As a writer you are always reminded that it is characters that are memorable, that ultimately you are second-rate if you haven't come up with a Sherlock Holmes or a Nick Adams, a Lady Macbeth or a Mrs. Dalloway. Or, closer to home, a Captain Kirk or Ripley.
And yet ... for the sci-fi writer, important as characters are, what may be more important are the worlds we create.
They come to mind quickly. Tolkien's Middle-earth and Le Guin's Earthsea. Star Wars' Tatooine and Asimov's Trantor. Herbert's Dune and McCaffrey's Pern. Zelazny's Amber and Silverberg's Majipoor. Niven's Known Space and Heinlein's Future History. Star Trek's Federation and Pratchetts' Discworld. Bradbury's Mars and Burroughs' Barsoom.
Those are just realms or planets with short, memorable brand names. You will also know Philip K. Dick's bizarre futures, Harry Turtledove's alternate histories, a zillion different comic-book worlds and the incredibly evocative far-future earths of Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe. You saw Chris Carter's weird turn-of-the-21st-century X-Files America as seen through the eyes of Scully and Mulder.
It's easy to connect an author with his or her world. And to most of us, that's how it works: Exercising the godlike power available to any sci-fi or fantasy writer, you create your world and remain its sole proprietor ... at least until you die, and your children write sequels.
In film, television and games, however, it's different. Worlds need to be designed and rendered, either in physical form or as CGI. The audience needs to be able to see landscapes, structures, buildings, clothing. Actors need to be able to understand the unique motivations of fantasy characters in order to portray them.
This process forces a writer to explain, to collaborate, to share. To let others into his playground.
It's a sci-fi writer's nightmare.
Several columns ago, I described the writers' room, a common tool these days for most television dramas, especially those that are serialized. I noted that this kind of instant, multi-partnered collaboration doesn't come easily to most writers.
You can triple that for sci-fi writers. The talent or drive that allows us to imagine and bring to life worlds like those I just listed is a deeply personal one ... most of us recognize that those future or fantastic realms are quite revealing, like 3-D multi-spectral images of our personalities, often revealing traits or fears we don't admit to ourselves.
Change my world? Make me explain it? Let you improve it? No way! Build your own!
And yet many classic sci-fi stories have been shaped by multiple hands. One of the most famous is Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations," the story of a teenage girl who stows away on a courier starship delivering emergency medicine to a colony planet. She only wants to see her brother.
Trouble is, there's only enough life support and fuel to allow the pilot and supplies to reach the colony planet. The choice is clear: To save thousands of colonists, the girl has to be thrown overboard.
But in the first several drafts of the story, the author kept finding ways to let her live. Finally Campbell stepped in and told Godwin, "You've got to kill her."
Godwin did, and in doing so created a classic rather than just another clever piece of sci-fi that would have been forgotten a month after publication.
Closer to the sci-fi television world, there is the famous "Amok Time" episode of the original Star Trek, written by Theodore Sturgeon. In this episode—which led off the second season of the series—Spock's youthful betrothal to a Vulcan woman triggers a bizarre personality change in the first officer. We learn that Vulcans' reproductive drive is quite different from that in humans, that they mate every seven years—and the drive to do so is overpowering.
It's a terrific episode that dramatically changes and enriches our view of Spock, who until now had been brilliant, enigmatic and supposedly emotionless.
On a more trivial note, we also see the first use of the phrase "Live long and prosper."
Did Theodore Sturgeon add those elements to the Star Trek universe? Given the nature of Sturgeon's prose work, which often dealt with sexuality, I feel confident that Spock's sexual conflict was his. (If it had existed in the original Roddenberry development, it would have been used earlier.)
"Live long and prosper" seems to have been invented on the set, by the director and cast.
I never worked with Gene Roddenberry, and I met him only briefly, so my portrait of him is secondhand and not especially positive. Nevertheless, I honor him as the Prime Mover behind Star Trek.
And one choice he made more intelligently than any sci-fi producer before, and many since, was to invite other writers into his playground. He shared Star Trek, not just with Theodore Sturgeon, but with Harlan Ellison, Robert Bloch, Jerome Bixby, Jerry Sohl and Norman Spinrad, all of them with extensive credits as novelists and short story writers.
It would be foolish and parochial of me not to mention the conceptual contributions made by D.C. Fontana and Gene L. Coon ... you don't have to be a published-in-prose sci-fi writer to have good sci-fi ideas. These two writers made many contributions to the Trek universe.
And what an empire it became. Four additional television series, a dozen feature films, novelizations by talented folks such as James Blish and Alan Dean Foster, but hundreds of original works by Greg Bear, Vonda McIntyre, Diane Duane, Joe Haldeman and many, many others.
While George Lucas' Star Wars empire has been made richer and deeper by other hands, no sci-fi world has benefited from this conceptual open door the way Star Trek has.
But I wonder ... Did Roddenberry enjoy the way his creation evolved? Was he able to sit back and appreciate the brilliance of the concept behind "Amok Time"? Maybe ... after the program was produced and aired. But if he was like most sci-fi writers I know—or like me—his initial reaction to Sturgeon's radical idea was almost certainly "That's not my Spock".
(Did Tom Godwin like what happened with "Cold Equations"?)
Roddenberry ultimately got the lion's share of the credit for Star Trek, and the commensurate share of the money. (In film and television, credit usually = money.)
Well, money comes and goes. Writers die.
But worlds live on.
The hardest thing about being a sci-fi writer is learning to share yours. And if you look at Roddenberry or Lucas, or Tom Godwin, it's usually a good, if painful, lesson.
For years Michael Cassutt has been waiting vainly for some energetic collaborator to take one of his ideas and turn it into a vast sci-fi empire. Meanwhile he writes novels, short stories, scripts and nonfiction. He is developing a sci-fi series and feature film while teaching at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts.