Inspirations, Part 2: Teenage Influences

Hi Folks,

Following on from my last post, I’m back to reminisce on my literary and cinematic influences as a teenager in the 1980s.

My love of adventure stories branched out in two directions: thrillers and science fiction.

Let’s talk about thrillers first. My two great loves were novels about assassination attempts – ‘Rogue Male’ by Geoffry Household and ‘The Long Kill’ by Reginald Hill. In their own ways, these books delved into the minds and motivations of sane men who decide to kill. That combination of psychological character study and thrilling plot is a winner for me. I read ‘The Day of the Jackal’ by Frederick Forsyth too, but while the down-to-earth detail in that was an eye-opener, the killer was a more clear-cut bad guy.

I wouldn’t like you to think I was particularly interested in killing. I never could stand the gory ‘shoot-em-up’ sort of killing and was grossed out by the film ‘Platoon’, for example. I did enjoy ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ film and ‘The Red Dragon’ novel by Thomas Harris, but I think it was the psychological aspect that appealed. I just wanted to know what could drive someone to kill another person (er, yeah, and eat their liver).

Other thrillers I enjoyed were basically adventure stories dressed up in a spy theme. Without fail, they featured a strong-jawed hero who confounded the enemy (typically the German SS, or the Russian KGB) by their wit and a twist of deception. Alistair MacLean’s ‘Where Eagles Dare’ and ‘Ice Station Zebra’ were favourites (and I love the movies, too). Desmond Bagley and Hammond Innes were good, too. I really miss those guys. Modern thrillers take the gritty realism too seriously and don’t have the same sense of fun.

I read the James Bond books, but only because of the movies, and because my schoolfriend told me that Ian Fleming’s books had been banned from her mother’s school as being too risqué. There’s nothing like banning a book to make it popular. Together my friend and I wrote a little comic piece on the adventures of James Blond and his trusty secretary Miss Cashpound.

I think my mother was a little concerned about my predilection for ‘boys-own-adventures’. One day she brought home another book she suggested I might like, called ‘Restoree’ by Anne McCaffrey. One of the few books to have survived my multiple international relocations, I still have it here. Corgi edition reissued in 1983 (₤1.50) with an intriguing image on the cover of a space-ship and a bandaged woman. It remains one of my favourites (but only in the version with that cover).

So now we come to my best-loved genre of all time: sci fi / fantasy crossover.

There were two books by Vonda N. McIntyre called ‘Dreamsnake’ and ‘The Exile Waiting’. From what I remember (it was a long time ago!), these featured a post-apocolyptic, decaying society in which a traveller used snakes to heal, and cities were dark places inhabited by people with unwanted telepathic abilities. It was the depth of imagination that appealed to me – the wonder that someone could imagine an entirely different society from our own and make it seem real.

For similar reasons, I enjoyed more of Anne McCaffrey’s books, through the dragons of Pern to ‘The Crystal Singer’ series. Books by Frank Herbert such as ‘Dune’ and ‘The Dosadi Experiment’ kept me absorbed for days.

On the straight sci fi side, the novels of Robert Heinlein appealed to the teenage me (think ‘Starman Jones’ and ‘Farmer in the Sky’), but probably because they were simply great teen coming-of-age adventure stories, the space setting being the icing on the cake.

In a different vein, I read books by Ursula LeGuin such as ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ and ‘The Lathe of Heaven’ in which other or future worlds served as a foil to our own, making us question societal norms of gender and morality.

I became interested in big-picture questions about where mankind was heading and what we were doing to our environment. Influences included non-fiction works such as ‘The Limits to Growth’ by Meadows, Meadows and Randers and ‘The Population Bomb’ by Paul Ehrlich. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was developing an interest in ‘future studies’.

I read the classic future dystopias such as Orwell’s ‘1984’, Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ (though I found Ira Levin’s ‘This Perfect Day’ more readable), and Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’. The trouble with these was that they were already out-of-date and the cracks were showing – I needed a future vision that was more relevant to modern society.

I never found it, instead getting distracted by the Robot novels of Isaac Asimov. Here was an idea that was endlessly intriguing – what if we could build robots that looked like humans and appeared to act like humans? Their positronic brains were kept under control by three simple laws of robotics, yet the grey areas surrounding those laws created thrilling mysteries.

Then, right on cue, along came the film Robocop and the idea of mixing man and machine. Had the corporately-sponsored law enforcement agency successfully turned Murphy into an automated cop, capable only of obeying his programming, or did he still retain human memories and a sense of self?

Ah, so here we have it. Much as I hate to admit being so heavily influenced by popular cinematic culture, I think I’ve finally uncovered the reasons why I’m writing a futuristic adventure series featuring a cyborg spy.

Hope you enjoyed my personal trip down memory lane.

The Pitch, Part 2: Dispelling Genre Myths

Okay, so in Part 1 of my little diatribe on pitches I was talking about managing expectations.

The little snag here is that as soon as you mention the genre of your book you’ve already set up expectations. The reader already has a preliminary opinion on whether or not they’re going to like the book, and that’s even before they get to the pitch.

This is a real bugbear for me because I’m calling my books science fiction.

So the first thing this is saying is that this is ‘genre’ fiction as opposed to ‘literary’ fiction. Literary being taken as synonymous with quality, with serious novels of the sort one calls ‘works’ rather than ‘books’ and whose authors can add the prefix ‘critically acclaimed’.

To those who buy into this literary snobbery, the term ‘genre’ means a book of no inherent worth except as light entertainment for the unwashed masses.

Okay, so we’re probably facing an uphill battle persuading anyone otherwise, but if you’re looking for ammunition, take a look at these:

This one is what Patrick Rothfuss (Author of The Name of the Wind) had to say when a lecturer deemed fantasy novels not worthy of study – the interesting thing for me here is his insistence that ‘literary fiction’ is itself a genre:

Then there’s this classic example of literary snobbery of the sort which can dismiss an author on the basis of writing style without even bothering to read one of his books (referring to the late Terry Pratchett):

and here’s a response (one of many):

What am I taking from this personally?

That I have to stand up to literary snobbishness. My books may not be literary fiction but they are of no less worth. I will not apologise for the fact that the ideas within my novels are wrapped up in (what I hope is) an appealing story written in a commercial style.

This is deliberate on my part because I want people to read my books because they enjoy the story not because they are studying my use of language. I try to explore societal issues in the background rather than hit the reader over the head with them. Do I care that my books will never be set reading for an English lit course? Not in the slightest.

Okay, I’ve gone off topic a bit there, so back to genre expectations:

What else do people think when they see the label ‘science fiction’?

Space battles seems to be a common expectation. Or something futuristic packed with incomprehensible techno-babble. But then there are the time travel stories. Steampunk. Post apocalyptic, dystopian. Alternate universes, alternate futures, alternate political realities. Adventures, thrillers, romances, fairy tales. You name it, science fiction has it.

It can be hard to get across just how wide a genre science fiction is. If anyone were to ask me how to define science fiction I would probably through my hands up in despair. Luckily for me, other people have taken a shot at it:

To quote from this article

“…there seems to be as many definitions of science fiction as there are imaginary worlds dreamed up by its creators. Just sticking with leading authors, Isaac Asimov offered that it “deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology”; Thomas M Disch argued that it all stems from the premise that “absolutely anything can happen and should”; and slightly more philosophically Brian Aldiss has claimed it’s ultimately “the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge”.

I’m rather fond of the last one, probably because I’m not entirely sure what it means.

And here’s what Wikipedia says:

“Science fiction is difficult to define, as it includes a wide range of subgenres and themes. Author and editor Damon Knight summed up the difficulty, saying “science fiction is what we point to when we say it”.

I wish I had an upbeat conclusion to this part but, to be honest, I can’t think how to give any practical advice to overcoming genre prejudice. Genre distinctions are inescapable.

Perhaps all we can do is break it down.

May I present my New adult Futuristic Soft science fiction Adventure series with a Psychological slant featuring Cyborg Spies encountering Alien cultures.

Introducing Myself


So, here is my first experiment in blogging. In case I haven’t worked out how to introduce myself at the top of the page, I’m Kay Want Cheung, an aspiring SF author.

<— me, sort of. But not so lop-sided.

This blog is where I’m going to post the stray thoughts of my wandering mind in the hope that someone out there might find them in some way interesting or challenging or life-affirming. Or I might just settle for readable.

No doubt I’ll be blogging about writing, which has become my passion. I might share hints and tips and lessons on writing technique as I learn through trial and error. There might be the odd deviation into my own motivations and frustrations (sorry, but these things tend to spill out) and there might be the odd book review.

If there are any other aspiring SF writers or readers out there who’d like to connect with me, that would be great.