that is resolved if the hero is Captain Kirk or some similar figure, which is the route most writers take, but then the situation has taken a step back from being the heart of science fiction, which involves the clash between cultures.)
So what to do what to do what to do.
I will tell you what I did three decades ago.
I chickened out.
In science fiction I started out writing about other worlds. They are extremely difficult to build well – and world-building in the science fiction genre must be more exact and scientifically accurate than that in science fiction romance. After all, readers who focus on the romance are apt to overlook scientific or sociological inaccuracies. SF readers don’t. They’re an unforgiving lot.
I got tired of the world-building. Editors said I was very good at it, but my interest lay in building characters and I was spending the bulk of my writing energy worrying about the world in which those characters resided.
Then one day the obvious hit me. Why was I working so hard creating alien worlds when all sorts of “alien worlds” are right now on earth? In fact, my wife is a registered alien – she is Thai – so that’s not all that far-fetched. Of course, she feels I’m a real alien, but that’s another story.
In college I majored in English but minored in anthropology. So I began setting my stories in this world, but in other cultures. Doing so enabled me to engage in a lot of research, something I love. My first attempt was a story set among the Gwi, a Bushman tribe. I am proud to say that to create the verisimilitude I went to the length of finding a Gwi/Japanese dictionary (no Gwi/English dictionary existed at the time, and still might not, for all I know) and then had a friend translate the Japanese to English. The story revolved around the Gwi belief that the moon is hollow and that you go there when you die. It involved a real woman named U! – she was alive when I wrote the story (incidentally, the exclamation point indicates a glottal stop) – who discovers that the moon isn’t at all like what she previously thought.
The story immediately sold to one of the two top magazines in the field, was reprinted in half a dozen anthologies, and was a finalist for both of science fiction top honors . . . and I knew I was onto something.
Since then I have published stories set in Germany, Ethiopia, South Africa, British Columbia, Alaska, Russia, Namibia, Thailand, Vietnam, Mongolia, Mexico, Greenland, Las Vegas (about as other-worldly as you can get!), and Madagascar. My fourth novel, which also was set in Madagascar, won the world horror award, and I am now writing two more Madagascar novels – a contemporary romance, and a fantasy romance. Doing fiction set in other worlds that are this world enables me to explore the clash between cultures and at the same time concentrate on the clash between the hero and heroine.