I keep making this joke about how I should write an essay entitled something like "How I Read 400 Bad Fantasy [or SF] Novels In One Year." (I think one of the contributors to the Again, Dangerous Visions compilation did in fact do something like that, which is where I suspect I got the name from. Anyone who can find additional details, please send them in. My copy of A,DV went missing ages ago and I'm too cheap to replace it because I keep thinking it'll turn up on me when I clean house.)
The joke, as with many jokes, has a grain of truth to it. A big part of why I wrote Summerworld was because I'd grown so disgusted with all the reigning clichés of fantasy, decided to systematically invert them, and use the alleged limitations provided by the systematic inversion as new forms of inspiration. If that sounds like a mouthful, try this: I stood the whole thing on its head and looked for what fell out of its pockets.
I look back on Summerworld now and feel I only did half the job of that systematic inversion that I wanted to: it wasn't radical enough. I swapped Western tropes for Eastern ones, in big part because that was what occupied a good deal of my imagination at the time — but I was still, in the end, trope-juggling. One of my friends who read the book, though, offered this up in my defense: You can only make so much of a break from any tradition before you alienate the very people you're trying to ensnare.
The same thing is happening now with Flight of the Vajra. That project started out of my disgust with and dismay over the current state of science fiction — specifically, the wide-gauge space-opera type I felt like I hadn't seen much of lately. I didn't want to let it simply remain an act of revenge, so I did my best to move past that disgust and towards something more genuinely creative. Now that the book has mostly taken shape, I see that it isn't as radical a break from that tradition as I had originally intended. But that's OK — again, it means I have erred just that much more on the side of being readable and familiar.
The very early stages of this project involved speculating about life millennia years from now. So, write it as a future history, I thought, but no, I didn't want to write it as a future history, where you follow the changes for aeons and never spend enough time in any one person's company to care about them. I wanted to start in the future, and a big part of why was because I realized people respond to stories about other, particular people far more deeply than they do stories about things. I'd seen good examples of how to do that whole future-history-of-man thing — Clifford Simak's City comes most immediately to mind; as does Asimov's Foundation books — and they, too, found a way to make the specific and particular out of the general. In City's case, they used a non-human narrator to bridge the centuries, and we feel more for this robot butler than we do almost anyone else in the story, by design. Asimov was no master of character depth, but he gave all his people a Dickensian vividness that made up for it (and he never seemed to be holding them in contempt, either, which helps a lot more than you might think).
That all made for great stories on their part, but it wasn't the approach I wanted to take. So I ended up pulling back a bit and focusing on a story, and on people, who had at least some connection to where we are here and now. The further you stray from that, the harder it is to generate in the audience a sense of connectedness. That and you can only tell a story, any story — even a deeply speculative one — from your point in time and space. Maybe, then, it was a good thing that I wasn't as much of a maverick as I had originally intended to be.