Last night, during the Center for Fiction’s keynote address for the Big Read, Margaret Atwood read from and talked a bit about her new collection of non-fiction: In Other Worlds: SF in the Human Imagination. Before taking questions, Atwood shared a power-point presentation, which featured a lot of images from her childhood and adolescence. The end pages of the book itself are covered with line drawings Atwood did this year, which represent various aspects of things that either influenced her when she was young, or things she actually created as a child. This gave me pause and formed this question: does a fascination with the creation of fiction and genre fiction in specific keep our fanciful childhood notions alive?
Recently, I heard author Jim Shepard say something to the effect that “the people that are the happiest are doing something with their lives that is closely connected to what they were interested in as children.” This isn’t to say those of us who didn’t grow up to be astronauts, fairy princesses, or dinosaurs are hopelessly depressed, but the interest in fanciful narratives must say something about our hopes in becoming an adult.
Hearing Margaret Atwood read from her Jungian analysis of Batman stirs up a lot of assumptions about what it means to a child to become an adult. When she talks about Robin specifically, Atwood asserts that “Robin was simply ourselves — what we would be if we, too, had masks and capes and could go running around in them under the delusion that nobody would know who we were, and — better still — stay up long after our bedtimes, allowed to participate in the doings of what we fondly hoped was the adult world.”
The creation of fiction, and the genres of fantasy and science fiction seem to constitute a bizarro dimension of adulthood for many of us. Kurt Vonnegut talked about how the “world drops away” when one reads a particularly engrossing short story, a sentiment echoed by Zadie Smith in August 2011 issue of Harper’s where in talking about “summer books” she says, “A real summer book is more real than summer: you abandon friends and family, retreat to your room and draw the mosquito net around ” As I mentioned yesterday, why we read and why we write seems to revolve a lot around questions of entertainment, which may have something to do with children wanting to become super-versions of adults, and adults wanting to become wise and super-powered children. Margaret Atwood seems to have found a perfect balancing point for this intellectual seesaw. The flying rabbits she drew as a child are the early cousins of her more complex novels and stories later, and yet, she can’t actually write new stories about the flying rabbits, she only writes about writing about (or drawing mostly) the flying rabbits. As she pointed out beautifully while reading from the book, her drawings of nature were far from “naturalistic.”
Imagination is often the first impulse a child has, maybe because they’re prejudices about the world haven’t formed yet. But I think it might have to do with an impulse of wanting to “play” over wanting to do “work.” As a sometimes babysitter, I often like telling my charges outrageous lies about the world around them (such as the Octopus that lives in the East River). Smart children don’t question me about the existence of such an octopus, but they don’t believe me either. They’re in on the game because, just like running around with Batman might be a kind of adult activity, we’re savvy enough as children to know that those “delusions” Atwood talks about might be part of another kind of “play.”
So do the creators of science fiction play for a living? If you take Steven Moffat (who I still like very much, despite what I said about the recent Doctor Who finale) the answer seems to definitely be yes. Purportedly, when Moffat was on the fence about whether he would indeed become the show runner of Doctor Who, someone had to show him a photo of himself reading a Doctor Who novel as a child. A quick canvasing of the Tor.com offices leads to a similar sentiment. We’ve always been interested in these things, and now have found a way to incorporate these things into our lives.
Fan organizations and events like Comic Con are further proof of this. (And so are comments from our readers!) If comic books heroes were ultimately kid’s stuff, then an entire industry wouldn’t exist at all. This kind of “second adulthood” is where many of us live, emotionally at the very least. Because despite holding 9-5 jobs, or worrying about our morning commute many are longing to reveal our secret identity, suddenly acquire a superpower, or simply, finally be beamed up by an orbiting spaceship.
But until then, we’ve luckily got plenty to read.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com.