What is imagination? Got any ideas?
A dictionary definition of imagination might be the power to create something in one’s mind; or to form a mental image of something not present to the senses; or the ability to create something new, never before seen or heard or felt. Now, all of that is good and important, certainly, but there’s more to imagination than just creating a new object.
As a fiction writer, imagination is my stock in trade. A book of fiction has to be imaginative. It has to live in the mind of the reader. It has to jump from the page of the book directly into the brain of the reader. Imagination is the glue that holds the story together. It must have elements of logic and reason, of course, yet it has to leave behind the mundane and unexceptional and pass into a world that, almost by definition, cannot exist in his universe. This is especially true for those of us who write science fiction.
Much of my science fiction writing is of worlds beyond our solar system. Fictitious worlds that don’t exist may, in some cases, be based on real worlds (though frequently they are not). Imagination plays a role in the development of those worlds. I derive a lot of the information I use in my world-building from science fact. For example, the current “epidemic” of new planets that astronomers have found over the past ten years or so has fueled some of my world-building. But not all of it.
New planets are fine, but it takes more. Designing a new world only begins the process of imagination. Placing a fictitious planet in orbit around a fictitious star is good, and a start, but it has to be populated by a race of beings different in many ways, some definable, some not, from all the other beings we are familiar with today. Different from us as humans. A new race has to have a reason for its existence–how did it arise, what keeps it alive, how does it get by day by day, what does it value above all else, what does it devalue and debase. All of this has to come from the imagination of the author.
Yet, there is even more than this. What is it that makes one author’s world more real than another’s? What pulls us into one book more than another? I read a book recently by a well-known sci-fi author, but was disappointed. Not in the writing, certainly, it lived up to his usual standards of clear, concise, well-thought out prose. But in the end, I put the book down feeling I had not lived through an exciting science-fiction story, a story that captured my imagination and took my mind to a totally different universe. That’s the secret. Imagination is not simply the power to create a new planet, or a new race of people, or to place humans in contact with that race and describe the interactions between them. Imagination draws its power from the newness, the novelty of the interaction. What goes on that no one else ever thought of? What does that sci-fi novel tell us about ourselves?
If I seem to be fumbling around trying to define imagination, I am. Defining imagination is a lot like defining gravity. We know what it is, but it’s hard to define. It’s hard to come up with a definition that will please everyone. Examples are a way of showing a point. A good science fiction novel is imaginative. Like Star Wars was imaginative in its time. Like Robert Heinlein was imaginative in his. Or Jules Verne or H. G. Wells. It’s easy to say you aren’t going to write a good sci-fi novel without it, but hard to know if you’ve got it when you do write the novel. Only time will tell.