When my novel, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, was accepted for publication, I was sent a publicity questionnaire by Dog Star Press to be used in advertising the book. After a number of questions about the characters, the plot, and the research, one question struck me: “What do you want your reader to remember most about your book.”
The answer came immediately: “The longing! The longing!”
That’s it! Not the idea, not the science, not the speculation on possibilities (though all of those are in the book and I found them quite interesting to write about), not the movement of the plot and its working out of stellar mysteries (though unraveling the intricacy was a rewarding challenge), not the development of the protagonist who needs to negotiate with others when he’d prefer to live on his own (for someone who argues that he’s a loner, he depends a lot on other people), not the style (though I really had fun with it), and not the settings (though the artificial world of Annulus and the two planets, one a tropical world and the other an ice-world, fascinated me).
Okay, I lied. I want my reader to remember all of those factors. BUT . . .
Even after that whole list of qualifiers, what I hope will impress the most is the deep emotional sense of longing—for the wonders of the universe and for life itself, for other individual selves when seen in the larger universal context.
One can read this, on one level, as the main character’s longing for a person he can love so he does not have to feel alone any longer. And there is a specific woman in the story he does have desire for. But it’s more than “romance” or a need for a companion. It’s a longing for all of the universe itself, its mystery, its fascination, and its infinite promise.
Way back at the beginning of the space program, mid 20th century, an image popular in the SF illustrations then (I remember it well from the comics, Mystery In Space and Strange Adventures), was a low-angle shot of people looking up at the night sky, sometimes with fear (it was the time of the Cold War and flying saucer rumors, of big Red missiles and Little Green men, so there was good reason to “watch the skies”), but more often with an overwhelming wonder, a desire to visit outer space, a hope to be a part of it, sometimes even with a hand or a finger pointing “up there”—a direction, a promise, even a new home. The actual space program was only a decade or two away, and these images expressed a yearning for what it might bring, an emotional connection with the vast realm of space that could dwarf any experience on Earth.
Many prose examples can be found in the writings of that time, but here’s a more recent one from Ian MacDonald’s Evolution’s Shore (it shows that the idea has not gone away):
The sky seemed vast and high tonight, pierced by the first few stars. The summer triangle: Altair, Deneb, Vega. Arcturus descending, the guide star of the ancient Arab navigators. Sinbad’s star. Corona Borealis; the crown of summer. One of those soft jewels was a cluster of four hundred galaxies. Their light had traveled for a billion years to fall on Gaby McAslan. They receded from her skin at fifty thousand miles per second.
Knowing their names and natures could take nothing from them. They were stars, remote, subject to laws and processes larger than human lifetimes. By their high and ancient light you saw the nature of your self. You were not the pinnacle of creation beneath a protecting veil of sky. You were a fierce, bright atom of selfhood, encircled by fire. (4)
There’s plenty of objective science here, in the star names, the size of the clusters, the time and speed of light. But more important is the emotional connection made between one’s small self (“not the pinnacle of creation,” only a “fierce, bright atom”) and the stars’ “high and ancient light.” It’s the relation that’s important, how one affects the other, how one changes the definition of the other, which is at the center of “SF with feeling.” Or SF with “longing.”
Though my novel is first-and-foremost a story, behind its movement and character drama, behind its scenes and twists and turns, is a simple longing—for other worlds, for other people . . . for “the other” in general. You learn a lot of what’s inside yourself when you look outside, but the main desire of the book’s protagonist and of the book itself is to look without—to seek, to find, to encounter and to experience more than one’s self.
The longing. The longing.
McDonald, Ian. Evolution’s Shore. New York: Bantam, 1995.