C.J. Cherryh: Why science fiction

Do we really need science fiction?

The novelist C.J. Cherryh, author of Cuckoo’s Egg and many others, is one of my all-time favorites.  She gave a short talk at Philcon 2016 about her origins as a writer, how she survived, and why people do need science fiction.

When Cherryh was a girl of 10, she was a fan of the Flash Gordon series.  The series got cancelled, so she wrote her first story to fill the gap.  She imitated Flash Gordon closely, but changed everything–setting, characters, decision points, events — everything — and that was when she decided to be a writer.

She wanted to write, so thought about jobs that seemed to have a lot of spare time.  Because she was young, she immediately thought of teaching.  The audience chuckled at this idea. As a retired teacher I didn’t chuckle; I winced.*

She taught Latin and she wrote, accumulating ten years of rejection slips. She joked that enough of those publishers went out of business that she started thinking a submission from her “was the death knell for a publisher.”

The science fiction editor Donald A. Wollheim (after whom DAW books is named) rejected her novel Brothers of Earth, but his personal rejection encouraged her and she wrote Gate of Ivrel. He published that, and then Brothers of Earth, and they became friends.

Cherryh said she gradually got tough, but because she was still teaching she learned compassion and patience from her students. She decided to quit, however, and resolved, “If I didn’t write, I didn’t eat.”  In order to make a living at writing, she had to do it on the same level she did with teaching.§

So she was published, but she said, she would still be happy if she hadn’t gotten that letter from DAW.  “Writing is a heck of a lot of fun.  Learning things is a visceral pleasure.  That is my job.”

And here it was that she made the transition from personal narrative to plea. She wanted us to understand what science fiction has to offer us in trying times, such as the election that had just passed. She told us, “It is my obligation to be an optimist.  I write because I am passionate about finding answers.  I believe there is a future and it’s better than the past.  The purpose of science fiction is explaining things.  Possibilities give people hope.  We’ve gone from burning people at the stake to politely disagreeing with them on the Internet (well, disagreeing).”

She emphasized that the pervasive influence of modern media means that localized problems take a bigger role in our lives, and we tend to internalize it.  We take one isolated story, and make it a trend.

“Science fiction is not the literature of colored lights or special effects,” she finished. “It’s the literature of people overcoming problems.”

It was a message of hope that might seem contradictory in a time when dystopias so often rule the genre.  But I take her point.

Next week: A relentless series of books

*The first few years I taught, my husband kept saying, “It gets easier with experience, right?”  I stopped trying to explain.  The first ten years, I taught science, which only required huge amounts of prep time and lots of physical work in addition to the report card writing, grading, and planning.  Then I switched to English, which added in huge stacks of grading.  It takes me about fifteen minutes to grade a two-page essay.  That doesn’t sound like much, except that I had 80 of them every week if I was doing my job, plus regular homework assignments to check off, parent calls to make, curriculum to write, and a website to maintain.  And I was, at the same time, the English department chair for my K12 school, I trained student teachers, I ran the mentoring program for my school, and I coached fencing.  I retired because not only did it not get easier with experience, it got harder and harder, until I finally decided to quit the job I loved in order to take care of my health.
† By no means the longest stretch I’ve heard of, even for well-known highly successful writers.
‡ Actually, publishing itself is a death knell for publishers. Going into the publishing business is, as far as I can tell, only slightly more successful than going into the restaurant business, and people keep doing both. I suppose they do it out of blind willful ignorance, much as Cherryh went into teaching.
§ I don’t know that I’d be willing to work that hard, ever again, but you get the idea.


9 thoughts on “C.J. Cherryh: Why science fiction

  1. Greta says:

    Thank you for this post. I am at my laptop in a Quality Inn, on the road to visit friends and family for the holidays…now that my daily writing practice has become a meditation for me…I can’t NOT write. I wish I’d known this 20 years ago 😉
    Happiest of holidays to you and yours!

    1. DMT says:

      Oh, how wonderful! Yes, daily writing is the nourishment of my soul, even when (as often happens) I am just putting down fragments of thoughts. Have a good holiday.

  2. Ellen Smith says:

    Love this! Science fiction often gets lumped in with escapism or imagination run wild–which is good and important too, don’t get me wrong–but it is really about people solving problems! Just look at Ray Bradbury’s story lines!

    1. DMT says:

      I found it an encouraging viewpoint myself; it reminded me of when I was very young and science fiction first gave me some insights into the real world. Back then I was less easily saddened about the possibility of dystopia coming true, because like most young people I assumed I would be one of those to survive calamity. But since she said that, I have been finding it easier to navigate the darker story lines again.

  3. Morgan says:

    Thank you for this write-up!

    I love hearing from amazing writers.

    I was at Philcon last year and thoroughly enjoyed it.. and attended many, many of the writing panels, plus the writing workshop. They were pretty quality stuff.

    I hope you had a good Con!

  4. Jason says:

    Really enjoyed the line about Science Fiction is the solving of problems. I thought writing Science fiction projects would be easier, but ironically they seem to require more research. I feel that science fiction inspires society so much that we are responsible for getting the details right.

    1. DMT says:

      I agree. Some of my favorite “science” in science fiction is also anthropology, history, or sociology; I usually stick with what I know pretty well and don’t try to make up any physics 🙂

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