However, one real answer to the question is I ask myself (and sometimes other people) basic questions. Everyone in science fiction will have heard Isaac Asimov’s definition of the field. SF is all about the response to three uses of the word “if”: if only..., what if... and if this goes on. But there are some other questions that are just as valuable.
Two that come to mind: What are you afraid of? And what could you not bear to lose?
Fear and loss are two great triggers for powerful writing. Almost all horror writing, of course, begins with “fear” – whether stark raving panic or more subtle existential terror. And loss figures in much of great literature, whether it is the lost generation that Hemingway wrote so eloquently about or the more intimate losses of “The Time Traveller’s Wife.”
At this point in my life, I’m not afraid of very much. Death not a big concern though I worry sometimes about the transition. I don’t like spiders or Brussels’ sprouts but I’m not afraid of them. And there are lots of things I’d just as soon avoid – fundamentalists and home renovations are both pretty annoying. But they don’t turn my spine to jelly. No. Dentists and bears pretty much cover the gamut of my terror. I don’t think either of these fears are particularly irrational. I have a long history of suffering at the hands of dentists – even the best of them have managed to cause me pain and the worst – well, it’s a long story but I’ll summarize. I had a dentist once who insisted that a root canal should be done without anaesthetic so “I can be sure I get the entire nerve.” Foolishly, I let him do it.
As for bears, I know most bears will run away if confronted. I know from experience that this is true of black bears. But grizzlies? Polar bears? I’m not convinced. But I have a simple solution. I stay out of their habitat (wilderness parks, ice floes) and hopefully they will stay out of mine (bookstores, 4-star restaurants). That way I only have to deal with them in my dreams.
The loss question is easier for me to answer. My freedom sits pretty high on that list. I’d hate to lose flowers or my curiosity. I’d be bereft without love. All of these potential losses and more have fuelled most of my writing. But on the other hand, I never worry about losing money or things – you can always get more things. As for thinking that someone else’s gain is somehow and inevitably my loss – that just makes no sense at all.
Fear and loss are a great inspiration for literature but they make a pretty dismal prescription for life. Spending most of your waking hours afraid of someone or something must be terribly debilitating. The debilitation makes it pretty hard to act rationally. That’s why so many abused women have a hard time getting away from their abusers (not to mention that the are controlling violent monsters who refuse to let go). Worrying constantly that someone or something is going to take away what you value must bear heavily on your spirit.
Yet fear and loss seem to be the driving force behind much of modern conservative thinking (and by conservative I mean everything from Al Qaeda to Glen Beck – and, no, I won’t link to either of their pages). Fear of crime, fear of terrorists or infidels, fear of strangers (especially if they have a different religion or skin color) fear that somewhere someone might be having fun. And fear – irrational fear – leads to anger which leads to hate. And hate is a terrible emotion. It frequently leads to violence against those who are hated and moral decay among those who hate.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t fear or hate conservatives – though I will admit they sometimes make me mad. I’ve known too many decent conservatives and too many liberal jerks to think that one’s political persuasion is the only factor in human decency. I’ll always remember what a 70-year old Alberta rancher (and it’s hard to get more conservative that that) once said to me about gay marriage. (Imagine this in a slow drawl) “Those homosexuals just want... what everybody else wants. To be happy.”
Fear is natural as is the anger that flows from it. It is part of our ‘fight-or-flight’ response without which none of our ancestors would have survived long enough to become our ancestors. But the transition to hate is not driven by evolution and it certainly isn’t part of any moral teaching – religious or otherwise.
Hate is a lifestyle choice. While I’m a pretty tolerant guy, it’s not a choice I can support.