Matters of Identity
Mumblety-umph years ago, somewhere between the dark ages and now, I read a book that changed my life. It was a science fiction book (no real surprises in this crowd, I’m sure), and I no longer remember the title, much less the author. I think it may have been a Heinlein juvie, but I’m not entirely sure. It was a long time ago, and I didn’t keep a diary so there’s no convenient entry reading “My life was changed today by $TITLE written by $AUTHOR”.
What I do remember is that it didn’t preach at me. It was a story, one that moved reasonably fast. The characters weren’t especially memorable – or they’ve blurred a bit over the years. They weren’t supermen or uber-heroes, just ordinary decent people stuck in a mess and doing their best to muddle through it.
What stuck, and sent me careening into science fiction and fantasy, was the explosion behind my eyes of sheer possibility. Here was a story that said ordinary people could do incredible things. They didn’t have to have the right parents, or the right family connections, or oodles of money, or a whole lot of luck. In fact, you’d call them downright unlucky landing in the mess they were in (damn it, I really wish I remembered more about the thing… I wonder if it was Tunnel in the Sky? I know that was one of my early reads and it left an impact, but whether it was the read that kicked this off is another question).
I’m sure some folks are wondering how the heck something could affect me so strongly but not be remembered. If you’re me, it’s actually not that hard. You remember the old school library cards, where you had to write the name of the book you borrowed on it? By the end of each school year, mine was multiple cards stapled together, and I’d given up writing the name and abbreviated the things by a system only I could follow. I was doing the same thing with my public library card, borrowing as many books as I was allowed to take home, and returning them the next week so I could get another batch or reader-crack. And everyone in the family knew that Kate plus book meant it took an explosion to get my attention. There’s a reason my parents never went into the 70s craze for toilet paper with cutesy sayings or trivia printed on it (apart from the cost factor: with five kids, we went through a lot of the stuff) – they’d never have got me out of the bathroom until I’d finished reading the roll.
Yes, I was that much of a bookworm. I still am, just a little more jaded and more able to stop myself. Mostly.
I went through phases. There was the horsey phase where I’d read anything with a horse on the cover. Then the historical fiction – and quite a bit of actual history as well. And so on. Then I picked up this science fiction piece and something inside clicked into place and said, “More like this, please. Lots more. Don’t stop feeding me this stuff, ever.”
I can say with reasonable certainty that the main characters were nothing like me. I’m sufficiently weird that if I wrote an autobiography not only would nobody believe anyone could think like that, it would be boring as hell. And miserable. For most of my school life books were my escape from a life that I loathed, and when I started trying to write that was the rest of my escape.
As no less a person than J. R. R. Tolkien has said, escapism is not a bad thing, and those who most commonly argue against escape in any form are jailers. Reality was my prison then, and books my escape. Did I want to read about other people in situations as miserable as mine? Hell, no. I wanted to read about people who were in situations where their choices mattered to someone other than themselves. That was all. It was enough that I could hope to find myself in circumstances where my choices could matter to other people.
To be fair, I was a rather angsty teen, even by angsty teen standards. This happens when your brain has lapped your ability to socialize so many times nobody’s sure how far ahead it actually is – but even the non-weird like to feel that what they do matters to someone else (yes, I was about as socially clueless as it’s possible to be without being diagnosed with something).
The point in all this rambling is this: I didn’t need someone just like me to identify with a book’s characters. All I needed was someone doing something I could imagine myself doing in similar circumstances. I’ve identified with aliens, with characters from all cultures and with all manner of skin colors (some not achievable in nature as we know it). As long as the author was able to make them seem real (see Sarah’s much promised series starting next week for that), I could identify with them – everyone from black children growing up on slave plantations (remember that historical fiction binge) to starship captains and anything in between was someone I could identify with.
Those who claim you’ve got to have superficial (skin deep) resemblance to identify with a character are merely projecting their inability to empathize onto the rest of us. Pity them for their lack, but never let them dictate what you choose to read.