I think it is safe to note that most science fiction writers have never been off this planet. (Although over at SFWA we’ve discussed it; if NASA ever goes for the efficient option and sends a one-way colony ship to Mars there is a pool of writers ready to volunteer.) Nor have fantasy writers ever been to Earthsea, Middle Earth, or Lemuria. Nevertheless, it is perfectly possible to find Earth-bound places that are very nearly as alien. All you need to do is travel. Astronauts train for missions in Antarctica or the Mojave Desert, for example. Nor is it always a matter of distance. Three hours from my house is an American island so remote that they have their own dialect of English.
I was lucky to spend a couple years of my childhood in a country that is just about as remote as Atlantis: Laos. Google it if you have to – it’s next to Vietnam in Southeast Asia. Hardly anybody goes there although there are hints that this might change.
In the 1960s Laos was pretty much as it had been for the previous hundred years, a poor rural nation of rice farmers. The water buffalo was essential for plowing and pedicabs were a good way to get around the capital, Vientiane.
The combination of childhood and a foreign country is especially magical. I was too young to realize how foreign Laos was. One month I was in New York City, and the next I was where people didn’t wear shoes and tied strips of handwoven cloth around their bodies for clothing. I remember no cultural shock or discombobulation at all. As in dreams, it was all normal.
This photograph, of a Buddhist shrine in Vientiane, reflects how I remember it. Everything was rather worn, not spiffed up or cleaned for tourists, but just everyday; where a prosperous country would have added gold or silver leaf to that stupa, here it is plain. It was almost unimaginably remote, remote as Kipling’s India was. Mail took a month even through the US Embassy, and there was only a rickety in-town telephone network, so that if somebody died they had to resort to telegrams. I believe these days there is an Internet cafe or two, but then there wasn’t even television. And I remember the tropical heat, the night insects in chorus as loud as a shout, and the way there were no lights — no street lights, no city lights, nothing at night but the feeble glow of our own unreliable electricity.
You see what a gift this was? It was totally alien, and yet not remarkable at all. For a short time I was a Na’vi, an Atlantean, a hobbit. And, like Kipling, I came back to tell about it. It is the perfect childhood experience for a writer.
A short story has just been added to my Bookshelf: