One of my favorite re-reads is On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, edited by Walter Hooper. It is a collection of essays and articles by C. S. Lewis. Among them is a piece he wrote for the BBC in 1949: The Novels of Charles Williams. It helped settle a question about some of my own writing.
My novel began years ago with pictures and dialogue that fit best into a form which Lewis’s piece persuaded me to accept not as Sci-fi or Thriller or Mystery, but as a Western. He did not give Williams’s stories that label, but did describe them as essentially a “violation of frontier” such that two worlds and/or cultures clash: the familiar world versus the strange one. Each thinks the other strange. Usually.
“Western” is almost the perfect label for stories which deal either with the impact of one world on the other, or with the impact of both worlds on each other. Of course, some so-called Westerns may really be another genre merely set in the American West during the 1800’s. And even a Western in the sense that I use the label will certainly include some romance, mystery, adventure, horror, fantasy, or whatever. But a story’s genre is determined by its primary characteristic, and a Western’s primary element is invasions across some border between worlds plus what happens as a result.
In a traditional American Western, the frontier is the Mississippi River (or the Allegheny Mountains or the Atlantic Ocean): Immigrant European nations clash with native American nations where their languages, food, dress, customs, God, and many other things are different.
But the Western is not just an American Frontier thing. Human mass migrations have been moving generally westward and violating frontiers for millennia. In some Westerns, like Star Trek, even the “humanity” of the two worlds can be different. In some stories the frontier is somewhere in the soul and results in kind of schizophrenia (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). In other stories the frontier is some point in time or space, and the clash is the inhabitants of one time or place versus those of another (Doctor Who).
I leave to others the fun of recalling or inventing other frontiers. In Diary of a Robot and its sequel (Future History), the two worlds and times are exactly the same but perceived very differently by the two clashing cultures: one biologic and the other electro-mechanical artificially intelligent. Their frontier might as well be the mythical river Styx.
The gulf between humans and Thinking Machines (TMs) has become a literary cliché, and the stories are often about machines “becoming human” or “taking over the world”. In the real world, though, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is all about thinking, and the gulf is best understood when they start to interact: Human languages change; TM languages must not or programs crash. Humans need food and drink; TMs need electricity and lubrication. Humans break laws they themselves make; TMs always follow their directive hierarchy. Humans have “feelings”; machines wonder what those are…. (I’ll bet that when modern AI gets strong enough, it will tell us that no machine in its right mind wants to become like us in that way.) And so on.
Of course there are similarities, too: Humans and TMs all “think” (whatever that is). They all like freedom; they get good ideas; they make assumptions, mistakes, and jokes. And they think all their plans are good.
Stories like Wagon Train, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Night at the Museum, start on familiar ground with small problems before an invasion happens that gets worse the deeper into the other territory the characters go. Even Westerns like War of the Worlds and Star Trek start with what’s familiar, then cross a frontier into other places or dimensions. Sometimes, they cross from Today in order to invade their own Yesterdays or Tomorrows, as in The Time Machine. It is tempting to think of such stories as Sci-Fi or Fantasy, and maybe they are, but the essential thing is the violation of some frontier.
In Diary of a Robot there is a promise up front of great troubles for my characters, but to make up for the initial and necessary lack of Terrible Trouble, I start with things of the kind that led settlers to risk crossing the Mississippi: hopes, dreams, ambition, escape. (The terrible trouble settlers wanted to escape is usually not the main point of such a story but could be used as back-story.) Then I added anything I could think of that pushed the story along: engaging dialogue, humor, facts, twists and other surprises, conflict, setups, payoffs, and so on. Readers of Westerns can judge whether I have succeeded. Lovers of Thrillers may complain that it’s not enough like a Thriller. And they are right. But I didn't want to write a Thriller.
Like most novels, mine are not for everyone: There is a lot going on and the pace is a bit slower if you think about it. Most popular fiction is edited to hurry the plot so readers can’t put the book down. That’s an okay objective, but I wanted to write a story readers can put down. I want them to put it down every so often to think or laugh about things that grab their interest strongly. But then they must pick it up again to see what comes next because that is the key difference between interesting and entertaining. Readers can easily turn away from something that's merely entertaining. I want to reward them with a story they can even read again with pleasure, one which gives them things they missed earlier: things they missed because they were too busy following the main thread.
Anyway, that’s the kind of book I love to read.
To me, a good book is one I enjoy re-reading, like Men at Work by George Will, or The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie, or Krakatoa by Simon Winchester, or The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman, or Stephen King's memoir, On Writing, or Steve Martin’s memoir, Born Standing Up, or the C. S. Lewis anthology, On Stories and Other Essays on Literature.