Monday, February 28, 2011

The end of the world as we know it

After coming across a stellar recommendation, I am reading Damon Knight's "Creating Short Fiction." This is a library copy, and it's so old it has a date-due slip inside the front cover. Last night in bed, before going to sleep, I read a section called "getting ideas" in which Knight suggests writing stories about your worst fears. Those that he mentions for himself are drowning, mutilation and the fear of being afraid.

And so I drifted to sleep while thinking about my own fears. Some are generalized: I fear dying (but strangely enough, not death), and I fear that something horrible might happen to one of my kids. Some are more specific, such as my car going off a bridge into a large body of water and me and my children not being able to get out.

All the thoughts about fear and dying resulted in the first nightmare I can remember having in several months, maybe years. It involved my dad coming to my house and telling me quite matter-of-factly that scientists had just determined that the weight of all the things on the surface of the Earth had reached critical mass and the planet was going to collapse in on itself, becoming as small as a Ping-Pong ball and leaving all of us suddenly and without warning floating in the vacuum of space.

When I woke up this morning, I lay in bed and thought about the dream, and I realized that my subconscious was putting in its two-cents worth on my fears. Probably my biggest one is of some unavoidable cataclysmic event that wipes out not only me and my family but the entire human race. When I was a kid, I had a recurring dream of me and my sisters watching out our living room window as the sun exploded. But it can be anything: a huge meteor, massive gamma rays, the Big Rip, a black hole, a change in the Earth's rotation speed that strains the planet until it breaks. I also include threats from closer by, such as the Yellowstone caldera erupting.

I've read a few stories about species-killing events. Connie Willis' "Daisy in the Sun" and Stephen Baxter's "Last Contact" come immediately to mind. But could I face up to this fear and write my own version of such a tale? I'm not sure. When I'm working on a story, my mind is occupied with it for most of my waking hours. If I tried to tackle something that genuinely scared me, I would probably have nightmares for weeks.

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