For several weeks, I’ve been trying to remember how it happened that my first-ever novella was firmly in the science fiction genre. The year would have been 1984 or 1985. Let me describe the story for you:
An astronaut, haunted by dreams of his own death, agrees to go through with a scheduled mission to Mars. Once there, he somehow wanders from the space craft and is lost. Instead of dying, however, he finds himself among a colony of Martians, who live underground. (In my memory, the place is sort of hellish, but I could be misremembering this.) After spending some time among the Martians, our astronaut somehow makes his way out of the Mars camp, or at least makes contact with earth. His time among the Martians somewhat mirrors first contact between Europeans and Native Americans, though without the exploitation. (At least that was how I envisioned it, though I never finished that part.)
You’ll see that it’s pretty standard fare for SF. The strange part, though, is that I hadn’t read any “standard fare” SF. I’d never read H. G. Wells, or Jules Verne, or Ray Bradbury, or (as far as I can remember) any science fiction at all. (I know I did read Orwell’s 1984 that year for school.) I must have watched enough television, although this was very limited in my household. I’m sure by then I’d seen SF movies. For instance, I saw The Last Starfighter in 1984. I saw Star Wars (only the first one) a couple of years earlier (on VHS). No doubt I’d seen “Star Trek” reruns (not yet the movies, I think), and possibly some others I can’t track down.
I gave up the story unfinished, because I either got distracted or couldn’t get the middle to work out. I had several competing drafts, and had started in the middle–more than once. I don’t think it was even the only story I was working on at the time. Some things never change …
I don’t remember this, but I’ve since rediscovered that NASA had sent two space probes to Mars (the “Viking” probes) when I was about five years old, with the hope of (and equipment for) discovering life on Mars. Maybe I’d learned about it in science class, connected that to my American history, threw in a little T.V. or movies and—voilá! My own first unfinished novel.
I wrote it in study hall.
This has me thinking about the old adage that you have to read a lot in a particular genre to write something worthwhile in that genre, and the somewhat competing adage to be careful not to imitate what’s selling, or what you write will be soulless. (I might have made that second one up.) My story falls between those two adages. It wasn’t good, but then again I wrote it when I was thirteen or fourteen. The reason it wasn’t good, was that I didn’t know how to write. Everything I did was pretty much straight imitation. That, and the idea wasn’t one I’d pursue now. But I can imagine this idea or one like it being done well, if the writer knew what he/she was doing. In fact, this story (it seems to me) shares elements of Event Horizon, a 1997 film, the novel Dream Thief by Stephen Lawhead (written in 1983, but not read by me until a decade later), and The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells (which I read about five years ago).
So, the story idea itself isn’t a terrible one, nor is it so overdone that it couldn’t catch someone’s interest—in 1985, I mean. One of the reasons for that, I suspect, is that I was probably as much influenced by Robinson Crusoe, which I read in sixth grade, as I was by the SF “genre” itself. Which makes me think that reading “in genre” isn’t as important as reading good literature. Or at least not more important than. I’m open to other opinions.
Sadly (ahem), the manuscript is lost, I do firmly believe.