I started writing fiction when I was very young. In the first grade, I was reprimanded because I wrote a story about Tarzan hunting down a group of lions that were illegally selling machine guns in the jungle. Tarzan killed the lions and made a soup with their brains. As a 7-year-old I thought it was pretty brilliant, but looking back I suppose I can see why my teacher was a little disturbed (had I been born a few decades later and written the same story I probably would’ve been locked up in some high-risk home for dangerous children). One parent-teacher conference later and I was forced to re-write my story. In the edited version, there were no machine guns, and in the end, Tarzan invited the lions over and cooked them dinner. Sure, it was less violent, but also not nearly as compelling if you ask me.
I had severe dyslexia and dysgraphia as a child, which among other things meant my handwriting was a complete and total mess. The solution for these disorders was to put me in a special class and make me write stories every day while my friends were having fun in the gym for p.e. That was it. Sit there and write. I did that for years. There was never any structure or rules, just that I had to sit and write something. So I made up stories, and wrote and wrote and wrote.
I’m not so sure that’s the prescribed method of helping dyslexia and dysgraphia, but eventually, it seemed to work for me. I wouldn’t call myself cured, but for the most part these two issues are no longer things that impact my life at all. What’s interesting is, I wonder if my lifelong love of writing would exist had I not had these early age impediments that forced me into that special class. Regardless of that, I continued writing stories through elementary school and into middle school. But the stories were never very deep, and usually just consisted of something silly or some action sequence.
When I got to middle school, something happened that changed my life as a writer. I checked the book Starship Troopers out of the school library. If you’re a sci-fi fan, you’re probably familiar with this classic Robert A. Heinlein novel. For me, I just liked the cover and was looking for something to read. The back talked about dudes in power suits shooting nuclear bombs at giant insects, so at 12 years old I was all in.
As I started reading Starship Troopers, I was blown away because I experienced something that was totally new to me. This was a sci-fi action novel, but it was also more. It was a commentary on what it meant to be a citizen of a place. It spoke deeply and thoughtfully about social responsibility and all of these concepts that had never even entered into my 12-year-old mind. Oh yeah, and there were dudes in power armor shooting nukes at giant bugs.
Starship Troopers changed my life as a writer because it showed me that you didn’t have to choose when writing fiction. You don’t have to choose between writing a book about social responsibility and one about fighting aliens, you can do both. Heinlein is arguably far too heavy handed in the way his own views and opinions spill over into his work, but he opened my eyes to the fact that it was even possible to do such a thing.
What’s funny is, I don’t really think about themes when writing a book. My focus is solely on character and story progression. It’s not until after I finish a book that I start to see all of the deeper themes that it contains. I love that this happens naturally, that I don’t ever set out with an agenda. We didn’t write Brother Dust: The Resurgence as some veiled commentary on belief and identity, but this is a book that says things about belief and identity.
I’ll probably post some other day and go deeper into the themes of BDTR but for today I just wanted to look at Starship Troopers and remember what it did for me as a storyteller. I think that book teaches a wonderful lesson that there’s always room for something deeper, that if you’re going to really connect with an audience in a way that is meaningful and have an impact on them that is meaningful then you need to have more than power armor and giant bugs. One of the great hallmarks of science fiction is its ability to go deep into social issues and to say something meaningful about the world and people of today despite the story being set in some other place and in some other time. I find it exciting (and slightly daunting) to be a part of that great legacy of sci-fi authors.