A little bit ago, I wrote a post on the subject of theme—what your book is really about. There I suggested you think, in reasonably concrete terms, what you’re actually trying to say with your novel. Then move forward with that understanding so your book “is to be about” some universal truth or political or cultural assertion, and so on. Does this mean that, once finished, your book will then stand as an authority on that subject, having built an irrefutable case for or against such and such… or will it be wildly and roundly misunderstood? Will some or even most of your readers come to believe that it “is to be about” something completely different?

Well, buckle up, people, because the latter is more often true than the former—at least as often.

Frank Herbert called out seven thematic goals he had in mind for Dune, but not everyone saw those same seven elements, or concentrated on all of those seven. For me, Dune was all about the dangers of a single resource economy. It was a book about oil, not too thinly disguised as spice. I never really focused on “the myth of the Messiah.” I guess I just took that for granted having read enough fantasy with its various People of Destiny. Likewise, “an examination of absolute prediction and its pitfalls,” fell into the background for me. Paul’s prescient powers felt, to me, as a means to differentiate Paul from the herd, but not otherwise of particular thematic interest.

Charlie Jane Anders, in “10 Great Novels That Weren’t About What You Heard They Were About,” quotes Alan Beatts with Borderlands Books in San Francisco, who maintains that Dune was “about the dangers of theocracy, and ‘the harm a messiah can cause, even with the best intentions.’ ” Though that is certainly true of later books like God Emperor of Dune, we didn’t really see that in Dune—I didn’t, anyway—though it was sort of coming to the fore in Dune Messiah.

Not being quite old enough to ever have been a hippy myself, I was more than a bit surprised, maybe even confused by “The Hobbit and the Hippie” by William E. Ratliff and Charles G. Flinn, from Modern Age, Spring 1968, in which the authors contend that:

Some hippies, on the other hand, consider the trilogy (or parts of it) a “ psychedelic manual,” akin to Hermann Hesse’s Der Steppenwolf, the Chinese Tao Teh Ching, Alice in Wonderland, or any of a number of other widely varying types of writing. Passages from The Lord of the Rings read before or during an LSD “trip,” for instance, may greatly stimulate the individual’s mind and make his “trip” seem much more meaningful. It is no coincidence that both the hippies and Professor Tolkien feel particularly close to nature. Even those of us the hippies call “straight people,” after reading the passages about the Old Forest and the Ents, come away feeling greater communion with forests in general and trees in particular. That the acid heads (and their turned-on fellows who avoid drugs) make use of passages such as these in order to “expand the consciousness” is hardly surprising. The splashy covers of the Ballantine edition of the trilogy are themselves somewhat reminiscent of one possible LSD-influenced vision of the story—covers which Professor Tolkien has described to the authors as “absolutely foul.”

Sure. Blame the cover art.

I’m pretty sure there was more to the Lord of the Rings trilogy than just the ents. To me it read as a sort of sanguine, longing look back at the British Empire that was, and the scary new world populated by great evil but with some slim rays of hope for which an English gentleman of Tolkien’s era could easily be forgiven. Psychedelic? Well, my one and only LSD experience came at the height of my punk rock teens, so I guess I was going into both LSD and LotR with a whole different mindset than the previous generation.

And we’re not done with the hippies yet. In what might be the SF genre’s most notorious clash of author and audience, a similar fate befell politically conservative author Robert A. Heinlein, described in a post by Ted Giola at Conceptual Fiction:

Two years after his novel Starship Troopers, which incurred charges that he was a militarist, Heinlein offered up Stranger in a Strange Land, which would establish him as a free love guru of the hippie generation. That must be like attending West Point in the morning, and leading a protest at Berkeley in the afternoon. Certainly somebody must be confused here—either Heinlein or his critics?

I’ve heard anecdotal stories about hippies showing up at Heinlein’s house on some kind of spiritual quest only to be unceremoniously turned away by a gruff member of the not-to-be-trusted over-thirty generation.

Scott Parker Anderson elaborates in “Banned Books That Shaped America: Stranger in a Strange Land”:

Stranger appealed to many far flung subcultures: it was a novel equally well-suited to conservative, hardcore science fiction fans and to radical members of the 1960s hippie movement, since the free love and communal living of Valentine Michael Smith’s church anticipated many hippie tenets. Some avid fans of the novel went so far as to found cults of their own based on Heinlein’s “teachings.” Heinlein kept as much distance as possible between himself and these fans, whom he felt had emotionally overinvested in what, for whatever wisdom it may have contained, was still only a work of fiction. After Charles Manson and his “family” committed multiple murders in 1969, it was widely rumored that Manson had been inspired by Stranger, though those rumors proved to be unfounded.

Happily, I too have no Manson misinterpreting anything I’ve written—at least as far as I know. But I did write a Forgotten Realms trilogy inspired by Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, and as a result I’ve been mistaken as a Libertarian by more than one person, sometimes seen as a fellow Objectivist, sometimes reviled for my apparent devotion to Mistress Ayn. I thought I was just riffing on the ever-fascinating D&D alignment system. You can read all about that here.

But think of it this way, with a truism I often drag up in reference to outlines: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

In this case, the “plan” is your intended theme, and your “enemy” is your readers. Reading is a creative act in and of itself. And just like you’re a human in the world with something to say and the means to say it, your readers are humans in the world with their own experiences, perceptions, pre-conceived notions, and so on—and they’re going to read your book in their own heads, not yours.

Believe it or not, that’s a good thing. And look, if this progressive Socialist can withstand the occasional “attaboy” from the reactionary Objectivist right, you’ll survive similar assumptions about your own work.

I’ll leave you with something Marcel Duchamp once said:

All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.


—Philip Athans



About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Namronde says:

    So, basically, the relationship between the reader and the writer is quantum in nature? Readers affect the “outcome” of our writing — its message, theme, whatever — by their interaction with it.

  2. Adam says:

    It’s interesting to realize that while many saw the Spice as a clear allegory for oil, I thought of it in more general terms, the way that, throughout history, “wealth” has often been represented by whatever rare material humans happen to covet at the time, including gold and diamonds.

    I’m also reminded of something that Neil Gaiman once said, how every story is really just raw material, something the author provides so that audiences have a framework within which to craft their own story.
    I definitely think it’s the mark of a good story that the author leaves some room for audiences to come to their own conclusions. It gives audiences a chance to actively engage the story, creating a more personal experience, and a sense of ownership. “This is my ‘Dune’, which is different from your ‘Dune’.”

  3. I think the phrase “emotionally overinvested in what, for whatever wisdom it may have contained, was still only a work of fiction” can be applied equally to the excessive critique of Starship Troopers as well. I think people fail to realize that the stories authors write don’t always (or even usually) equate to their own political views. Saying Heinlein was a fascist, or even ultra libertarian, because a few of his books and stories went a certain way is like saying Tolkien was a racist because he wrote a world where different races mortally hate each other. SF authors get this sort of treatment more than other because of the nature of their books–you cannot write about the future without setting a political trajectory for that future. I, myself, never found Starship Troopers to be that extreme politically, given a lot of other stuff I’ve read. It did have a believable political setting, agree with the politics or not, which can’t be said for a lot of SF and Fantasy books.

  4. Pingback: BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XXII: THE WORLD SPLIT OPEN | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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