Some people know the funny, odd story behind my first professionally-published science fiction story, “The Ballad of Jonny Punkinhead,” which appeared in the “New Writers” issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1996. My little creature was then only 4 years old; now she is 17.
“Jonny Punkinhead” was the tragic story of a doctor, Hedrick Arlan, who was the nominal head of a facility for “differently-abled” children in Riverside, California. Jonny was one of his charges, the “pumpkin-headed boy.”
The “differently-abled” children were affected by human mutational virus, or HMV, an idea I had come up with after reading some of the early literature about DNA, genetic drift, and the role mutation plays in evolution. That’s the science-fictional idea.
As to Jonny, and why he had a head like a pumpkin, that was the earworm. One day, I was cleaning the garage and sweeping and this odd, ugly little tune came into my head – the Ballad of Jonny Punkinhead. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t get it out. That night, I went to sleep still hearing this strange song. The next morning I woke, and I had come to understand the story. That was definitely some time ago and I didn’t know then what I know now, which is how to lasso, rope, train and tame those earworms, fixations, word-memes and Jungian angst and hope into stories. As to how people treated the children in the story, warehousing them in a “facility,” with most relatives ashamed of their highly-strange offspring, some of whom looked like Abe Sapien from Hellboy, only without his special abilities, that came from my own experience of human nature. Today, when I think of stories, the inspiration can literally be anything. I am the person who parlayed a fictional empire out of an Altoids tin (just kidding – but I did write a funny story inspired by that tin).
As far as the science fiction that I’m no longer writing goes, I’ve been reading a great deal on my favorite topics lately. Believe it or not, I was on a panel at WorldCon a couple of years ago where I truly was the “expert,” far more knowledgable about genetic engineering and technology than a person said to be a “hard” sci-fi writer, whose knowledge was at least ten or more years out of date and pretty shaky even so. First, I’m thinking about evolutionary processes as they apply to all species, not just homo. Second, I’m thinking about the argument presented by Jared Diamond and others that chimpanzees and humans are the same genus, so the “solution” to the issue of pan troglodytes or homo troglodytes is, as dreadful as it will sound to most people – homo troglodytes. And third, I am thinking of the evolution of intelligence among non-human animals, as well as potential evolutionary leaps among humans. Which way shall we go? One of my favorite authors, Jon Krakauer, wrote in his flawed, but still very honorable and important book, Where Men Win Glory, about the decline of the alpha male in our Western culture. What Jon may have missed, because he’s mountain-climbin’ Jon (and I in no way want alpha male heroes like Pat Tillman to go “extinct”) is that I think alpha females in a way we never knew before are on the rise. All of these are very good source ideas for exploration of SFnal stories.
So, what you are reading about or learning, or discussing with others, or seeing as you go out and around the world, can combine with odd subconscious or Jungian memes to make resonant fiction.