I sometimes joke that my work is fiction — “I make it all up” — but that isn’t true. All writers draw to some extent on our own experiences and environments, not to mention what we’ve studied, heard about from other people, or researched properly. Whether we take a real-world element and put it unchanged into a work of fantasy or science fiction or whether we use that element as a springboard to create something “new” (AKA, a fantastical variation), we weave things, people, and events that actually exist into our fictional worlds.
For my novelet, “Among Friends,” (F & SF March/April 2013), I drew heavily on the history of Quakers and the Underground Raillroad. The sfnal element in this story, which might be categorized as antebellum steampunk, revolves around the interaction of the Quaker community and a slave-catching automaton. While history, particularly the biography of Thomas Garrett, provided a wealth of plot points and setting details, the heart of the story was how this community of people might question whether a mechanical device partakes of the Inward Light. I used the Quaker community because it’s one I know well, at least in its present progressive version. My husband is a member of the Religious Society of Friends, Pacific Yearly Meeting, and I’ve attended meeting regularly for a number of years. I’m not a theologian, Quaker or otherwise, but I have first-hand familiarity with the ways of thinking and speaking about spiritual issues in that tradition. Quakers today, as then, strive to see “that of God in every person.” So how would they regard an entity that looks human — would they “try what love can do”? Would that entity, treated as if it had moral agency, then acquire the ability to seek the good? With the goal of creating a vivid and internally consistent culture, one that is familiar enough to the average reader to be comprehensible and different enough to be fascinating, I wove together historical research, personal experience, and a fantastical element. Mindful of my own limitations, I asked several “weighty Friends” to review the draft for background accuracy.
A couple of weeks ago, I took my author’s copy to a potluck at the Meetinghouse. I had no thought beyond sharing an occasion of celebration, but was convinced with Quakerly velvet-clad determination to read it aloud. The fascinating part was how deeply my Quaker audience connected with the familiar elements of the story and how delighted they were to hear their traditions presented. The automaton, however, posed particular challenges for them. A few knew Asimov’s Laws of Robotics and even fewer had heard of the Turing Test (a way of evaluating whether machines can “think” like humans). The ensuring discussion took quite a different direction from one in an audience familiar with science fiction tropes but much less so with Quaker history and process.
The reading and discussion reminded me of my experience reading aloud my short story, “Survival Skills” (Sisters of the Night, 1995). The short version is “vampire mother struggling to raise 2 kids joins the PTA.” I read it to the PTA at my younger daughter’s elementary school and also at sf conventions. The PTA moms got all the PTA jokes, even saying they knew some of the characters. And the fans got the vampire jokes. (I should add that everyone got the awful puns.)
The door opens in both directions. Maybe some of the fans who read “Among Friends” will become curious about Quakerism, because some of the PTA moms did go out and buy the whole anthology and who knows, some of them might now be avid fantasy readers? Maybe “Among Friends” will prove to be a portal for Quakers to discover the world of science fiction?
We have a tendency to keep within our own community, or the target readership. I think that does our work and our potential audience a disservice. When we set our stories or use history in our work, we create an entire second readership. So far, my experience in reaching out to those new readers has been richly rewarded. I invite you to try it with your own work.