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Richard Matheson: Science Fiction Is Unlimited

This 1956 article by renowned science-fiction writer Richard Matheson explains his thoughts about the limitless possibilities in the genre.

By Richard Matheson

Writer’s Digest, April 1956

Richard Matheson Quote

Go ask his ubiquitous majesty—the man in the street. Ask him what science fiction is. Conditioned by the movies, stultified by television, he may be unable to fashion a coherent reply. So probe gently. Give him a word association test. Say “science fiction” and he’ll say “monsters.” Say “science fiction” and he’ll say “invasion from space.” Say “science fiction.” His tongue will loosen. “Buck Rogers,” he’ll say; or “Flash Gordon,” or “Captain Video.”

How many of you potential science fiction writers are like him?

Too many, I’d say. Perhaps bursting with new thoughts, with fresh ideas, with inborn furies of ambition and needing an outlet for these writers’ blessings and curses. Perhaps you are unaware of a field, small but eager, which needs and welcomes them. And all because no one has told you.

Science fiction is more, much more, than elemental comic-book hokum. It’s a form of literature in which no theory is too advanced, no idea too bizarre, no concept beyond the borders of presentation, in which every aspect of existence lies within the writer’s province. Here you can write a story that actually says something about people that actually means something.

When I left college, I was, like so many young graduates, burning with indignations I wanted to cry abroad. Science fiction didn’t ask for concessions. It demanded only that I garb my indignation with colorful, interesting clothes. I called that fair enough and we formed a partnership.

[Learn more about writing science fiction here.]

A Chance to Shout

I have sold science fiction stories about adultery and pregnancy, about sex and old age and dope addiction and insane frustration. I have sold anti-war stories, anti-race prejudice stories, social comment stories and even delved into metaphysics.

This is a brag not for me but for science fiction. It not only gave me a chance to write these stories but compelled me to give them an interest they would have lacked otherwise.

One thing is certain. They never would have sold otherwise.

But they did sell—and there’s no reason on earth why you can’t do the same thing if you want to.

Let’s go back to the roots. Strip away the gaudy superstructure of mutants and monsters, round-robin time travels, robots and Buck Rogers and invasions from space. Science is, basically, an approach to phenomena. It’s a frame of mine, an unbiased methodology, an objective observation of the universe we live in. Which means that science fiction, justifiably, includes all the sciences—anthropology through zoology with sociology, psychiatry and metaphysics in between. That covers a lot of territory.

The key to them all is extrapolation.

Definition: To extrapolate means to extend presently known variables beyond their established range and estimate the new result. It sounds complicated; it isn’t. Take a measure of today and imagine it in tomorrow. That’s all there is—but it opens up the gates.

Old Age and Race Prejudice

Because now you don’t have to write about Mars invading us or us invading Mars. You can write about the tragic problems of old age and how the problem might be solved in the future. I did and sold it to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science-Fiction. It was called “The Test.”

You don’t have to write about cowboy heroes poorly disguised in space tunics and their shapely co-pilots filmed with interstellar bathing suits. You can write about race prejudice as it might, tragically, expand if and when we contact extra- or intra-terrestrials. I did and sold it to Fantastic Universe. It was called “Full Circle.”

You don’t have to write about scaly, slobbering monsters. You can write about ordinary human beings and how they might react to destruction whether it be of know civilization or, indeed, of life itself. I sold both of those themes. In a story called “Descent” (published in If), I visualized humans faced with the prospect of living beneath the earth to avoid atomic holocaust. And in a story call “The Last Day” (Amazing and The Best Science-Fiction Stories of 1954), I visualized similar humans exposed to the prospect of all Earth being obliterated by impending collision with a sun.

In both stories the ideas were old, very old. What made them saleable was emphasis placed entirely on human action and intersection. This is a good example of how science fiction has matured—for the stories were science-fiction.

So you see that, really, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon and Superman are as dated as crystal sets; at least as far as modern adult science fiction is concerned. Horse operas go on forever but space operas totter—not only because of disuse, but because they are now satirized in the field itself. (“The Quadriopticon” by Charles Beaumont in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.)

The New Frontier

There are no limits or boundaries. Currently, great attention is being given to stories which explore what Professor Rhine of Duke University has called “the new frontiers of the mind.”

John W. Campbell (editor of Astounding Science-Fiction who has always spear-headed drives for progressive expansion in science fiction) in speaking of this, states, in so many words, that physical science is unable to progress except in minute, frustrating steps. For that reason, investigation must turn inward to the mind of man for any hope of appreciable further knowledge.

Which means—to you potential writers of science fiction—even more leeway. For here we plunge into that shadowy, exciting world of intangibles where all sorts of powers and ideas may exist. Here is the link to connect what is now called “supernatural: but what may well be only a higher aspect of the normal—telepathy (communication by thought), telekinesis (the moving of matter by thought), clairvoyance (sight beyond ordinary vision), and so on into the mists of possibility.

A stunning example of science fiction using such subject matter is Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human (Ballantine) which won the 1954 International Fantasy Award.

Here then are more ideas to couple with human values. In a story called “Mad House” (Fantastic) I combined a theory of involuntary telekinesis with the story of a man suffering a great bitterness of frustration in his marriage and career. In a story called “Witch War” (Startling Stories and The Best Science Fiction Stories of 1952) I combined the “Poltergeist” phenomenon with my feelings about war—visualizing a state in which teenage girls using telekinetic powers could destroy opposing armies with their imagination.

This searching for possibilities can go deeper—into such arrant scientific possibilities as vampires, witches, ghouls, werewolves. Why not? These legends sprang from some source, some definite repetition of occurrences. Why not experiment with those potentialities? A little brain cudgeling can be highly rewarding. Jack Williamson’s “Darker Than You Think” evolved the werewolf into a scientifically plausible creature. And in my novel I Am Legend, I believe I have, via research in bacteriology, folklore and psychiatry, posited a brand of scientific validity to the vampire legend.

The Old Ideas

There are, in the field, what are known as “ideas worked to death”—the mutant story, the “last man” story, the post-atomic story, the invasion story to name a few. There are dozens of others.

Even here a good writer can widen possibilities for himself.

The first story I ever sold was a mutant story. I didn’t know it was a mutant story. I didn’t even know it was science fiction. I’d just wondered, to myself, how a monster child born of normal parents would feel about its situation. It sold to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science-Fiction as ”Born of Man and Woman.” Yet it was, I know now, one of the most decrepit ideas in the field. But such ideas can be used over and over—so long as they are freshly presented.

Science fiction, unlimited I called it. It’s just that. You can write about virtually anything, repeat, virtually anything. A slight twist of the idea and all subjects become potential science fiction stories. Every aspect of our and other’s society—politics, religion, morals, commerce, law—all become grist for our mill. What will happen to marriage in our future? To juvenile delinquency” to child-rearing, to pottery, to house building, to movies, to travel, to song writing?

In other words, you can think of any point in your life—any problem, frustration, anger, need, want—evolve it logically and, more than likely, you have the germ of a saleable science fiction story. As L. Sprague De Camp said in a previous article in Writer’s Digest—every science-fiction or fantasy story is, in effect, based upon a question … What would happen if …”

Apply this all-encompassing IF to everything you know or are interested in—to everything you feel or hope for. Put it into human terms. Fashion them into a story the way you want to write it, the way it interests you most.

Improve your science fiction writing with this virtual conference.

Improve your science fiction writing with this virtual conference.

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