Writers On Writing / Speculative fiction makes us value the everyday things we take for granted, with Terry Dowling

Terry Dowling is one of Australia’s most awarded and internationally acclaimed writers of speculative fiction and will be teaching World Building: Writing Speculative Fiction on Sunday 20 October at Writing NSW. Ahead of his workshop, we spoke to Terry about the importance of speculative fiction, how the genre has developed over time, and how to successfully build a world.

Dowling Writers on Writing

What first drew you to speculative fiction?

Initially the sheer sense of wonder it can give, the possibility of amazing things happening in exotic places in unexpected ways. Our own world is amazing enough, but we get so used to how things are in our familiar everyday lives that we tend to take its wonders for granted, even things as basic as hot running water, flushing toilets, cappuccino. We throw a light switch, we expect light, push an elevator button we expect an elevator without any thought of the weights and pullies system that makes it work. We need compensating reminders such as historical fiction can give us re-creating times when things weren’t so easy, or the distant worlds of science fiction and fantasy where just staying alive becomes the key thing, or where other cultures, other ways of seeing and thinking, make us value our own again. At the very least, speculative fiction is just entertainment, but in the right hands it can be so much more. At its best it puts us back into our lives in an invigorating and uplifting way.

What changes have you seen to the genre of speculative fiction since publishing your first book, Rynosseros in 1990?

Leading up to the millennium we saw an interesting shift in modern publishing globally, just as it had been happening in filmmaking, the music industry and computer game development for quite some time. Having a corporate scene focussing more and more on safe returns to shareholders meant that we tended to get the equivalent of safe investments and sure returns. In other words, the emphasis came to be on products that were safe, familiar and proven.

There was a time when science fiction and fantasy truly could be new, fresh and different, often daring and provocative, sometimes even dangerous in what issues were being challenged. There was room for variety and experimentation because the post-World War 2 economic boom brought such enthusiasm and hope with it.

But now a lot more people are writing and trying for a place on the bookshelves. That’s okay in itself. It can be a very healthy sign. But that focus on safe returns to shareholders means that there’s also much more derivative material getting through, lowest common denominator fare that’s far from special yet being touted by publicists, marketing people and insufficiently informed critics as ‘breathtaking’, ‘cutting edge’ and ‘special’ when it isn’t, just more of the same, variations on tired themes. Many readers, critics and publicists – and many writers for that matter – don’t know any better. They tend to believe the marketing hype. I was speculative fiction reviewer for The Weekend Australian for nineteen years and saw this happening again and again: very ordinary formula material being pushed forward as something it wasn’t. In other words, the Emperor had no clothes on!

What the smarter new writers need is to get a larger perspective, to know the field, the writers who came before them, at the very least the writers who were considered the greats of the genre, say, before 1990. It makes for a sound apprenticeship. As Harlan Ellison used to say, everyone’s entitled to their opinion provided it’s an informed one.

Can you name a speculative fiction title/series where the author successfully builds a world that is both consistent and logical? How has the author done this?

To name two obvious examples, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Frank Herbert’s Dune. They’re classic examples of how it can be done right, largely through good storytelling, sheer imaginative richness, the balance of plot and characterisation with the setting, and rigorous logic-testing (though in Dune there has always been the question of where the oxygen comes from on Arrakis since it has no oceans or forests. Frank later had to have it produced by the sandworms). Logic testing is crucial – asking why the Riders of Rohan didn’t raise their shields when they charged the Orc archers at Minas Tirith in Jackson’s film version of Return of the King, why Anakin Skywalker, Obi Wan or any of the Jedi didn’t think to go back and ransom Anakin’s mother from servitude in Attack of the Clones, how the Lanister economy could possibly have survived, let alone recovered, by the end of Season 8 of Game of Thrones. That sort of carelessness, dare we say laziness, should have been avoided.

Terry Dowling is one of Australia’s most awarded, versatile and internationally acclaimed writers of science fiction, fantasy and dark fantasy. He is the author of 13 books, among them Clowns at Midnight, the award-winning Tom Rynosseros saga, and such critically praised collections as Amberjack: Tales of Fear & WonderBasic Black: Tales of Appropriate Fear, and Blackwater Days, as well as three best-selling computer adventures.

Terry’s stories have appeared in The Year’s Best Science FictionThe Year’s Best Horror and The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, as well as in anthologies as diverse as Dreaming Down UnderWizards, The DarkInferno, Songs of the Dying Earth and Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror. He is editor of such titles as Mortal Fire: Best Australian SFThe Essential Ellison and The Jack Vance Treasury and winner of the 2007 International Horror Guild Award for Best Collection. The award-winning genre newspaper Locus calls him ‘Australia’s finest writer of horror’, while placing him ‘among the masters of the field’. You can find out more about Terry Dowling via his website, terrydowling.com.

Join Terry Dowling for World Building: Writing Speculative Fiction on Sunday 20 October, 10am-4pm, at Writing NSW. 

Enrol here>>

Writing Speculative Fiction Terry Dowling


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