Very rarely do I set out to write with a theme in mind. That sort of planning is just not part of my a priori toolkit. To do so raises the specter of didacticism at the least. Yet, as kenscholes said to me this past weekend, we tend to write our own stories, over and over. It's easy to spot elements of my life in much of my work — the lost children and young adults who seek redemption for sins they did not commit, or pursue a sense of purpose in the face of a deliberately meaningless world. That's me as a kid, going to nine schools in twelve years on three continents, always being the new kid, never hanging on to my friends, always wondering where the hell I was and why. I spent many years feeling lost and alone, and that experience remains very real to me even now.
Closely related to that is a theme tillyjane identified in my work years ago. I think she was commenting on "The Courtesy of Guests", as she said, "you're writing about who counts." Often the most human, and humane, characters in my fiction aren't actually H. sap. Often the handsome, glib, charmers are the monsters, while the damaged people and shambling horrors hold their hearts true.
Which brings me to something I've observed in how people react to Mainspring [ Powell's | Amazon | Audible ]. I'm surprised (though perhaps I should not be) by that a number of readers have called out Hethor's relationship to Arellya, the woman of the correct people. She is explicitly not human in the most ordinary sense — covered with fur, quite diminutive — yet she has language, culture, wisdom and sophistication, and is generally rather smarter and more level-headed than her human lover. Somehow this becomes bestiality to some.
While I am the first to argue that the story always belongs to the reader, this strikes me as a profound misinterpretation of the character. The fact that she is furry apparently takes her out of the realm of the appropriate. Which is ironic, since she is an Australopithecine. (I am having my little joke here, populating an explicit Young Earth Creation with Australopithecines and Neanderthals.) That puts her squarely in the human lineage. More to the point, furry or not, Arellya is articulate and intelligent, very much possessed of both reason and spirit. How could she be merely a beast? If I'd only thought to give her a shave, she would have been an unusually small woman, and not at all transgressive. Viewed as an animal, she becomes much less than she is, which seems to me to miss one of the whole points of the book.
We look past people all the time. Every one of us does it — on the highway when we pretend not to notice the minivan we just cut off; on the sidewalk when we conveniently glance in the store window to avoid making eye contact with the panhandler and his grubby cardboard sign; at home when the black kids with the $2 candy bars come ringing the doorbell and we hide quietly in the kitchen until they go away.
It's important to me, both in real life and in fiction, to look at the people in front of me. Whether or not they're covered with fur, or the wrong body shape, or abiological. It's easy to do this in fiction. I just wish I was better at doing so in everyday life.