Things My Dad Taught Me . . . About Science Fiction

by Mark W. Tiedemann

It is difficult, if not impossible, to grow up without retaining some of our parents’ values, according to Mark W. Tiedemann, whose father’s engineering background helped set him up for a lifelong love of science fiction. Read Tiedemann’s new story “Exile’s Grace” [in our March/April issue, on sale now!]

My father was an engineer. I grew up in a household that prized knowing how things work. This was, in the end, an awkward environment for me, since most of my childhood and adolescence was a time during which “how things work” was nowhere in my catalogue of interests. 

I tried. I wanted my dad’s approval and I tried, but in the end, it was the final object itself, whatever that may have been, that held my interest, process be damned. I just could not bring myself to care that much about how things worked or how to build them. Consequently, the plastic models I built were poorly finished, with glue runs and bad fits, my drawings were sloppy, projects ground to a halt when they took too long. Dad tried to teach me. In hindsight, he was far more patient than I realized, and eventually something got through.

Partly, our disconnect over this was a rather banal and clichéd mutual incomprehension between engineer and artist. His passion was making things that did other things—machines, tools—and my passion was making things that looked, felt, and sounded cool—drawing/painting, music, photography, writing.

Over time, the elements of our separate passions turned out to be more similar than either of us expected. The impulse may have differed, but the processes were surprisingly compatible.

I had to develop the patience and, frankly, interest in process that he simply accepted without effort. The components, the steps, the articulations of construction—these mattered fundamentally in both our areas of work. He understood this in his bones. I had to learn it.

No one escapes completely the transfer of values and lessons from parent to child. Over time, my preferred modes of expression were in areas where the technical aspects were more evident than in other forms—photography and science fiction.

Curious, too, that both forms existed in a kind of general critical disrespect from the larger culture. 

Odd as it may sound today, photography was once denounced as Not An Art Form by members of the cognoscenti. It was a machine-product. The hand-eye skill prized in so many art forms seemed not to exist in photography. You just pointed a box at things and pushed a button and voila, a picture. There was no obvious “talent” on display, no apparently natural ability to move a pencil or a brush, wield a chisel, cut, shape, or contour. The fact that millions of people with no actual training (or real skill) had been flooding the world with “snapshots” did not help. “Anyone” could make a photograph. Where was the art? I began making photographs during the waning years of this attitude and often felt the reproach personally. 

Interestingly, most people seemed unable to see the difference between a photograph by an Ansel Adams and Uncle Joey’s pictures from vacation. Even practitioners of photography, avid shooters, often chose not to “see” the difference. I suspect because acknowledging that difference could only mean that they could not buy a gadget that would “make” them as good as Adams, that the difference, in the end, was not in the equipment but in the artist. That it was the Seeing that mattered.

But—the lesson I had to learn—there is no translating that Seeing into meaningful work without the technical tools and abilities to realize the final product.

On some level, producing good art requires us to be competent engineers.

Non-overlapping Magisteria?

In certain quarters, it would seem so, but it is an artificial divide, one which both photography and, in my opinion, science fiction belies.

As a genre, science fiction has been derided almost since it manifested as a distinct form by critics and readers as being inferior to genuine literature. I think this is less about the quality of the fiction as fiction than it is about the foregrounding of technical matters—the engineering, if you will. 

While in recent years science fiction has come into its own in the general consciousness and such derisions are fewer and met with less tolerance by readers, there was for a long time a kind of negation which sought to define it as Not Art. I do not wish to rehash all that here, but it is a fact relevant to my attraction to it.

Because of the house in which I was raised and the impact of that environment, whether I had the patience or proclivity for it or not, I have always been aesthetically drawn to engineered objects. (I briefly flirted with pursuing architecture.) Among my early idols are builders, designers, inventors. I see no useful distinction between them and the artists I love, only an emotional difference in their effects upon me. 

Because the first thing that captured my imagination in science fiction was the ships.

The aesthetics of engineering joined to speculation about how the future will be.

As a child, those images—in film, comics, and the stories I began reading—thrilled, not for any revelations about the human condition they may have offered, but for the magnificent artifices through which the characters moved. 

The next obvious question, then, is: how do we build that?

Over time, the utility of these questions recomplicate and produce work that is as legitimately concerned with the human condition as any other form, but in this instance one that never loses sight of the primacy of the made world and the technical elements of such making.

Those ships were impossible to ignore. They took you places you could not get to in any other way (not least because they did not exist) and they did so in ways that suggested they really might. One day. 

An important distinction, that, for as much as I see the Starship as a variation on Sinbad’s flying carpet, there is a significant epistemological divide between them. No one ever mistook that flying carpet as a material possibility, hence no one ever bothered to do the imaginative “engineering” to justify its existence. The Starship is quite another matter.

Nor was the flying carpet deployed the way a Starship is. In a way, the flying carpet existed outside the “real” world and was at best a work-around for Sinbad and only for Sinbad (or Aladdin or whichever momentarily privileged user) and not a piece of technology which could change the world. Even metaphorically, it is a suspension of the rules for the purposes of fable. 

The Starship, however unlikely as it may be technologically, is not deployed that way. It is very much embedded in the presented society, it is a tool for anyone, and it does change the world. 

Which is why so much attention is given to the how of it. It is important that it be recognized as technology, as a made thing, as a functional piece of engineering that occupies a recognizable place within the story to give us something implicitly denied in Sinbad, namely a sense of, ultimately, access.

So that the ten-year-old can react with “I can go there” instead of simply “I can pretend to go there.”

It is a remarkable aesthetic achievement.

In a way neither of us could have predicted, my father’s way of seeing the world informed my embrace of science fiction as a practice. His earnest attempts to interest me in the processes and procedures of building things led to a place where the fancies that excited me which came best from science fiction gave me tools I never knew I would need to do the work I love. I can think of no better suited body of work where those seemingly unrelated interests could have combined so thoroughly. It has also allowed me to see that the accepted notion of the divide between the arts and engineering/science—C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures—is wholly artificial. That even in the practice of seemingly “pure” art, there is a necessary element of technicality, engineering, even physics, ignored perhaps but essential to any creative act that seeks to exist in the world. Science fiction embodies this.

Thanks, Dad.

Mark W. Tiedemann is a frequent contributor to Analog. Many of his stories are set in St. Louis, the city he was born in.

One comment

  1. Great comparison in photography levels of vacation snapshots and Ansel Adams. I went through the process in the seventies setting up my own darkroom and processed tons of rolls of Plus-X and Tri-X, then made hundreds of 8×10 prints. Joined photography club populated with newspaper and commercial photographers and competed monthly in competition. It was not until I won first place several years later, that I truly understood the difference you mentioned.
    The same is true with fiction writing. Anyone can write any genre of fiction story, but it’s only after a million words on paper, careful reading and study, that your work is good enough to ‘win the prize’ (meaning published to me).
    Thanks for the great story. M.D.


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