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, Diary of a Robot, 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, of course.
“Western” is 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. Yes, any story of the Western genre may include romance, mystery, adventure, horror, fantasy, or whatever, but its primary element is invasions across the border between the worlds and what happens as a result.
My stories deal with the impact each side of the frontier has on the other. In a traditional Western, the frontier is the Mississippi River: 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 my book and its sequel (Future History), the residents of the two worlds are different but somewhat the same, and the 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 have “feelings”; machines wonder what those are. Humans break laws they themselves make; TMs always follow their prime directives. 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. Then I added engaging dialogue, humor, facts, surprises, conflict, setups and payoffs, or anything I could think of that pushed the story along. Readers of Westerns can judge whether I have succeeded. Lovers of Thrillers may complain that it’s not enough like a Thriller, but that poses a literary kind of frontier.
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 about things that grab their interest strongly. But then they must pick it up again to see what comes next. I want to reward them with a story they can read again with pleasure, but also give them things they missed the first time: things they missed because they were too busy following the main thread.
To me, a good book is one I enjoy re-reading from time to time, like Men at Work by George Will, or The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie, or Krakatoa by Simon Winchester, or the C. S. Lewis anthology, On Stories and Other Essays on Literature.