Sean Williams

blame Sinbad

posted on 21 Aug 2006 at 3:05 pm

The Writers of the Future bash was amazing fun, with new and old friends combining to make it just as mind-blowing as ever. I’ll post something more profound than that soon, when photos of the event appear online. I’m in LA now and absolutely knackered (and very glad to have a working stereo again). In lieu of something topical, here’s a piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago for a newsletter in Tamworth, with thanks to Mark Snyder for inviting me to contribute.

Like many writers I know, I can pinpoint the moment I fell in love with the speculative genre. For some it was The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, often passed on from a well-meaning parent, uncle or aunt. I was perhaps five years old and considered too young for such advanced texts. For me it was The Children’s Sinbad, an adaptation by F. H. Pritchard who also produced kids’ readers of classics like Brer Rabbit and Uncle Remus and collections of humorous essays. This thin tome, which I still have, was a gift from my mother. There’s a hand-written note in the front identifying it as a presentation from the Miltalie Methodist Sunday School in 1953. Perhaps they would have given her a different book had they known what kind of chain reaction it would trigger in the mind of her son, twenty years later.

Why this book? What kind of bomb, exactly? Well, up until that point, the only exposure to anything fantastical I’d experienced had come through fairy tales, cartoons on TV, and the movies of Walt Disney. They were fun but not especially stimulating. Looking back on the adventures of Sinbad the legendary sailor, I can see key similarities between them and every other speculative story I had been exposed to: exotic lands, wild adventures, and improbable creatures. There was, however, one important difference. Sinbad survived his seven voyages not by breaking the laws of physics or waving a magic wand. He endured by virtue of his wits.

Here was a story combining the two things that later in life I would come to love most about speculative fiction, and science fiction in particular. All fiction begins with the question “What if…?” That question, given free reign, allows glimpses of worlds that not only do not exist in this universe, but can not exist. What value do they have, then? Their value lies in encouraging people to think out of the box–of exploring every possibility, no matter how improbable. The exercise of imagination is one we frequently let slip in adulthood, to the detriment of ourselves as individuals and of our species as a whole. Speculation is the juice that fuels our waking dreams, and such dreams can change the world.

Speculation is useless, however, without reason to back it up. The partnership between imagination and the scientific method drives every aspect of society today, unseen for the most part (such as technology relying on physics or chemistry far beyond matriculation levels) and sometimes vilified by people who forget that these two pillars separate us from blind nature, with its dead-ends and its absence of morality. Science fiction is the only avenue for writers driven to seek truths beyond the here and the now (and the “us”) to see what possibilities await.

So…that’s where it all started. The Children’s Sinbad led to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, A Wizard of Earthsea and The Dark is Rising. From there it was an easy step to Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and the other Grand Masters of science fiction. And from there, perhaps, it was inevitable that I would one day begin to flex my own speculative muscles, and produce the stories I have written so far. I hope that one day, somewhere, one of my stories will inspire a child in ways I cannot presently imagine, so Sinbad’s legacy will live on forever.