How big events change your writing (or otherwise)
3 years ago
Five days before my most recent novel was due for delivery, Donald Trump was elected President. My book, a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novel set on Cardassia Prime, is part of several I’ve written tracing the long shift in Cardassian politics from militaristic dictatorship to fledgling democracy. Suddenly my dystopian setting seemed a better place to be than the real world.
What can you do as a writer when events overtake you so dramatically? My book, Enigma Tales, is set in a university, and the story is about university politics turning deadly. There wasn’t really much scope to integrate what had happened – as Harold MacMillan replied, when asked what can blow a government off course, “Events, dear boy, events”.
The same turns out to be true for writers of space opera. I slipped in some broadsides about the failures of the press in mature democracies, and the problems of having so much information that it’s hard to learn what matters. I think I made a few digs about echo chambers. But that was the most I could manage. Besides, we’ll all need time to process what has happened – and see whether a Trump presidency brings surprises, or is terribly, drearily predictable.
My two Weird Space novels, The Baba Yaga and Star of the Sea, process a major life event that is personal to me. A year before the first book was written, I became a mother, at the grand old age of forty-two. There is quite a lot written about how motherhood transforms one’s perspective on life, some of which implies that non-mothers can’t imagine the experience. I don’t believe that for a second. I’m a writer – imagining things is what I do. Of course it’s possible for people without children to imagine what parenthood is like. At the same time, it’s obvious that such a major physical and emotional event in my life was always going to change my writing.
The sheer physicality of the experience was one thing – like many people who spend a lot of time in their own heads, I have only the vaguest sense of my own corporeality. But being pregnant doesn’t allow that. Pregnancy swells you. Childbirth is bloody and scary and perilous, no matter how we have medicalised the experience. I think it’s no coincidence that I was able to imagine the sheer physicality of the Weird in these books: in all their gory, terrifying glory.
I found myself thinking more about the nature of the “mother-mind” that the Weird share. Being pregnant, and then responsible for a tiny baby, brought home to me how intimately connected I was to this new person, how much my mood shaped hers, and vice versa, how impactful I could be one this individual. At the same time, I realised sharply that parenting was going to be one prolonged process of letting go. Something that had been part of me, was setting sail gently in her own little boat, on her way to becoming entirely independent. The Weird, who are completely interconnected, are fascinated in The Baba Yaga by the pregnancy of one of the characters: they recognise the interdependence; they also recognise that the two people are separate. They want to know more about that.
These themes of interconnection and interdependency run through both The Baba Yaga and Star of the Sea. The experience of maternity leave brought home to me, more than ever before, the fragility of the social networks we have in place to support the very young and the very old, and how these most vulnerable of people can be so easily pushed to the fringes of our societies. Maternity leave is very lonely, and I watched the spaces that we used to find friends and support squeezed and removed: an old people’s home where we went to a baby group; a community centre; our beloved nursery.
In my science fiction, I have always tried to imagine worlds that support diversity, that include the outliers. More than before, I think – I hope – that my writing tries to imagine what our lives might be like if we didn’t push the vulnerable to one side, in our race to achieve... what? In both my Weird Space books, I have tried to imagine humans and aliens – even gory interdimensional hive mind aliens – who try to find connection with each other, who try to build spaces where the smallest and the weakest can thrive. I wish we could do this more in our real world.
Thanks to @theotherdebs on Twitter for suggesting this topic.