My earliest science fiction memory wasn’t the normal one.
I remember I was a young child on my way somewhere. One of the group homes I was at was going on a weekend camping trip to Lake Mead, and the four of us kids were sleeping in the back of the truck underneath the protective camper shell. It was really late at night and we’d been driving for a few hours at this point, so of course a bunch of kids passed out.
Something woke me up on the way, though. It was very dark and I couldn’t see all that well inside the camper shell. However, there was a long, narrow window which ran the length of the camper shell on both sides. I blinked and thought I saw the sky. I couldn’t believe what I saw.
What seemed like billions of lights were bright in the air, multi-colored and shimmering in the desert night. I watched in fascination as they blinked rhythmically and sequentially. I’d never seen the stars do that before but then, I’d never seen that many stars in my life. The light pollution in southern California is bad, people.
After awhile it put me back to sleep. But I couldn’t help to wonder what, precisely, made the stars do that. Was it the clear skies? Was it simply my imagination? Had I been dreaming?
For years I carried that memory with me. That image, along with being able to see the Chrystal Cathedral from the bedroom of Orangewood on a clear night, were what helped spark my imagination. It would only be when I was an adult and on my way across the country via Greyhound when I figured it out. On that night, one of the last vestiges of positive childhood memories died as I rolled across the desert, half-asleep and looking out the window of the bus on my way back to college.
In my window I could see my reflection. Beyond that, I could see the lights of Las Vegas twinkling. I suddenly realized that what I had seen so many years before wasn’t some magical field of stars in the desert but simply a reflection of reality. They didn’t have the Luxor beam when I was a child but it had been built in time for me to see it now.
But… while my childhood memory and perceptions of the universe might have been altered by the crushing reality of adulthood, it did help later to sharpen the fact that the genre fiction which I write is merely a reflection of reality. I take what I see in life and show an alternate reflection of it. That reflection can be how I perceive it to be. It can be good and heroic, or bad. It’s up to me, the writer, to determine how I look at the reflection.
I think that I finally understand the difference between George R.R. Martin’s fantasy vision and J.R.R. Tolkien’s. Tolkien, like me, saw the very worst in humanity from a first-hand experience. His experiences shaped him and gave him the opportunity to see something bright and hopeful in that horrid squalor of reality. He wrote about what he hoped mankind would accomplish, which was a hope for a heroic age. In contrast, Martin looked into the mirror and saw darkness and a lack of hope, and wrote about that. He projects the dark into a world that is dark, and in the end nobody wins, everybody dies. Where good men die and evil men triumph.
The dichotomy between the two is stark. I understand how easy it is to see nothing but bad and evil deeds in the world, to lose sight of the hope which propels us all to better ourselves. I also get just how much the light can shine if people try to see a better future, to hope for heroes, to vanquish the fear. Tolkien was onto something big when he wrote the Lord of the Rings. Hope does not need to be dismissed because a person fails once, twice, even multiple times beyond. The typical character arc need not be a simple, linear path. Jamie Lannister is a good character arc (so far, and I’m ignoring the show’s story arc, especially season 8), but you know who was a better one? Boromir.
(yes, cue up your Sean Bean jokes… I do enjoy them)
Boromir was heroic to a fault, yet people only remember his betrayal of Frodo when he demanded Frodo give him the One Ring. Upon being denied, Boromir realized the One Ring was corrupting him and let Frodo go. He was ashamed of his weakness and how close he had been to giving into the promises the ring offered. His own fear drove him to almost betray them all. When the rest of the party sets off to find Frodo, Boromir follows the other two hobbits to watch over Merry and Pippin. Boromir then gives his lift trying to protect the hobbits from the Uruk-hai when the hobbits unwittingly stumble upon the party. Boromir redeems himself (in his own eyes) by valiantly fighting the Uruk-hai, though he does fail in the end.
The brave hero falls, and redeems himself with his last effort. This seems to reflect upon today’s society as much as it did on Tolkien’s 100 years ago. Tolkien chose to see the positive reflections within the horrors of war, to focus on the human aspect of hope and heroism over the grisly darkness which follows us.
It only seems to take one misstep for the world to bear down and try to crush someone, yet it only takes one heroic deed to give them back their own self-worth. We are a cruel species, yet strangely filled with hope and promise of something greater. We can hate in one breath, and love in the next.
As we strive for the stars, we seek to leave behind our follies. But human nature is fallible. Nobody is perfectly good, nor evil, because everyone’s perception of one another is different. All we can do is write the reflection which we prefer to see.