I thought of another way to put the question. The question I don’t know the answer to. Not for most of my books, not for most of the books I’ve ever read or ever wanted to read. “What’s the point?” What was the point in writing this book? What’s the point in reading this book?
Some authors, I know, have real answers to these questions. Very real, very specific answers. They know what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and why readers should be involved.
For me, most of the time, the closest answer I have is something like, “I dunno, it was just an idea I had.”
Like, tonight my wife and I got to see an advance screening of World War Z. (No, I haven’t read the book yet; back in 2009 when I was preparing to write Cheating, Death, people who owned it kept promising to lend it to me, then it never turned up… and then I was burned out on zombie books after reading so many others and writing my own.) The zombies in WWZ are fast, and more importantly the incubation period, the time between being bitten and being a fast-running zombie, screaming and running after the living, is ridiculously fast. Twelve seconds or so. And just the thought of it reminded me of, and gave me the urge to return to the other zombie stories I had an idea for back in 2009, where the first premise was for a mutated zombie virus with a very long/slow incubation time a la HIV turning into AIDS. Where someone could be exposed to the zombie virus and not show any symptoms for months, years, even decades, perhaps not even being aware they’d been exposed. So very different from WWZ’s zombies.
It had apparently been so long since I set the project aside that when I mentioned it on the car ride home, my wife couldn’t recall the ideas at all—and they had been extensive. At least three books, and possibly a three-book series followed by two tangential sequels, where the last of any of them is the one which covers my first set of ideas for the world. My world-building to get to the mutated, slow zombie virus ended up requiring a complete rewrite of history from about WWI on, and in the Fall of 2009 and the first half of 2010 I spent a fair amount of time doing historical and biographical research toward that project. (Technically, this is part of why my books-per-year average is so low, and my apparent-hours-worked looks so low; I spent about eight months working toward a project which has yet to come to fruition, much like the way I spent most of the last year working toward a Dragons’ Truth rewrite I’ll likely never do.) I determined that the amount of research it would require to do as well as I thought I wanted to do it was more than I was prepared to do (especially with the time requirements I was facing; the “need” to keep putting out two to four books a year, every year, and to always have something new to show at Comicon), and I set the project semi-permanently aside. I mean, I was projecting that it would take me two to four years to get the first book out, which was the inverse of the rate I’d set myself at working.
Anyway, thinking about that project, then describing it all again for my wife tonight, got me almost feeling like I really wanted to unearth the project and get back to work on it. Except that describing it also brought up the same sorts of problems I was going into last night: It isn’t really about anything, not any one thing. There’s no single, central theme. There’s no point to it. It’s just a bunch of ideas I had, which I kinda liked. Sure, I wanted to address ideas like environmentalism, functional communism, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic mixing and mutual appreciation (more than plain tolerance, or silly hatred), international cooperation, sexually transmitted diseases, coming-of-age personal growth, fear of ‘otherness’ (specifically fear of becoming the ‘other’ in contrast to being truly oneself, esp. re: coming-of-age), and how to cope with the existence of religions whose beliefs and/or believers one believes to be dangerous (literally and/or figuratively)… in addition to a bunch of neat/interesting/different thoughts I wanted to explore around the existence/knowledge of zombies in a functional, modern society, but there isn’t really a point. It’s all just … some ideas I had, which I thought were kinda neat. Which I thought might make a book or three (or four, or five).
Yes, I believe in things like the possibility of running a modern world entirely on free/renewable energy resources, and that communism, separate from totalitarianism, is a functional economic system, but the book would not exist to try to convince anyone of those things; not any more than the point of writing a steampunk story is to convince the reader that they ought to convert their car to run on burning coal and steam power. Putting the protagonist of one of the stories through an STD scare isn’t intended as a way to convince readers to practice safe sex, it’s just a way to explore the idea that if a zombie virus mutated to be carried/transmissible for a long time before killing & reanimating the host, it would have different effects on society and culture than are explored in traditional zombie narratives.
…and I guess that’s the closest thing I usually have to a point: The point of writing (or reading) the story is to explore these ideas I had. Not necessarily to entertain, or to make money, or even to fit in with a particular genre or style, but simply to explore some ideas. It’s “speculative fiction” in its purest form, I suppose, in that the entire point of the exercise is to chase the tail of “what if?”
“What if ‘The Death Noodle Glitterfairy Robot Saga’ was a thing which existed?”
“What if a child vampire were asked to donate her organs to save living children’s lives?”
“What if you could literally buy time?”
And I don’t always have even that much. A fair portion of my books have begun with little more than a random sentence on a blank page followed by a few thousand answers to the question “And then what happened?” There’s no “why” it happened, why it was written. Just “this happened, then that happened, then the other thing happened,” and so on.
So… Is that enough? Is ‘exploring ideas’ a good reason to write and/or read a book? Without regard for any other reasons, purpose, or point?
I have the impression (mostly from what people write about writing) that it isn’t. That people don’t believe it’s enough. That they want, or at least expect, stories to do more.