The night before, Steven Savage and I got to talking about themes in our respective works. He is preparing to work on a project called A Bridge To The Quiet Planet — it promises it to be quite a corker, from everything he's told me about it so far — and was quite conscious of the specific themes he wanted the material to address. Or, rather, the themes suggested by the material that he wanted to make sure the story addresses properly.
One thing we both noted is how discovery of theme is an iterative process. First you come up with a story that has some grab to it, something you're itching to write. First draft is just about getting it down. Second time around, you look at what you have and bring the story you're telling in line with the themes it seems to be suggesting. Third time, you paint it to match and polish it. The point being that there's as much discovery of theme as there is conscious and explicit conjuring of it.
If there's something that seems consistent across all the books I've written so far, it's about the urge to find or build a kind of community of the moment, a family where before there was none, a holding action against a world that seems either indifferent to giving you a place to be or is outright hostile to it. There's a part of such a vision that's utopian: isn't it nice to believe that you can find a place to dwell, one that receives you exactly for who and what you are? But another part of it is coldly realistic: what will carving such a niche cost? How sustainable is it? What about the rest of the world? And so on. The theme is not simply in the longing for such a thing and the satisfaction of that longing, but in the implications that arise from same — the tension between 1) the desire, 2) the act of satisfying of that desire, and 3) the consequences of seeking that satisfaction.
Pre-emptively inscribing any of this on my works would be a mistake. Such views function best as, I guess you could say, an emergent property, something that stands out from the material I tend to choose and the stories I am drawn to tell with that material. If I sat down with a current or future work and tried to squeeze it into some outline dictated by the above points, I'd end up with total tedium. Come to think of it, maybe that's part of what went wrong with my prior project The Palace Of The Red Desert — it was all concept and no story. It would have fit the above outline beautifully, but that's all it would have done. And if I'd finished it and passed it along, I can guarantee it would have bored the stuffing out of you.
My personal worldview may be closest to something like what's expressed in Zen Buddhism, but that doesn't mean I sit down to write "Zen Buddhist fiction". I've seen self-identifying examples of that sort of thing, but I think they suffer from the same fundamental problem as any work of fiction that has explicitly signed on to a program of some kind. They speak mainly to the already converted or those seeking a conversion, and to almost no one else outside of that. In a way, that's part of why I don't do a whole lot of boosterism on the part of Zen, save for whatever I talk about here (and then only inasmuch as it touches whatever I'm doing). The whole point isn't to get people to sign onto my program, but to embody the principles that I think ought to matter most, to lead by example.
Every book I produce has its own set of local themes, and I try to do justice to them. In The Four-Day Weekend it was how shared popular culture is about the sharing, about the creating of spaces where you (yes, YOU) are welcome, as much as it is about the culture in question. In Flight Of The Vajra, it was the tension between what desires technology could fulfill and the inherently unfulfillable nature of human desire. In Welcome To The Fold, it was the way imagination can be abused as an escape from reality, or used to constructively transcend it. But if the theme I outlined above is the one that I keep coming back to, I'm duty-bound to find a new way to come back to it, a new set of doors through which to enter that particular room each time.
For the latest example of how I explore my chosen themes, check out my (new!) novel Welcome To The Fold, and showing your support for it by registering at Inkshares and adding the book to your "Follow" list! Failing that, you can always buy one of my existing books, available on Amazon Kindle and in dead-tree format.