Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

Imagination, extrapolation, & flying pigs.

I love anime. Whenever I admit that, people tell me it’s not what they expect from someone who writes heavily armed, hairy-arsed, foul-mouthed military fiction, but that’s me the individual, not me the writer. They’re not the same person. What I do for a job and what I like when I’m not working are two worlds. I love animation anyway, and I enjoy cartoons and illustration far more than “proper art,” but it’s not the cuteness of anime that appeals so much as how off the wall so much of it is.

The Japanese seem able to plunge into stories with impossible characters and situations without a backward glance, and make it work so that it never occurs to you to question why a seaplane pilot would be a pig under a curse. He just is. No explanation, almost no backstory, and no apology: that’s the way this world is, you accept it, and it makes perfect sense. I know Miyazaki said Porco Rosso was meant to be a more serious film, but most of us don’t know the creator’s intent when when we see it.

I rarely let myself watch a movie as a writer because it ruins it forever for me – you know how I have to compartmentalise my consumer mind from my creator one – but sometimes I can’t avoid seeing the sheer risk-taking freedom in an anime and envying it. I wish I could be that random. That’s the best word I have for it. I can usually see where other writers’ mental paths are taking them, but sometimes I can’t work it out, and it intrigues me. I’m not sure how random imaginations work or even if they’re different at all, only that I would never have thought of making a pilot into an actual pig in a million years. Readers say they don’t know how I come up with stories and that I’m imaginative, but I don’t think I am. An imagination is... a pig pilot. I’m an extrapolator. I deal in the art of the possible. As a journalist inevitably does. I always start from “What if, what next?” I might take it a very long way very fast, but to me it’s based on real world logic, and I don’t feel I could function without that. I’ve never had an urge to shove the proverbial cursed pig into a cockpit, and I wish I did. I have a book on the back burner involving a cockroach, and another with spiders, but both have a sensible starting point in the real world.

The last few months have forced me out of my comfort zone as a “sensible” writer. I’ve been working on a new comic series for 412 Comics, and although it’s political-military, my normal stock-in-trade, it’s set in a world with magic. Given the problem I had getting my head around Wonder Woman’s invisible plane, you’ll understand the mental gymnastics I had to go through to make the universe work. I’m not a natural fantasy writer. But once I built some rules, the “ecology of the fantastic” as Greg Frost used to call it back at Clarion, I was fine. And, of course, people always behave like people. You have the laws of that world’s physics, and then you drop your characters into it and watch how they navigate. I don’t think I would ever have chosen a magical world on my own, but once enough of it “existed,” I could operate within it. I need to treat worlds as real to write, and once I’m past that belief barrier, the story writes itself.

I would love to spend time with a creative who has what I think is a random imagination and try to see how their mind works. Maybe the process is the same as mine, but drawn from a different cultural toolbox in the broadest sense. I didn’t grow up on fairytales and wizards: I never got the message that I might be a secret princess or whatever all along, or that magic would solve all my problems, but that the real world was a certain way, seldom “fair,” and that I could change my fate by working for it. Maybe that’s a good thing: even as an adult, I’m suspicious of fiction that encourages kids to think they’re born special in life but robbed of their birthright by inferior people, or that they can get things without expending any effort. That’s quite unpleasant if you stop and think about it.

But maybe being brought up on reality has a price, and I’ll never have the random and utterly wonderful idea of a pilot who happens to be a pig for no reason connected to the story. The upside of that, though, is that I’ll always approach anime with a sense of wonder rather than seeing the strings.