Creative Writing Rant: On Science Fiction and (The Problem Of) Being Influenced by the Movies

When I was a kid living in the projects of Norfolk, Virginia, my mother, four siblings and I lived on welfare as we waited for my father to get out of prison, five-to-ten-out-in-three. We were poor, but I was resourceful, worked in yards of the lower-middle-class homes that bordered the projects. I’d knock on doors and ask if I could cut lawns with the shitty push-mower I’d liberated from the dump (it was so dull it flattened grass more than actually cut the stuff), or clean and/or rake those lawns. The homes were owned mostly by working-class African-American folks, and I saw pity in their eyes for the skinny, ratty-looking white kid begging, pretty much, for work. It was 1964; I got fifty cents for mowing (tamping down) a front yard, a quarter for clearing it of debris.

Comic books had recently gone up to twelve cents from ten. At Comstock’s I’d slip one into another and sometimes Mr. Comstock, the monarch of the drug and grocery store bearing his name, and who sported a perfect two-inch-diameter circle of skin-graft in the middle of his forehead, would let me get away with it, and sometimes busted me, but, all and all, I was a good customer, and he suffered my petty larcenies with regal aplomb.

I didn’t fancy DC over Marvel; I negotiated both universes as easily as I traversed the drainage ditch between Comstock’s and the projects. At one time, I possessed in pristine condition Daredevil one through seven. If I’d been prescient, if I’d had the foresight and wherewithal to seal those comics hermetically and bury them somewhere safe, I could return to my old stomping grounds, dig them up, and pay off my mortgage.

I recall actually wishing that I could see those comic books as movies! I shot the movies in my head! Mind you, Superman had run from 1953, the year I was born, until 1958, and I’d watched it in re-runs into the early 60s, when our TV, tinfoil wrapping both “rabbit ears,” black-and-white images barely discernible through the “snow,” actually worked, which wasn’t often. I was vaguely aware that the guy who’d played Superman, George Reeves—irony of ironies—had shot himself dead.

I discovered Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, Ray Bradbury, H.G. Wells, Jules Vern by the time I was thirteen. Only a little later, I discovered William Gibson, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin and Robert Heinlein, among others. Yes, I watched SF movies, but they never lived up to the books, just as TV’s Superman had seemed profoundly silly, and, later, Batman so campy it clearly had little to do with the Caped Crusader whose exploits I’d followed as a pre-teen.

Well, something has happened over the past thirty years or so: cinematic technology has developed to a point where, imagistically, fantastic storytelling far exceeds the limits of my boyhood imagination. And yet, on the most fundamental level, that same technology has appropriated all of our imaginations as readers of fantastical stuff.

 This is a richly complex issue and I’ll not attempt to exhaust my thoughts on it in this dashed-off rant. Suffice it to say that almost every undergraduate student of mine, over the past thirty-five years, has viewed much more science-fiction storytelling than s/he has read, and as a consequence is more deeply influenced, in her or his own science-fiction writing, by the cinematographic rather than the literary tradition; there is more than a little irony in the fact that the former, in most cases, is an adaptation of the latter. 

 Here’s the deal: I can always tell when even the brighter, more talented of my students is composing SF stories primarily under the influence of TV and movies rather than that of the extremely rich SF literary tradition, one that reaches back, I submit, to the Iliad and the Odyssey and to every holy book and cache of myths, including the Bible, in the world.

 No one can avoid the influence of TV and movies in any form of storytelling, but writers must account for, must absorb, study, literary traditions if their work is going to possess the depth and resonances of good storytelling.

 Bottom line: In most instances, science fiction writing requires, especially in the present day, a deep and abiding knowledge of science. But even more importantly it requires a love and knowledge of the rich and varied tradition of science-fiction storytelling.

Almost every bright, motivated, talented young (and not so young) writer wants to try her or his hand at SF at some time, and far be it for me to discourage such a person. Talent and intuition can compensate for a lack of experience and knowledge in all artistic endeavors. The thing is, there are tons of incredible SF writing “out there,” a lot of stuff too damned good to be turned into movies, and I just wish that my students would base their literary efforts more on literature than on movies.